Gil Friesen, one of the few Hollywood executives to wear two hats as president of A&M Records as well as A&M Films (making The Breakfast Club among a dozen films), died today at his Brentwood home. His friends told Deadline his death followed a prolonged battle with leukemia. He was 75. Friesen was best known as a legendary record executive at the privately owned label modestly founded by Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert in the Tijuana Brass trumpet player’s garage in 1962. Cool and popular, Friesen climbed the Hollywood career ladder as one of those golden boys who could do no wrong in showbiz. Beginning his career at Capitol Records, Friesen became A&M’s first general manager. It was Friesen who helped turn Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass into a successful touring attraction and developed artists from Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, Rita Coolidge and The Carpenters to Janet Jackson, Sting, Bryan Adams and Amy Grant. Named president in 1977, Friesen became known as the ‘ampersand’ in A&M Records and expanded it into a full-service entertainment concern, with manufacturing, distribution and marketing agreements with other labels and international offices in London, Paris and Toronto. By 1981, it was natural that the music mogul would seek the personal and professional status that came with making films. A&M Records had first flirted with a film arm in 1968 but A&M Productions, as it was called, folded after a year. In July 1981, the film wing was revived by Friesen who presided over the independent film company A&M Films and arranged for A&M Records to provide all the production funding for the movie wing.
Friesen was determined to conceive A&M Films as a class act all the way. He housed its base of operations at the former Charlie Chaplin Studio in Hollywood. He signed an exclusive representation agreement with the up-and-coming Creative Artists Agency. And he announced that his movie company was “looking for the unique rather than the commonplace.” It took Friesen three full years to get production off the ground. Finally, between Christmas 1984 and April 1985, A&M Films had three back-to-back features to unveil: Birdy for Tri-Star, directed by Alan Parker from William Wharton’s novel; The Breakfast Club, written and directed by John Hughes for Universal; and Better Off Dead by Cal Arts filmmaker “Savage” Steve Holland. A&M Films also produced Blaze with Paul Newman and The Mighty Quinn with Denzel Washington among fewer than a dozen films. In 1989, Polygram acquired A&M Records and included A&M Films in the sale. A year later, Friesen suddenly left the company, reportedly over differences with the Polygram people, and received a reported $40 million bail-out. Without Friesen, the fate of the 9-year-old film operation hung in limbo since it was Friesen’s pet project and never a priority of A&M chairman and co-founder Moss.
Friesen also co-founded the Classic Sports Cable Network, which was sold to ESPN in 1997. That same year, he was chairman of the Aspen Design Conference.