Award-winning writer-director and former Writers Guild of America, West President Frank Pierson, who received both an Academy Award and Writers Guild Award for his Dog Day Afternoon screenplay, died on Sunday, July 22, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of natural causes. He was 87.
“Frank Pierson was, without qualification, one of the great writers of our era. His themes were honor, love, and betrayal; his medium was television and film. His was a career that spanned from Have Gun Will Travel to Mad Men, stopping off at Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon and so many memorable others. His characters – saints and sinners alike – were stunningly specific, always surprising, and never failed to earn our understanding,” said WGAW Vice President Howard A. Rodman. “He was a fine director and an exemplary leader (Frank was president of our Guild and of the Motion Picture Academy). He was a friend to my father and a friend to me. I'll miss his presence, kind and fierce. His writing stays with us and is a model for what, with hard work and generosity of spirit, we might achieve.”
“I feel very lucky, as do all the writers at Mad Men, to have collaborated with and enjoyed the amazing presence that was Frank Pierson. He was a writer's writer: sharp and funny and clever and, most importantly, honest about the details that make one human. He was a great artist and made everyone around him better. I can't believe I knew him,” said Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner on Pierson, who served as Consulting Producer on the acclaimed AMC series for several seasons up until this year. In 2010, Pierson shared a Writers Guild Award for Drama Series with his fellow Mad Men writers. Weiner added, “If you asked Frank what he was most proud of, he’d tell you, ‘Being a writer.’”
“Few things carry more pain, disturb more, than hearing that a great talent’s gone. Frank was one. He could bring life to life with remarkable honesty. No using his shoe tip to test for landmines, he once told a Humanitas luncheon, ‘The writer who takes the chance to dig into his own soul is tackling stuff that is hard, not just because he is vulnerable, but because we tend to defend these areas ourselves as private and secret.’ He was among the best because he gave of himself,” said former WGAW President Christopher Knopf.
Pierson served as WGAW president for two separate terms (1981–1983, 1993–1995). In addition, he also served as president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) from 2001 to 2005.
Pierson was one of the only Writers Guild members to receive virtually every WGAW honorary service award over the course of his career, demonstrating his many years of dedicated service to the Guild to inspire and empower his fellow writers. In 2006, Pierson received the WGAW’s Morgan Cox Award, given to those Guild members whose “vital ideas, continuing efforts, and personal sacrifice best exemplify the idea of service to the Guild.” In 1999, Pierson received the Guild’s Edmund J. North Award, presented to Guild members “whose courageous leadership, strength of purpose and continuing selfless activity on behalf of the Guild through the years, as well as professional achievement of the highest order.” In 1992, he received the WGAW’s Laurel Award for Screen, a lifetime achievement honor in recognition for his body of work and to that Guild member who has “advanced the literature of motion pictures through the years… and made outstanding contributions to the profession of the screenwriter.” In 1991, Pierson received the Guild’s Valentine Davies Award for industry and community service, “whose contributions to the entertainment industry and the community at large have brought dignity and honors to writers everywhere.”
Pierson also served on AMPAS’ Board of Governors (Writers Branch), as well as on boards for the Los Angeles Theater Center, Artists Rights Foundation, and Humanitas. In addition, he sat on the Board of Governors at the American Film Institute, serving as AFI’s co-artistic director and conducting the school’s Narrative Workshop first-year core curriculum. He was also a faculty member of the Sundance Institute, as well as a lecturer at USC. In 2005, Pierson was the recipient of the Humanitas Prize’s Kieser Award.
Pierson’s active involvement in the Writers Guild spanned several decades, having served on a wide variety of WGAw committees over the years, including the Guild’s Negotiating Committee (1985–86), Screen Credits, Contract Adjustment, CAC Steering, Copyright National Committee West, Screen Laurel and Valentine Davies awards selection, East-West Study, Membership Structure, President’s Committee on Professional Status of Writers, Screen Authors Agreement, Screenwriters Council, Unit System, and the Guild’s Writers Image Campaign (WICC). In addition, Pierson served as a Pension and Health trustee (1981–82).
Born on May 12, 1925 in Chappaqua, New York, Pierson served in the Pacific during World War II, subsequently earning a degree with honors in cultural anthropology from Harvard University. As a field correspondent for Time and Life magazines, a young Pierson covered movies and military affairs. In 1958, he left journalism, sold his first script to the half-hour anthology Alcoa Goodyear Theater, and worked as script editor for Have Gun Will Travel.
Writer-director Pierson has carved out a prolific career that transcended small and silver screens, garnering a slew of industry awards along the way. As a screenwriter, his Oscar-nominated credits include Cat Ballou (1965, Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium, shared with Walter Newman, which also earned the pair a WGA nod for Best Written American Comedy that year) and Cool Hand Luke (1967, Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium), as well his Oscar-winning original screenplay for Dog Day Afternoon (1975), which also earned Pierson a Writers Guild Award for Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen. Pierson’s other notable writing credits include Presumed Innocent (1990), In Country (1989), and A Star Is Born (1976). Earlier on, three-time WGA nominee Pierson penned episodes for classic TV series such as Route 66 and Naked City. Aside from his multi-season stint as Consulting Producer on Mad Men, during which he co-wrote the 2011 episode “Signal 30” with Matt Weiner, Pierson’s other recent TV writing credits included The Good Wife.
As an acclaimed director, Pierson had credits that ranged from film features such as The Looking Glass War (1969), A Star Is Born (1976), and King of the Gypsies (1978) to more recent cable fare, including DGA-nominated telefilms Citizen Cohn (1992) and Truman (1995), as well as Conspiracy (2001, for which he won a 2002 DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television), Soldier’s Girl (2003), and Paradise (2004). A three-time Emmy nominee, Pierson received directing nods for Citizen Cohn, Conspiracy, and Soldier’s Girl.
In the November 2003 issue of the WGAW’s Written By magazine, Pierson wrote in his “Master Class” piece: “It is a moral responsibility that arises from the role of movies in society. Movies are more than a commodity. Movies are to our civilization what dreams and ideals are to individual lives. They express the mystery and help define the nature of who we are and what we are becoming.”
Pierson is survived by his wife, Helene, and his children, Michael and Eve, and five grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Stand Up to Cancer organization: http://standup2cancer.org/