Exceptional Academy Award-winning screenwriter and director Frank Pierson, who became presidents of both the Writers Guild, West, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, died today in Los Angeles of natural causes following a short illness, according to his manager. He was 87. Gentlemanly yet ornery, meticulous yet creative, Pierson compiled a remarkable writing resume, starting in the 1950s with television shows like Have Gun, Will Travel and Playhouse 90, followed by five decades of seminal films like Cat Ballou (screenplay by Walter Newman and Frank R. Pierson), Dog Day Afternoon (screenplay by Frank Pierson), A Star Is Born (screenplay by Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne and Frank Pierson), In Country (screenplay by Frank Pierson and Cynthia Cidre), and Presumed Innocent (screenplay by Frank Pierson and Alan J. Pakula). Even in his later years, he worked for HBO on telemovies, AMC as a writer/consulting producer on Mad Men, and on CBS in the same function for The Good Wife. Phil Robinson of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Governors Writers Branch said today: “Young rock ‘n rollers always look to the old bluesmen as models of how to keep their art strong and rebellious into older years. For screenwriters, Frank has been our old blues master for a long time. He’s always shown us – better than anyone else – how to do it with class, grace, humor, strength, brilliance, generosity, and a joyful tenacity.”
He also wrote some of the most iconic quotes in motion picture history, as the WGA itself pointed out: “Odds are, all of you know the famous line he came up with while writing 1967’s Cool Hand Luke (screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson): “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” The line was not in Pearce’s original novel. (“The phrase just sort of appeared on the page”, he said. “I looked at it and thought, ‘Now that’s interesting.’”) Pierson to the WGA described his process this way: “Sit down at 10 o’clock in the morning and write anything that comes into my head until 12. One of the few things I’ve discovered about writing is to form a habit that becomes an addiction so that if you don’t put something down on paper every day, you get really mean and awful with withdrawal symptoms, and your wife and your dog and your kids are going to kick your ass until you get back to it because they can’t bear you in that state of mind.”
Pierson was born in Chappaqua, NY and attended Harvard. His mother was a screenwriter, and Pierson’s parents, family and their lives were the subject of the 1945 film Roughly Speaking, starring Rosalind Russell and Jack Carson. He worked for several years in the Beverly Hills bureau of Time and Life magazines covering entertainment and quit to try to break into television. Nothing sold until he made a sale for Alcoa-Goodyear Theater – and was promptly rewritten. In 1958 he was scripted editor for Have Gun, Will Travel and moved on to write for the TV series Naked City, Route 66 and others.
Cat Ballou was Pierson’s first film script and one of his few comedies. Producer Harold Heck had a contract and start date to do it for Columbia, but the studio was ready to write off the picture because Heck had just finished a string of bombs. Pierson was working at Screen Gems, then the television arm of Columbia where talents like John Cassavetes, Bob Rafelson, Paul Masursky, and Bob Altman all were incubated and writing pilots. They were all unloaded from the red ink of the books of Screen Gems, and traded across the street to Columbia’s film studio to do cheap-rate rewrites. Pierson was asssigned at TV rates to do a final rewrite on Cat Ballou as the 11th writer on it. “But they’d all been trying to do it straight, like a Gene Autry singing movie. Walter Newman, who was the writer on it before me, had the inspiration to do it as a comedy, but he was fed up with the whole damn thing. Then he quit, and that was my opportunity to come in and pick up where Walter left off. He just gave me such a gift because he showed how to do it as a comedy, and all I had to do what follow in his footsteps. It was extraordinary.”
Along with Cat Ballou, Pierson wrote or co-wrote notable Academy Award-nominated films in the 60s and 70s like Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon, which won Pierson his Oscar. “There’s no question that the 70s themselves were really wide open. There was just so much being done at that time,” Pierson told the WGA magazine. “Every year, the major studios were commissioning things that they would never touch today or even thought of touching in the 1950s.”
Pierson directed and contributed to the screenplay of A Star Is Born, then the in-fighting on the film between himself, Barbra Streisand, her boyfriend/producer Jon Peters, and Kris Kristofferson led him to write the notorious and controversial article “My Battles With Barbra And Jon” in New West magazine. Many felt that his talking out-of-school about Hollywood bigwigs irreparably damaged his movie career.
Later Pierson directed smart and complicated films produced for television, including Dirty Pictures, Citizen Cohn, Conspiracy (which won him a Directors’ Guild Award for Best Television Movie, and his second Peabody and BAFTA Award), and Somebody Has To Shoot The Picture.
He was President of the Writers Guild of America, West, from 1981-1983 and again from 1993-1995. He also was President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences from 2001-2005 and had served as Governor of the Writers Branch for 17 years. He also was a member of the teaching staff of Sundance Institute, and Artistic Director of the American Film Institute.