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Hollywood Lawyers in Love

If you see a porky pixie whiz by your window, don’t panic: It’s just pigs flying in Hollywood now that two ruthless litigators with a decade-long history of bad blood between them have agreed to hold hands, sing "Kumbaya" and partner in the same firm.

Bert vs. Howie was one of the longest-running feuds in entertainment legal circles, yet the vast majority of moguls, agents, managers and even other attorneys were unaware it was even raging. Nor were journalists, judging from the shocking lack of coverage by the mainstream media outlets. The New York Times’ new Hollywood correspondent David Halbfinger broke the news of the supposed pairing of Howard Weitzman with Bert Fields but failed to explain what made the development so interesting or even the true nature of the relationship. (We won’t mention that Fields-is-cooking-chicken-fajitas-in-Malibu laugh-riot in Sunday’s NYT timed to the release of his latest book about Shakespeare.) Halbfinger is new to the Hollywood scene so he can’t be expected to have a stored-up memory of who did what to whom and why. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, not to mention the feeble-minded trades, are missing-in-action on this story altogether. And that is the problem: For media who purport to cover Hollywood, they largely ignore the scandal-du-jour of the entertainment super-lawyer set.

Let’s review the videotape, going back to 1993 when Weitzman and Fields were both stars of the media maelstrom — defending Michael Jackson as the pop singer faced a civil lawsuit brought by a 13-year-old boy who alleged the entertainer sexually molested him. Things got good fast. First there was a courtroom blunder, followed by a behind-the-scenes he-said/he-said battle, complicated by the overarching ambition of Weitzman, a USC-trained legal upstart, to score points against Harvard-educated legal legend Fields. The result was two gladiators who suddenly turned Century City into their own private Coliseum.

A few weeks ago, Greenberg Glusker partner Dale Kinsella gingerly approached the firm’s principal rainmaker, Fields, for permission to rescue Weitzman from Proskauer Rose, which in entertainment legal circles is deemed the equivalent of Siberia. "Dale knew there had been some problem in the past. So he wouldn’t have considered making a deal with Howard without asking me," Fields told me this week.

Fields gave his okay. "I’m a forgiving guy. You can’t go through life hating people. You’ve got to let these things go," he said. Contrary to the NYT report making it appear as if the two attorneys will be lawyering hand-in-glove, Fields will not be working directly with Weitzman. "He’ll have his own cases," Fields emphasized.

Weitzman did not return L.A. Weekly’s phone calls.

It’s yet another example of the business of Hollywood making for strange bedfellows when there’s money to be made. But it’s also a story of the importance of relationships in Hollywood: making them, severing them and repairing them.

 

To understand the genesis and gravitas of the Fields-Weitzman feud, go back all the way to 1990 when Michael Jackson was still the not-yet-dethroned king of pop. A sudden break with his longtime attorney and adviser, Ziffren Brittenham’s John Branca, had the music world agog. Though nobody ever went public to explain what happened, Branca privately blamed the loss of his most important client on David Geffen because of a power struggle between the two men that also involved volatile music exec Walter Yetnikoff. Shortly after leaving Branca, Jackson changed his legal representation: The singer signed with Geffen’s attorney Bert Fields for litigation and with Geffen insider Alan Grubman for record-label work.

Fast-forward to 1993. Fields had been batting back a bunch of real and threatened allegations against Jackson on a laundry list of matters when, all of a sudden, a child-molestation lawsuit was filed in a Santa Monica court by the Westside family of a young boy who’d spent time with the singer. Although the charges were civil, not criminal, authorities in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties were also investigating Jackson. The singer declared his innocence, but he needed to assemble a legal Dream Team.

It was Fields’ decision to bring onboard Howard Weitzman (then of Katten Muchin Zavis) to handle the pending criminal aspects. Weitzman, of course, had gained national notoriety successfully defending auto impresario John DeLorean against drug-trafficking charges. Since then, he’d made a name in Hollywood as the pal of celebrities in trouble with the law. Together, Field and Weitzman skillfully parried with the press on behalf of Michael Jackson at news conference after news conference.

All was well and good, until they appeared in a Santa Monica court for a civil-suit-related proceeding. Fields made a motion to delay any trial by telling the judge that a Santa Barbara grand jury, whose activities are normally secret, had convened to investigate Jackson and was on the verge of probably indicting his client. Weitzman interrupted, telling the judge he didn’t really know if an indictment was near, only that witnesses had been subpoenaed to testify before a Santa Barbara grand jury. Minutes later, on the court steps, Fields tried to retract the statement. "I was mistaken. All I know is that a grand jury has been subpoenaed. I do not know how far along they have got." Weitzman left Fields out to dry, saying, "We made a statement in court based on wrong information. It was a misunderstanding." One made worse after Santa Barbara County announced that no grand jury had yet been called in the case. All of a sudden, to Jackson and his family and the media, Fields looked to have committed a huge gaffe.

Sources close to the case at the time told me Fields blamed Weitzman for the blunder because the wrong information had come to Fields directly from Weitzman. And that’s not all: Fields privately told friends he felt Weitzman, tired of toiling in Fields’ imposing shadow as a Hollywood litigator, may have gone so far as to sabotage Fields’ involvement in Jackson’s defense. Wait, there’s more. There was even a behind-the-scenes battle over Fields’ subsequent departure from Jackson’s defense: Did he jump or was he pushed? Weitzman quietly told reporters that Fields was fired from the team for mishandling that court hearing. Then Jackson’s family, reportedly furious at Fields, issued a statement that they could "sleep better at night" with Johnnie Cochran onboard.

But, Fields went so far as to publicly dispute any notion that he’d been let go by the Jacksons or anyone; he said he’d resigned on November 23 but had not put it in writing until 10 days later so as not to distract from Jackson’s defense efforts. Privately, Fields explained his reason for exiting was because he no longer wanted to work with Weitzman.

Fields appeared little hurt by the bad publicity. Weitzman eventually found himself in one uncomfortable predicament after another. Though he also had many successes, Weitzman received a lot of flak when he initially lost the Boxing Helena lawsuit defending Kim Basinger since Hollywood had perceived it as a slam dunk for the actress. Not long after, Weitzman, who’d earlier defended O.J. Simpson following a wife-beating arrest, was the first lawyer called by the football star to defend himself against murder charges. Weitzman’s involvement with O.J. made him a Hollywood pariah.

Fields took great pleasure in any Weitzman setback. When Weitzman was going to MCA/Universal in 1995 to assist newly appointed president and COO Ron Meyer, I asked if Weitzman’s hiring was to shore up any Meyer shortcomings. "Which are made shorter by Howard," Fields shot back.

After being forced out of MCA/Universal in 1998, Weitzman pitched several show-biz projects, but eventually beat a retreat back to lawyering.

Fields, meanwhile, was more successful than ever, earning a nickname as "The Exterminator" for the way that he seemed to be suing the Walt Disney Co. 24/7. Since Fields works in isolation from the rest of his firm, and even other lawyers at Greenberg Glusker don’t know his cases until they hit the headlines, he and Weitzman will be able to keep at arm’s length rather easily. On the other hand, Weitzman, 60, likes to say, "I’m the logical successor to Bert Fields."

Told about that, Fields, 76, chuckled, "That may turn out to be true. But people in my family live a long time. I’m not going anywhere so fast."

Email at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com


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