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Obit: Screenwriter Frank Pierson Fought Against the Impoverishment of Film Language

Obit: Screenwriter Frank Pierson Fought Against the Impoverishment of Film Language

Frank Pierson, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay of “Dog Day Afternoon” in 1975, was nominated for two other Oscars, and then turned himself into an Emmy-winning director, died Monday in Los Angeles at the age of 87 after a short illness.

More than just a screenwriter and director, Pierson was also a creative force behind the scenes in the movie industry.  He served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 2001 to 2005, was on the Academy’s Board for 17 years, and served on more than 25 Writers Guild of America committees, in addition to twice being the WGA’s president.  The guild honored him with its Laurel Award for lifetime achievement.

Nominated for Oscars for “Cat Ballou” (1965) and “Cool Hand Luke (1967), he was on the writing staff of “Mad Men” and “The Good Wife” when he was over 80 years old. As a director, he helmed the 1976 version of “A Star Is Born,” starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.  He was nominated for an Emmy and won the Directors Guild of America award as a director for the television movie “Conspiracy,” (2001) about the infamous meeting held by the Nazis to decide the fate of Europe’s Jews.    

In 2003, in an interview for the Writers Guild, Pierson worried about the quality of screenwriting.  “I’m really disturbed about two things,” he said. “One is that among the big audience pictures, which are being financed by the major studios, the range of subject matter is so narrow and is aimed at a particularly small and not especially demanding audience.”  The second, he said, was the “impoverishment” of film language.

For decades, as leader of the American Film Institute Conservatory Narrative Workshop, Pierson moderated sessions where teams of filmmakers presented their work to other AFI Fellows. His only rule: the filmmakers could not speak. "They were there to listen and learn," writes AFI chief Bob Gazzale in an email. "Frank led these gatherings with an iron fist and an open heart – challenging and inspiring a new generation to make movies – and always, to reach for more."

Born on May 12, 1925 in Chappaqua, New York and a graduate of Harvard University, Pierson got his first Hollywood break as script editor on the TV series, “Have Gun Will Travel.”  His movie credits as a writer include “Presumed Innocent” and “King of the Gypsies,” which he also directed.

He is survived by his wife, Helene, two children – Michael and Eve – and five grandchildren.

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