One of Hollywood’s most distinguished and influential writers, Frank Pierson, died this week at age 87. He won an Oscar for “Dog Day Afternoon,” and was nominated for the comic western “Cat Ballou.” The American Film Institute included his line of dialogue as 11th on their all-time great list: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Pierson also served as the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and was a devoted mentor to aspiring screeenwriters.
The New York Times obituary has a telling story about his work on “Dog Day Afternoon” that sheds light on his exceptional insight and character:
Mr. Pierson said he struggled mightily with that script — and he later used his struggle as a teaching tool. He told students that he had been unable to capture the essence of the central character, the leader of an inept gang of bank robbers who winds up taking hostages.
He broke through after concluding that the thief, based on a real-life robber and played by Al Pacino, was a pleaser, someone trying in his flawed way to make others happy.
I spoke to Mamie Mitchell, who worked with Pierson, and told me of his graciousness, generosity, and class. She said,
I had the great good fortune to edit the book A Nation Lost And Found: 1936 America Remembered by Ordinary and Extraordinary People, for Frank Pierson and Stanley Sheinbaum, in 2000-2002. At our first lunch meeting to discuss the overview of the book, I took the opportunity to ask Frank who he thought were the best screenwriters in Hollywood. Mind you this was summer 2000. He said, “Aaron Sorkin, David Milch….there are many good screenwriters, the problem is that there are hardly any people left in Hollywood that can recognize good writing”.
Frank had great hope and passion for this book….unfortunately 9/11 coincided with the release of “A Nation Lost and Found” and it was glossed over. In this current time in the history of our country, it would be wise reading to reflect back on 1936 and the resilience, engagement, awareness and perseverance of the people at that time. The book holds up.
Pierson, who began his career as a journalist, had a reporter’s ability to observe and eye for detail. His films reflect a broad and compassionate humanity. May his memory be a blessing.