Meeting Frank Pierson was intimidating, to put it mildly.
I was sitting outside the old WGAw boardroom, waiting to find out whether I, as a runner-up, would be filling a seat. I don’t remember who ushered me inside, but I sure remember Frank.
As President, he politely and courteously informed me that the Board had voted to have me fill the vacancy, then nodded his head at the one remaining seat, directly across from him.
Frank had a regal bearing – my fellow screenwriter David Freeman called him “God’s idea of a writer.” The old boardroom had pictures of past presidents sitting behind the current one – among them, a photo of a younger Frank, from when he had first served in the position about a decade before (the only writer ever to have served non-consecutive terms). As if this were not enough to cow someone making their first appearance, there were also Frank’s credits.
But what really got me was the piercing look Frank gave me as I sat down. The consummate dramatic writer, Frank always knew when a look was worth more than words. And this look was crystalline – “Don’t fuck up; this is serious business affecting writer’s lives.”
I got it. So did everyone in the room. Just as audiences would “get” the looks that came from the characters Frank created.
Frank could as easily have been elected the President of the DGA as the WGA (as he was later to be the President of the Academy). He chose to identify as a writer rather than take the mantle of the more glamorous profession. He believed in the primacy of the script, but it was more than that. For Frank, writing was not a vocation; it was his essence.
The results were among the best scripts written by anyone, ever. “Dog Day Afternoon” is the one seventies screenplay that truly ranks with “Chinatown.” Its structure is astonishingly complex: devoid of transitions, perfect in its varying tones, and stunning in its late introduction of character.
Yes, Frank wrote great dialogue, but this was a by-product of what he really did best: he wrote great roles for stars. It’s not an accident that Lee Marvin became a leading man in “Cat Ballou,” any more than it was an accident that Paul Newman and Al Pacino gave some of their greatest performances in “Cool Hand Luke” and “Dog Day,” respectively. Frank understood how to write for that weird creature, the movie star, without ever sacrificing character. Only Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder have done it as well.
He was a fearless judge of screenplays, even his own. Once, when I told him how much I admired “The Looking-Glass War,” a film he both wrote and directed, he growled, “You and Quentin. I don’t understand it.” (I still think he was wrong.) He became one of the earliest mentors of the Sundance Lab, where he awed his colleagues.
He was a prime example of a truly engaged writer – if you wanted to know what was right about “Hollywood liberals,” all you had to do was look at Frank. He fought for writers, fought for film, fought for his students and for a better country not because he had to, but because it was the right thing to do. The more I came to know him, the more I realized that the silent admonition he gave to me was one he gave to himself over and over again.
Frank began his career in television. At a time when he had all the money he needed, he chose to return to TV, despite the fact that no other A-list screenwriter of his generation had done so. Neither Matthew Weiner nor Robert and Michelle King made a better decision than asking Frank to consult on their series. His “Mad Men’ and “Good Wife” scripts are as good (if not better) than any episodes either show has produced.
I’ve known great writers who were miserable human beings and miserable writers who were great people. Frank had his demons – I doubt you can be a great writer without them – but he never allowed them to overwhelm him. He was what every writer I know aspires to be (or, at least, should aspire to).
As writers, as filmmakers, as audience, we are all going to miss him. The one comfort is that we will always have his work.