Charles W. Fries, the prolific producer and executive who was known as the “Godfather of the Television Movie,” died Thursday in Los Angeles, his family announced. He was 92.
In 1974, he formed Charles Fries Productions, which later became Fries Entertainment. By one estimate, he and his company produced and/or supervised more than 275 hours of telefilms, miniseries and series.
Fries had his greatest impact during the period he described in his autobiography as “the golden days of the television movie” — the 25-year period from 1968-93.
His projects included The Amazing Spider-Man series of the late 1970s; the 1980 Ray Bradbury miniseries The Martian Chronicles, starring Rock Hudson; 1981’s Bitter Harvest, starring Ron Howard and Art Carney; The Rosemary Clooney Story (1982), starring Sondra Locke as the singer; 1989’s Small Sacrifices, starring Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal; 1990’s The Queen of Mean, starring Suzanne Pleshette as New York hotel mogul Leona Helmsley; and the three-hour 1991 movie The Neon Empire, starring Ray Sharkey, Martin Landau and Gary Busey.
For the big screen, Fries produced Cat People (1982), directed by Paul Schrader and starring Natassja Kinski; Out of Bounds (1986), starring Anthony Michael Hall; and Screamers (1995), starring Peter Weller.
He also was an exec producer on Flowers in the Attic (1987), starring Louise Fletcher, and Troop Beverly Hills (1989), starring Shelley Long and Craig T. Nelson. (The latter was fashioned after his wife Ava’s real-life experience leading a Girl Scout troop.)
“The work of a producer is really a roller-coaster ride,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir. “On any one day, you never know what level or incline you will be riding on — up or down or upside down. It’s exciting, exhilarating and often very scary, so you hang on and are relieved when you end the ride safely.”
In 1984, Fries raised $9 million to take his company public. He jumped into the movie business in 1985 and launched a home video operation in 1987, but, hit by mounting losses, he shuttered the film division in 1990 and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization a year later.
In a 1999 chat for the website The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, Fries said that Credit Lyonnais and other investment banks put too much money into the industry, leading companies to produce a glut of product.
“We got into a couple of business situations that I should not have been in,” he added. “The home video business, I shouldn’t have been in it. I wasn’t a student of home video. I did pretty good in television.”
Born in Cincinnati on Sept. 30, 1928, Charles William Fries was the son of a grocer in the produce business. He attended Elder High School and graduated from Ohio State University.
He came to Los Angeles in March 1952 for a job for $100 a week as an accountant at Ziv Television — one of his uncles was a treasurer there — and learned the business as the company, a syndication pioneer, churned out such programs as The Cisco Kid, Highway Patrol, Sea Hunt, The Eddie Cantor Show and Bat Masterson. (Another of his uncles was William Girard, a producer at 20th Century Fox.)
In 1960, Fries was hired by William Dozier as a vice president of production at Columbia Pictures’ Screen Gems, the TV home of Naked City, Father Knows Best, Route 66, Bewitched, Hazel, The Donna Reed Show and I Dream of Jeannie. He segued to the studio’s film division as a vp in charge of feature film production and administration and had a hand in Jack Nicholson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970).
Fries joined Metromedia Producers Corp. in 1970 as an executive vp and produced and/or supervised more than two dozen telefilms and series, including The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, before going out on his own.
Fries was a member of the Caucus for Producers, Writers, & Directors for 45 years and served five terms as chairman. He also was a chair at the American Film Institute, where the Charles W. Fries Producer of the Year Award honors and encourages quality television.
Survivors include Ava, his wife of 33 years; children Mike (CEO of Liberty Global), Charles, Suzanne, Chris, Dyanne, Mike, Alice and Jon; step-daughter Diane; 22 grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.
He was married for 33 years to Carol Fries before they divorced in 1985.
Donations may be made to the Caucus Foundation, dedicated to expanding diversity in the entertainment industry with scholarship support, financial grants and mentoring for the next generation of producers, writers and directors.