Frank Pierson

Frank Pierson

Born in Chappaqua, NY, Pierson was raised by his father, Harold, and his mother, Louise, a writer whose autobiography was turned into the seriocomic "Roughly Speaking" (1945), starring Rosalind Russell and Jack Carson. After serving in the U.S. army, he graduated from Harvard University before becoming a correspondent for TIME magazine. Pierson made the fateful leap to Hollywood when he became a writer on the popular Western "Have Gun Will Travel" (CBS, 1957-1963), which followed the adventures of the gunslinger-for-hire Paladin (Richard Boone). Pierson continued to cut his professional teeth on shows like "Naked City" (ABC, 1958-1963) and "Route 66" (CBS, 1960-64), before breaking into films by co-writing the comic Western "Cat Ballou" (1965), starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin. A smash with moviegoers, the film earned Pierson an Oscar nomination and served as his calling card for the big screen. After directing the counterculture comedy "The Happening" (1967), which became an enduring cult hit of sorts, Pierson scored another mainstream triumph for co-writing the screenplay for the Paul Newman classic "Cool Hand Luke" (1967). Responsible for the film's most famous line, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate," Pierson earned himself another Oscar nomination.Buoyed by his success, Pierson helped write "The 42nd Annual Academy Awards" (1970), wrote and directed the Anthony Hopkins spy thriller "The Looking Glass War" (1969), and created, produced and directed the new-era Western series "Nichols" (NBC, 1971-72), starring James Garner. Despite the show's contemporary setting, atypical avoidance of violence and the roguish Garner in the lead, the series suffered from low ratings and was canceled. After writing the heist thriller "The Anderson Tapes" (1971) starring Sean Connery, Pierson won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Sidney Lumet's wrenching "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975), the tale of an unstable veteran (Al Pacino) forced to take hostages while caught robbing a Brooklyn bank to pay for his male lover's (Chris Sarandon) sex-change operation. Finely observed and to many a flawless piece of New Hollywood cinema, the film helped solidify both Pacino and Pierson as Hollywood powerhouses. Perhaps his most infamous professional experience, however, came with his next project, the glossy Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson remake. Although the film was a hit with critics and audiences, and won a Best Original Song Oscar for Streisand and Paul Williams for the lovely "Evergreen," Pierson pulled the veil back from his countless behind-the-scenes clashes in "My Battles With Barbra and Jon," a damning piece for New West magazine that achieved instant and lasting notoriety.After writing and directing "King of the Gypsies" (1978), Pierson slowed his output but continued to enjoy big-screen success, writing the screenplays for the film adaptations of Bobbie Ann Mason's "In Country" (1989) and Scott Turow's bestseller "Presumed Innocent" (1990). In the 1990s, Pierson found a home as a director on the small screen, winning awards for "Citizen Cohn" (HBO, 1992), as well as earning Emmy nominations for the presidential biopic "Truman" (HBO, 1995), starring Gary Sinise as Give 'em Hell Harry. Pierson went on to direct "Conspiracy" (HBO, 2001), a rather talky but highly dramatic re-enactment of the secret meeting that led to the Nazi plan for the extermination of all Jews in Europe. Later that year, Pierson was elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a position he held for the maximum four consecutive terms, echoing nicely his previous two terms as president of the Writers Guild of America, West. Pierson remained active right up until the end, scripting episodes of "The Good Wife" (CBS, 2009-16) and "Mad Men" (AMC, 2007-15), as well as serving as a producer on both series, before his death on July 23, 2012 from natural causes. He was 87 years old. An intelligent, outspoken writer, director and producer, Pierson was a passionate defender of the art of cinema, as well as a driving force for the industry's need to never stop its attempts to improve, grow and inspire.By Jonathan Riggs