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Frank Pierson Remembered

Thompson on Hollywood By Terry Curtis Fox | Thompson on Hollywood July 25, 2012 at 5:07PM

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.
SFIFF 54 Day Ten: Dog Day Afternoon, Cinema Komunisto, James Woods, Making Friends with Books

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.  

This article is related to: Stuck In Love, Television, TV

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.