Frank Pierson was the model of what I think of as the serious professional screenwriter.
In addition to crafting work that will remain fresh and relevant as long as we are watching movies, he was also heavily involved in the industry as the President of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for many years and President of the Writers Guild Of America for many years as well. His career as a writer began on TV in the ’60s and ended on TV with his work on “Mad Men,” an experience that no doubt drew on his work as an advertising copywriter during the ’50s. In between, he wrote some indelible, amazing movies, and he leaves behind a filmography that any writer would be proud to claim.
I never got a chance to meet Pierson, and it’s a shame. I would have loved to have spent an afternoon discussing “Cat Ballou,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Anderson Tapes,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” the nightmare of working with Streisand on “A Star Is Born,” or his last produced screenplay, the adaptation of “Presumed Innocent.” Pierson had a sober, adult approach to character and narrative, and one of the things that distinguishes his work is that it all seems to have a respect for the audience, treating them as if they can handle complex ideas and difficult emotions.
Pierson was famous for locking horns with Streisand at the height of her power in Hollywood, and he wrote about the experience for “New York” magazine, something that very few writers would have done at the time. After all, she was the movie star, the money, the thing that studios wanted, and he was “just” the writer. But Pierson came from a generation of writers who refused to be treated poorly by Hollywood, the first group to really reshape the studio system. His work as the President of the WGA was along those same lines, focused on equality and fair treatment of writers.
I’d say any of his films would make a fitting tribute later tonight if you’re looking for something to watch, and certainly “Dog Day Afternoon” is about as great an example of character-driven adult work as you’ll ever find, but I think I’m going to bust out my copy of “Presumed Innocent,” which features not only one of my favorite Harrison Ford performances but one of the best last lines of the ’90s, delivered perfectly. Pierson had a knack for turning a phrase, finding the exact right way to say something to make it stick, and we were lucky to have seen his work onscreen. He will be profoundly missed.
Frank Pierson was 87 years old.