In 2003, after my book, The Mailroom, was published, Bernie Brillstein, whose memoir (Where Did I Go Right?) I helped write in 1999, was lunching with his friend Freddie Fields, Hollywood’s first superagent. Fields was toying with the idea of doing a book–finally–after years of saying no. Bernie recommended me.
I met with Freddie and we hit it off. We started working in March and talked for five months, maybe a day or two a week.
The very first thing Freddie told me was this: "I’d like to do the kind of book I like to read. Generally they’re historical books. Books that tell where he came from and how he was, and what the problems were growing up and how he came into it, and then what he did."
Freddie was on the mend from a recent hospitalization for cancer. We’d sit in his den, surrounded by books and classic photos and sometimes a dish of candy on the glass coffee table. I think it was full of bite-sized Tootsie Rolls. I ate more than a few while Freddie told me his life story, and of his A-list clients, the formation and selling of CMA, the town’s personality, movie deals he’d made, and much much more. Sometimes we'd start our sessions with a light lunch on the outdoor patio by the swimming pool of his Beverly Hills estancia.
For some reason I love the originals, the men and women who created the business, and love catching them at a time when they are willing to talk because, face it, they have been there, done that, for the most part have their safety nets, and nothing left to lose. There's more truth to be told.
Maybe Freddie’s health also played a part in his desire to talk, but if so, he never directly let on.
Come September I started working on the book proposal. We called it POSTCARDS FROM HOLLYWOOD: Things I Did and Things I Think I Did. The idea was that instead of a laborious show business bio chock full of the usual self-aggrandizement, or something so shallow it never rose above your ankles, we’d do the book as a series of separate but obviously interlocking stories. From his youth to his retirement, these "lengthy postcards" would tell you all you needed to know.
This is how the proposal began:
Freddie Fields was Hollywood’s most powerful and magnetic behind-the-scenes player, agenting cinema’s A-list when “star power” really meant something. Recognizing Fields’ influence, acumen and reputation, one top show biz insider sought to pay him the ultimate compliment: “Freddie,” he said, “you were Mike Ovitz before Mike Ovitz.”
Field’s retort: “No. Mike Ovitz is Freddie Fields after Freddie Fields.”
(Please visit Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood Daily to read her affectionate take on Freddie Fields, and summation of his career. I got the picture from there. Thanks.)
Unfortunately the project never came to fruition. I blame myself, at least in part. I told Freddie at the outset that I had been given the go-ahead to pursue my dream book on the late surfer king of Malibu, Miki Dora, a charming and enigmatic character. Freddie thought it a great idea, also for a movie, and in fact selflessly advised me often on how to approach the book and deal with the difficult personalities and treacherous negotiations involved; it mostly amounted to, "Fuck 'em. He's dead. Just do what you want." So I kept working on that project, and with Freddie, too. His stories were great. He was wise and welcoming and easy to get along with. And, to fill out his adventures, he had Jeff Berg and Paul Masursky and Alan Ladd Jr, and others drop by to chat with us.
Bottom line: I never asked for or took money. We never talked deal, except when Freddie joked, "You can have it all. Ha, ha." That could wait, should the book sell. If not, it was still worth it. The pleasure was in working with Freddie, in coaxing out of him stories even he didn't know he was prepared to tell, in learning how the business and the people in it really worked.
In the end, the surfer book sold quickly. But I kept working with Freddie--as did Sara Rimensnyder, who sat with Freddie to edit the proposal (he rewrote constantly, just like in the movie business)--until I could no longer divide my attention. Finally I had to tell him I had to move on. I hated doing it, but he was wiser than I was anxious. He understood, encouraged me, wished me good luck.
He also “loaned” me a crystal decanter from his bar, half filled with the remnants of a magnum of 1966 Chateau Margaux. I returned it empty, as promised. I can still taste it.
For the next few years, even though I was involved in the Dora book, All For a Few Perfect Waves (April 2008), not only did I miss Freddie, but I couldn’t shake my frustration that, when I spoke about our project to my agent and a few others, they thought that selling his book would have been tough or impossible; that the publishing deck was already stacked against it. Sure, Freddie could have gotten a deal; he had friends in high places and they would have made sure he wasn't embarrassed, even if the money, as I been told, might not have been great. It wasn't all about the money, anyway, but still, the general consensus then, and moreso every day, was that if you’re not an instantly marketable commodity, a household name, have a crash and burn or recovery story, can offer diet and health secrets ("Eat all you want and still lose weight!"), will write a political expose or polemic, know God personally, have a hit TV show or movie career, then the publisher has to work extra hard to market it. (And forget about fiction!) I know it's tough out there, but even though every author thinks their book is worth the effort, some actually are. I know bookstores have to be motivated to take a title. The easier to pigeonhole, the easier to get (buy?) shelf space. So if you already have a "platform..."
Sigh. What is, is -- but I don't always have to like it. Or accept it. I don't buy that we're moving too fast in life to care about the past. I don't believe the person in the spotlight is always the best one to bring it to life. I know, I know: it's commerce.
I also admit I have a particular pet peeve about Hollywood books, which publishers seem to want -- if only to know what's going on in the power enclaves of the more chic arm of their conglomeratized business -- but then hardly promote because "the audience is limited to LA and NY." Wait: you mean people in the flyover states don't watch tv and movies or know box office and ratings because they're not reported in every newspaper entertainment section, show business magazine, tabloid and gossip rag, and online? All that excitement and no followup?
Still, I figured all you had to do was list Freddie's clients (and the clients of his agency, CMA ... forerunner of ICM), on the cover and edit his stories into a compelling narrative. People who want to read about Newman, Redford, McQueen, Garland, Streisand, Minelli, Lucas, Poitier, Hoffman, Mel Brooks, Coppola, Sydney Pollack, Spielberg, Hackman, Caine, Woody Allen .... well, I don't think they're dead yet. Lots of interest and disposable income.
It’s really depressing. So much wisdom lost. So little value placed on experience. So much focus on marketing and demographics and trend, instead of the words on the page and the stories they bring to life. Let the reading about the life bring recognition to the name instead of the other way around, for once.
Of course, I can't say it's always that way. My Miki Dora book is an example of a smart editor and publisher taking a risk on a biography of someone influential beyond his subculture and known worldwide -- but still unknown, at least to the mainstream media, which is often the first step these days in getting some deserved attention. But in Freddie's case, it's a tragedy. Freddie lived a slice of history and helped make that history happen. His generation is going fast. All the more reason I was interested in the stories that would fascinate anyone who loved Hollywood, the movies, the machers, and life in and behind the footlights.
Perhaps in the years between then and today’s sad news of Freddie’s passing, he regrouped and continued with the project. I don’t know. I hope so.
Meanwhile, here’s a fantastic story he told me, a postcard from a Hollywood only those who make it all happen could have written.
THE WHOLE HOLE-IN-THE-WALL GANG
(copyright Fields/Rensin. You can link, but otherwise, please no reuse of the following without proper credit.)
Screenwriter William Goldman was not a CMA client, but we were good friends. After working on the script for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” for six years, he gave it to John Foreman, one of our top agents who’d been with the company since it started. That wasn’t unusual: Foreman handled Paul Newman, and Goldman had wanted Paul since the project’s inception.
Foreman and I read the script and said, “This is a winner.”
At the time the idea was for the film to star Paul Newman as Sundance and Jack Lemmon as Butch. The producer, Paul Monash at 20th Century-Fox, had paid $400,000 for the rights—a lot of money in those days.
We sent it to Newman and he loved it. We knew that Richard Zanuck, the head of Fox, did not want Lemmon. The more Foreman thought it over, the more he sensed an opportunity. He and I had a long talk and agreed that it would better fulfill his creative desires to leave CMA and form his own company: the Newman-Foreman Co., to package vehicles for Paul Newman and have an opportunity to produce them. I signed the new company and John as my clients. The first producing credit for John was going to be on “Butch Cassidy.”
Next, we sent the script to our client George Roy Hill. George called 48 hours later: “Great. I have some changes I want to make, but it’s great.” We could have expected that George would have his own strong opinions. He was as great a director as he was contrary.
I said, “You know Goldman controls the script, right? But we’ll sit down with him see about changes.”
“Alright, no problem. I can do it. I know him. He’s a good writer.”
We wanted Steve McQueen in the movie, which Newman was happy with, but Hill didn’t want him in either role.
When Newman met with Hill to talk about his character’s issues, the director suddenly said, “Why are we talking about Sundance? You’re playing Butch.”
Newman said, “No. I’m Sundance.”
“No,” said Hill. “You’re Butch.
Newman said, “George, I was here first. I’m Sundance.”
Newman, who was smart, re-read the script that night and figured both parts were great – and equal. The next day he agreed to play Butch.
Now all they needed was someone to play the Sundance Kid.
Warren Beatty, as always, already had the news about the movie. He talked to everybody in town all the time, and always knew what was happening. He knew about weddings before people got married, and about divorces before couples broke up. He knew who’d get a picture before they knew. He knew release dates and grosses. He’d talk to Jack Warner, Harry Cohn, to studio heads, and the guys running distribution. He was on the phone all day. Part of what drove him is paranoia. He needed information like he needed sex.
When he and I spoke, he’d stop the world to get answers to his questions. He’d invent a story, be persuasive and charming. “You gotta tell me now. I need to know.” It used to drive me nuts, but eventually I’d get tired and give him what he wanted – knowing I’d get nothing back, at least in the way of information.
I’d met Warren in 1960. As is my habit, I never pursued him as a client; we just talked at parties and joked around. We hit it off and became friends. Sometimes Warren would visit me at my beach house.
Warren was with William Morris then and pretty quickly word got back to Abe Lastfogel, the head of the agency, that we were growing close. Abe always went crazy when he heard that about me and one of his clients. He considered us adversaries – not that there weren’t other agencies in town – and maybe worried about me a bit more because CMA had grown strong and world-powerful so quickly.
Warren knew this and decided to be a naughty boy.
“Let’s make Abe crazy,” he told me. “We’ll spread the story about you and me.” He didn’t want to hurt Abe, he just enjoyed the game, but it ended up backfiring because Abe made a point of spending much more time with his game-playing client, which was not what Warren intended.
Warren wanted to be part of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” but he had in mind the wrong role: Butch. He knew it was Newman’s but Warren was feisty and competitive; it was his way of being adversarial, of trying to do battle with the king. He kept saying, “I want that role.”
Warren also wanted to know how much Newman was getting for the role. I wouldn’t tell him, but I said, “You’re not going to get the same amount.” Then he tried to knock Newman out by bringing in Brando as Sundance. But it didn’t work because no one wanted Brando. George Hill was very concerned that Brando, who was mercurial and unpredictable, might negatively affect the shooting schedule. And in any event, Newman was perfect for Butch.
Eventually, Brando himself called: “I heard about the script and I’d like to play Butch Cassidy. I’ve read about him.” It only took a few days for him to accept that the studio wouldn’t agree to his financial demands—and that Newman was already set to play Butch. Besides, hadn’t Beatty wanted to play Butch?
I think Warren’s real agenda was to hear someone say, “Are you crazy? You can’t play Butch. You’ve got to play the other guy. The other guy is great.” I did – but I was the only one.
Eventually, Beatty worked himself out of the picture.
Personally, I saw Steve McQueen as Sundance, and the pairing with Newman ideal. They were big, big stars who’d never done a picture together before. It was a dream. What more would you want than Newman and McQueen?
I didn’t represent McQueen yet, but because we were friends, I sent him the script directly. McQueen wanted the part, but there was a billing problem. Newman deserved top billing and William Morris had also advised McQueen to hold out for the first position. Steve was shooting “The Sand Pebbles” over at the Fox lot, and he invited me to his trailer to talk.
It ended with him saying, “I know you mean well, but I can’t do it.”
I was stunned. “Why? It’s the perfect role. It’s a dream. You’re gonna make a lot of money. It’s gonna be the hottest picture of the year.”
“Yeah, but I can’t take second billing to Newman.”
“You’ve got to be reasonable, Steve. Newman’s older than you. He’s been around longer. He’s made more pictures. He’s not as beautiful as you, but you have to give him what he’s been getting, and that’s first billing. Big deal.”
“I can’t,” he said.
“You mean you’ll let it go down the tubes on billing?”
“Well, if I can’t get first billing . . . “
”Steve, it’s a mistake,” I said. “They’re both great roles. I mean, Newman and McQueen, together. Wow!”
He wouldn’t budge.
I wasn’t about to give up.
I talked to Newman and said, “We’re going to lose McQueen on billing.”
“What do you mean?” he said. “I don’t lose pictures on billing.”
“He wants first star billing,” I said. “What do you want to do?
“I don’t think that’s nice,” Newman said. “No.”
I said, “Okay. You’re right. But let me fool around with some ideas and see what I can come up with.”
The next night I sat up for a long time, trying to figure out a solution. I came up with this: first billing for one and top billing for the other. Top billing, on the right side of the credits, is a little higher than first billing, which is on the left. You see it all the time now, but then it didn’t exist. I went to a printer who made me two signs, one with Newman’s name top-billed on the right, and one with McQueen’s top-billed on the right.
[note: no periods in the orginal sign. can't make it move right here otherwise!]
Newman thought it was a good idea; he’d take either.
Then I went to McQueen.
He said, “What does Newman say?”
“Newman says he’ll give you your choice.”
McQueen got very paranoid. “What does that mean?”
“It means that you can have first billing or top billing.”
“But what does that mean?” He seemed to be struggling with the idea, trying to pin down something beyond the obvious when there was nothing more to it. “What’s the difference?”
I showed him the two signs again. I said, “This is you with first billing. It’s the first name they see. You’re before Newman. This is you with top billing. You’re above Newman.”
“Which is better?”
“Which do you like better?”
“Which one does he want?”
“He said you take whatever you want.”
“He’ll take the other one?”
“Yeah. Top, first – it doesn’t matter to him.”
McQueen screwed up his face. “I gotta think about it,” he said.
He called me the next day. “I can’t do it,” he said. “It’s too confusing. There’s something wrong with it. Something tricky.” He tried to explain, but let it drop.
“Steve, there’s nothing tricky about it,” I said. But I thought I knew what he was really thinking: I can’t do it because Newman is a bigger name than me. Newman is a bigger star.
In a funny way McQueen’s instincts were right. No matter where you put McQueen’s name, Newman was going to be the star.
“I’m gonna pass,” said McQueen.
Stevie Phillips, the first successful female agent at CMA, called and said, “Freddie, you gotta come to New York and see this guy.”
She had read “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and thought she’d found the perfect actor to play opposite Newman. “He is the Sundance Kid. I’m telling you, he’s the Kid. But you’ve got to see him in this Broadway show to understand why.”
I went to New York, saw the show, and knew Stevie was right. I had already seen him in a few things, and my first impression had been that this kid would be a big star. Although I had never met him, I went backstage to his dressing room to say hello. He looked even better up close. His eyes twinkled and even his moles were perfectly placed. He had connected on stage, but in person it was like he carried his own set of lights. Occasionally I’d say that about an actress, but it was also true about Robert Redford. Not since Newman had I seen anyone with the same level of charisma. McQueen’s was rough-edged and unpolished; he caught you with his anger, while Redford was almost a step back to the time of Gable.
Plus he was very smart, very aware.
Calling him Redford or Bob, I said, “I think you’re great in the play. You’re going to be a giant star.”
I pulled the “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” script from my bag and said, “When you have something precious, you want to take care of it, and right now I’ve got something very precious. George Roy Hill is directing, with Paul Newman playing one role and, I hope, with you playing the equal other role. It’s written by the best, William Goldman.”
Redford didn’t look at the script. He just fixed me with those eyes and a bit of a smile. Waiting. Who knew what he was thinking.
“But if I give you the script,” I continued, “and you want to do it, I have to extract one promise from you. I want you to sign with CMA. But I don’t want to hurt anybody else—if you have an agent already. If we can work that out, then I want you to become our client.”
Redford said, “I have no problem with that.”
I gave Redford the script. He called the next day and said, “Wow, what a script! When can I meet with Paul Newman and George Hill? How fast can we go on this?”
I called Newman and said, “Paul, I think we’ve got the guy for Sundance.”
“Who?” he said.
Newman said, “Hey, he’s fabulous. I saw him in a play a few weeks ago.”
Things moved ahead quickly. And there was no problem with billing either.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Redford had once considered signing with us. Alan Ladd Jr., a young CMA agent, had gone to high school with Redford in Los Angeles.
“I went to a ‘Dr. Kildare’ filming,” says Laddie, “and gave him the whole pitch. He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go with you,’ but when I came to Dick Shepard,”—a senior CMA agent—“he said, ‘Nah, he’s television. We don’t want to sign anybody in television.’”
After “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” came out, McQueen called me and said, “I made a big mistake, didn’t I?”
“Yeah,” I said, “and you’re going to continue to make them if you don’t have all the feedback you need.”
“Sure,” he said. “We’ll talk.”
I had to wait until he did “Le Mans” for him to become my client.
A couple years later, a picture came along called “The Towering Inferno.” McQueen was cast first and he said, “I gotta get a big co-star.”
“What about Newman?” I suggested.
“Sure,” he said, “Newman would be great for the character.”
“Okay,” I said, “But let’s not jerk him around on the billing again. Which do you want, top billing or first billing?”
“Well, what did they do on “‘Butch Cassidy’?” he asked.
“That turned out to be totally different,” I explained. “Paul felt that a new guy like Redford should not share billing with him, so we came up with something totally original:
PAUL NEWMAN IS
AND THE SUNDANCE KID
IS ROBERT REDFORD.”
“You call that billing!?” McQueen snorted.
“Not exactly,” I said. “It’s a sentence.”
McQueen smiled. “Can we do that here? That’s great.”
“Not really. The second guy really got bottom billing. It’s below the title.”
“All this stuff gets me really crazy,” he said. “Okay. First billing or top billing. Which one should I do?”
“I think you should take top billing.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that on the other picture?” he said.
“Why? Because we didn’t have the same relationship and I knew you wouldn’t trust me. If I said top billing you’d say, ‘Okay, give me first.’”
He laughed. I was right – and he knew it.
Rest in peace Freddie. You deserve it.