Frank Pierson: Writer, Director & Industry Leader Never Had “Failure To Communicate”

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 Menwhere 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.

  1. I grew up worshiping movies that he helped create. But I had no idea I was still enjoying his contemporary output as a contributor on MAD MEN. I tip my hat to Pierson for staying so productive for so damn long — and kudos to Weiner and others for keeping an open mind in a town obsessed by youth and the next hot thing.

  2. Terrific writer. “Cool Hand Luke” and “Dog Day Afternoon” are two incredible pieces of screenwriting. My condolences to his family and friends.

  3. A god among writers; human among the rest of us. Thank you.

    One of my teachers, mentors out of so much work…when I was back in Nebraska; happy at first just being a member of the audience from so far away; then learning how to find my own voice by writing the most terrible crap inhumanly possible; finally coming to LA and film school and eventually hitting the pavement and knocking on doors in 2001.

    Every time things crashed and burned…I’d either catch PAUL or AL on tv or at the video store or in a retrospective somewhere in LA…where I felt at home: watching them in Mr. person’s stories. On the silver screen.

    Mr Pierson obviously knew how to communicate.
    I want to thank him for helping me find my own way.

    Condolences to the Piersons


  4. Lovely piece about a lovely man. KING OF THE GYPSIES, which he adapted and directed and was a notorious flop, was one of my favorite movies of the 70s, an opinion he always took with great good humor. Once I found a beautiful lobby card from the film and the next time I saw him at the Academy, I asked him to inscribe it. He was moved and even flattered that I thought so much of the film as to make such a request. With typical wit, he signed it, “To Mike, the last surviving fan of King of the Gypsies.” It hangs proudly framed on my wall and I’m looking at it now. Godspeed, kind sir.

  5. Frank Pierson wrote and directed one of my all time favorite films, an adaptation of a John Le Carre novel called The Looking Glass War. I saw this film years ago, loved it, then read the novel and was amazed at how different it was from what Le Carre wrote. The main protagonist was changed from a world weary man in his mid 40s to an optimistic adventurous man in his early 20s, not to mention numerous plot changes, AND YET, despite that, Pierson adapted Le Carre’s novel so brilliantly. It was all there in spirit and theme. A wonderful and sadly forgotten film. I’d encourage anyone who loves serious, thoughtful spy dramas to find The Looking Glass War (it’s on DVD and maybe streaming) and watch it. Superb.

  6. a great tribute to a great artist and man.

    makes one question the cynical reputation the industry has.

    what a deep sense of talent and history weiner posses.

    we will not see his like come again.

    condolences to family and friends

  7. About a decade ago, I spent three hours interviewing him about screenwriting for a book. He was endlessly fascinating, charming, and, to boot, gracious as hell. At the end of the time I remember wanting it to go on forever, but he was the first to say thank you, as if I had been entertaining him. What a gentleman and a talent. God bless him.

  8. “Signal 30,” written by Frank Pierson: one of the greatest episodes of Mad Men EVER. Did it get Emmy nommed? If not, that’s a crime.

    Don’t forget “Conspiracy,” an incredible HBO film starring Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci.

  9. Frank Pierson was a monumentally talented writer…his TV movie, THE NEON CEILING, (with Gig Young) still haunts me…..


  10. it was nice to have met and worked under frank at afi. glad you worked til the very end. bravo.

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