Frank Pierson had a magical way with words, so it is ironic that the most famous movie line he ever wrote is: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”. Frank Pierson never suffered “failure to communicate”. That iconic phrase uttered by Strother Martin to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967) — one of Newman’s greatest movies EVER — was even voted by the American Film Institute as the No. 11 greatest movie quote of all time. It’s even now part of a Guns N’ Roses song, “Civil War”. But Pierson, who died today at age 87 after a short illness, didn’t even know if he would be allowed to keep it in the script that also has Donn Pearce credited; he was author of the original book in which the line doesn’t exist. Isn’t that always the way with such immortal lines? Thank God it was left in. It’s hard to imagine this great film without it.
Pierson was nominated for an Oscar in the adapted screenplay category for Cool Hand Luke. It was his second nomination there: Two years earlier, his script for the classic comedy Western Cat Ballou landed him his first nomination, even though, as he said, he was the “11th writer” on the project. But he was the one (with inspiration from the film’s “10th writer”, Walter Newman) who finally cracked it. turning the dramatic Western into a comedy. It won Lee Marvin the Best Actor Oscar and made a star out of a drunken cross-legged horse to whom Marvin offered half his Oscar. It too contained another now-famous line said by a young Jane Fonda: “You won’t make me cry. You’ll never make me cry”. And of course his Oscar-winning original screenplay Dog Day Afternoon (1975) saw Al Pacino chanting another famous phrase, “Attica! Attica!” According to movie lore though, that may have been improvised on set, but there can be no doubt whenever Pierson’s name was on a script it was bound to contain immortal bits of dialogue to go with great screenplay structure and high-class writing.
His films as a screenwriter included some very fine underrated movies in his later career like Presumed Innocent (1990), which starred Harrison Ford, and In Country (1989) with Bruce Willis. But for me, a nifty little 1971 caper picture starring Sean Connery, The Anderson Tapes, has become a hidden gem in the filmography of both Pierson and its director Sidney Lumet. Of course, they would collaborate four years later on Dog Day Afternoon, but check out Anderson, like Dog Day a great crime/heist picture but one that almost seems forgotten 40 years later. It shouldn’t be.
Neither should Pierson. In addition to his many achievements as a writer, he was also a fine director, although his battles with Barbra Streisand during the making of the 1976 musical reboot of A Star Is Born are well-chronicled (by him). He didn’t mince words, did he? On top of that, the man who would become so identified with the Academy missed accepting his own one and only Oscar in person because he was stuck on location shooting the movie that caused him such misery on the set. He ended up celebrating with a quick drink and then it was back to the front lines of movie-making. That was Pierson. The sour experience didn’t seem to affect his later directorial efforts. His Emmy-nominated work as a director in television movies like Citizen Cohn, Truman, Conspiracy, Dirty Pictures and other memorable films he helmed in the last quarter century was especially significant.
But I will still always think of him first and foremost as a true writing pro. He had the kind of long-lasting career as a writer that doesn’t really seem possible anymore. Starting in the golden age of television on iconic shows like Playhouse 90, Alcoa-Goodyear Theatre, Naked City, Route 66 and particularly the great Richard Boone Western series Have Gun, Will Travel, he was really able to learn his craft on the job. It’s fitting that, after a stint on The Good Wife in 2010, he was able to finish his career in his mid-80s on the most celebrated TV series of its time, Mad Men, where he worked as a consulting producer for the last couple of seasons and even co-wrote one of Season 5’s best episodes — Signal 30 — with series creator/executive producer Matt Weiner, who brought Pierson in to add veteran seasoning to the writing staff. A smart move and an unusual one in television, where writers and producers of that age and experience are usually tossed aside. This morning I emailed Weiner to get his reaction and this is what he had to say about the man he hired to be a key part of the Mad Men staff: “Frank was a giant as a man and as an artist. We all feel so lucky that we got to work with him and share his wisdom, humor, empathy and limitless imagination. I cannot express how deep a loss this is for me and the people who knew this extraordinary man and the creative adventure that was his life. The whole show is in mourning.”
The whole town is in mourning too. Pierson was someone who really gave back to this industry. As a four-term president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences and current governor for the writing branch (17 years in total on the board), he was a significant innovator and constant presence at Academy events, where he will be missed. As a former two-time president of WGA West (1981-83; 1993-95) and the winner of every significant award that Guild can give, he was an inspiration to writers everywhere. There was also his great work with the American Film Institute — and on and on. Pierson was a creative force but also a man of service who always gave back, a communicator in the best sense of the word. No failure there.