The late Frank Pierson was a true Hollywood insider, but his name and reputation as a filmmaker remain largely unsung in the film industry. Perhaps because of his greater success as a screenwriter, along with his high profile tenures at the top of major industry bodies (Pierson was president of The Writers Guild of America, West from 1981 to 1983 and again from 1993 to 1995 and was president of The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences from 2001 to 2005), Pierson’s small but impressive body of work is rarely, if ever, celebrated, except in the briefest, most passing of his ways. He was, however, adept at digging deep into the vagaries of the human condition while also effectively telling stories on a large thematic or social scale.
Frank Pierson was born in Chappaqua, New York in 1925, to successful writer and proto-feminist Louise Randall and Harold C. Pierson. Their relationship was the subject of the 1945 romantic comedy Roughly Speaking in which Rosalind Russell played the ahead-of-her-time Louise Randall, and Jack Carson essayed a fictionalised Harold C. Pierson. Frank Pierson served in the Army during WW2, and then graduated from Harvard University upon his return home. Following in his mother’s footsteps, Pierson aspired to be a writer, and eventually worked as a journalist at the esteemed Time and Life magazines, always with an eye to becoming involved in the film business.
The aspiring screenwriter made his first major inroad into Hollywood in 1958 when he was hired as a script editor for the Richard Boone-starring westerner Have Gun – Will Travel, which served as a launching pad for Pierson to move onto more significant TV writing work. Pierson went on to pen and direct episodes for popular series like Naked City, Route 66, Empire and Dr. Kildare, but really hit his straps when he was brought on to help nut out a feature film script called Cat Ballou, which had been doing the rounds of Hollywood for quite some time.
“Cat Ballou was one they were trying to write off, so I was assigned at television rates to do a final rewrite on it,” Pierson explained to Go Into The Story. “I was the 11th writer on that, 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, so he sketched it as a comedy. 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.”
The result was a raucous, highly original and wildly funny 1965 comedy western starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin, which was a box office smash and critical darling, and also saw Pierson nominated, along with Walter Newman, for a Best Screenplay Oscar. Pierson reunited with Cat Ballou director Elliot Silverstein for the 1967 Anthony Quinn-starring mob comedy The Happening, before scoring another Best Screenplay Oscar nomination, this time for his extraordinary work on Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 masterpiece Cool Hand Luke. Pierson is credited with penning the film’s famous line “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”, which remains one of the most oft-quoted in movie history.
With two Oscar nominations to his credit, Pierson forged forward and made his self-penned directorial debut in 1970 with a cogent, incisive adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel The Looking Glass War. Though now largely forgotten, this labyrinthine Cold War tale of a Polish defector ensnared by a British intelligence agency to procure information about missile sites in East Germany has much to recommend it. Firstly, it stars fleeting 1960s counterculture cult star Christopher Jones (who starred in the era-defining Three In The Attic and Wild In The Streets) and the great Anthony Hopkins, and secondly, it layers the classic espionage narrative with some very timely thematic detours.
The Looking Glass War is a curious and interesting film, but its relative failure saw Pierson return to television and feature screenwriting for several years. This move, however, saw Pierson achieve some of his greatest career success. He penned the adaptation of Lawrence Sanders’ novel for Sidney Lumet’s stylish 1971 thriller The Anderson Tapes, and then won an Oscar for his brilliant screenplay for Lumet’s 1975 classic Dog Day Afternoon, which was based on a magazine article and provided Al Pacino with one of his greatest roles. The huge success of the film saw Pierson’s cache increase markedly.
In 1976, Pierson co-wrote (with literary titans John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion) and directed the huge project that was A Star Is Born, a complete overhaul of the 1937 and 1954 films of the same name, and the biggest influence on Bradley Cooper’s eventual and highly successful 2018 take on the material. Starring Kris Kristofferson as a rock legend on the skids and Barbra Streisand as a rising star, the film is notorious for its on-set troubles, but stands as a big, almost crazily epic love story that could only have been made in the mid-1970s. Just who is truly responsible for the film, however, remains unclear.
“That was tough because I was blackmailed into hiring the director,” Barbra Streisand said in 2017. “I hired him to write and he said he wouldn’t do it unless he directed. I had final cut rights. I told him he could have all the credit, but that he had to allow my vision to be there. He would agree, but then I’d show up and the cameras would be in the wrong places.” We’re guessing that the truth, as it so often is, lies somewhere in the middle.
The true unheralded gem on Frank Pierson’s resume, however, is 1978’s largely forgotten but highly impressive King Of The Gypsies, which plays out like a florid, low-rent version of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather. Whereas that classic offered a studied and consistently compelling look inside the inner sanctum of an American mafia family, King Of The Gypsies paints a vivid picture of life amongst America’s nomadic gypsy communities from the fifties through to the late seventies.
Filled with fascinating details (the gypsies’ various cons – from labyrinthine jewellery robberies to cheap huckstering as fortune tellers – are depicted with sharp humour and rich sociological detail), strong performances (Eric Roberts is literally electrifying in the lead role, as is Susan Sarandon as his sexy mum, while Brooke Shields also appears as his little sister) and tense set pieces, King Of The Gypsies is a potent, little-known gem that cannily mixes ribald humour, strong drama and pulse-pounding excitement.
Disappointingly, the excellent King Of The Gypsies would remain Pierson’s final big screen outing for decades, with the director instead turning his eye to a collection of high quality television films and feature screenplays (1989’s In Country, 1990’s Presumed Innocent), as well as serving as a consulting producer on the popular series Mad Men and The Good Wife. Pierson delivered some of the best TV movies of the 1990s and 2000’s, including 1992 Citizen Cohn (featuring a towering performance from James Woods as notorious lawyer and political power broker Roy Cohn), 1995’s Truman (with Gary Sinise superb as the eponymous US President), 2000’s Dirty Pictures (about the controversy that swirled around an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s graphic photographs), 2001’s Conspiracy (a stunning work about the Nazis’ nuts-and-bolts implementation of The Final Solution starring Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci) and 2004’s Paradise (a satirical take on the world of televangelists).
Pierson’s final film was 2003’s powerful true life drama Soldier’s Girl, which starred Troy Garity (the son of actress Jane Fonda, who had starred in Pierson’s first major success with Cat Ballou) as Barry Winchell, a US infantryman who was killed by a fellow soldier over his relationship with transgender woman Calpernia Addams, played in the film by Lee Pace in his first major film role. A strong, deeply sensitive and beautifully performed take on profoundly sad and complicated subject matter, Soldier’s Girl disappointingly made little impact at cinemas, but stands as a fitting final work for Frank Pierson, whose Dog Day Afternoon was one of the first major Hollywood films to deal sensitively with trans people.
Though most famous for his seminal screenplays, the late Frank Pierson (he passed away in 2012 at the age of 87) was also a great servant to the American film industry, as well as a director with a knack for bold, strongly performed, slightly unusual subject matter, and for that, he should be duly and regularly celebrated.
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