(July 26, 2012)
“What we got here is failure to communicate”
- Cool Hand Luke, 1967
It is one of the most memorable, if not iconic, lines in film history, written by Academy Award-winning screen and television writer and longtime Guild member Frank Pierson. When Pierson died this week at 87, he left behind a stunning legacy of work. The list of his professional accolades is long and extraordinary.
But the impact Pierson had as a teacher, colleague, mentor and friend was every bit as profound as it was on the world of film. Below Writers Guild members share their remembrances:
Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Paper Moon)
We were very open to one another with our personal thoughts and ideas, which we shared at lunch once a month. There was a great feeling of strength that came with the friendship, that we each felt. We always embraced in the parking lot (after lunch) and he was tall so that I just kissed his neck. We sat (at Il Fornaio across the street from the Santa Monica pier) in the same booth. We sat the same way. We ordered the same food, the same pasta dish, but he ordered a drink and I ordered water. That was the ritual.
What made the friendship, as any good relationship, is there were no expectations. It’s just being oneself and respecting the other person. In our case when we met there was no requirement, not even to begin talking. Sometimes we would sit quietly for a long time. I think of it as two psychoanalysts who meet for lunch and neither wants to start the conversation... The point was to meet, but it was not a meeting. It was a collision of love.
If you told Frank a story that maybe you were thinking about, or even had a problem with, he would say, “Well wait a minute here’s how you should end it.” And then he would go off on some unbelievable, crazy idea that had nothing to do with what I wanted to do. It was always kind of dangerous to assume you would get a straight answer from him about how you could solve a problem because he solved it with his own strong and unusual ideas. It wasn’t a game. We had good, long sessions, sometimes very personal, got into stuff that was very deep and with great feeling.
He was a remarkable man in so many ways I wasn’t. He was a great leader... and had strong ideas and was very courageous. He had a pretty good temper. If he saw something that really bothered him he would stand up strong for his own beliefs and ideas and points of view. He listened, he wasn’t without compassion and paying attention to information coming his way, but knew how to process and use it.
He would get into his sports car at the end of lunch. He couldn’t get in it with the top up. He was very tall, and the top always had to be down. He put on a sun hat. He loved his car. He was a proud man, proud of himself and the things he believed in. But he was also proud of the people he believed in.
Nick Kazan (At Close Range, Reversal of Fortune)
Frank was extremely cranky in a very charming way. We were at a meeting of the Writers Branch of the Academy discussing who to admit for membership. We came to a writer, who, the previous year had won an Oscar. Usually – not always – a writer who has been nominated is invited in. But if you’ve won, and it’s a sole credit, it’s automatic. Or always has been. Frank argued that this screenplay was awful though the writer won, and we shouldn’t let the son-of-a-bitch in because it was mediocre and if other people were stupid enough to give it the award, that was their problem, not his. Precedent didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was his standards.
What I liked best is that Frank went all in. The metaphor is from poker. He put all his chips in the pot. He didn’t save anything. He didn’t play it safe. He didn’t spare himself, but lived with such joy and tenacity that everything he did fed him rather than drained him.
Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids)
We used to tease him when we were all on the Professional Status of Writers Committee. We met with executives of the studios to talk about writers’ workplace issues, how writers were treated, why they were not invited onto sets... The presumption of companies was that writers and directors don’t get along because writers are difficult. We kept trying to find out from the companies “who are these difficult writers?” As it turned out, there was only one. All the difficult writers were Frank. In the ‘60s he had gotten into some shouting match with a director (over Cat Ballou). Frank was throwing things in the director’s office. Word got out, and from that point on all writers were considered difficult. Whenever Frank would talk to executives about writers not being difficult, everyone would say, “Frank, there’s one difficult writer in the room, and he’s the one speaking.” And Frank would laugh his big hearty laugh.
What made him a great screenwriter is that he was incredibly smart and amazing at understanding the simple essence of what he was writing about. He would work until he found a throughline, a simple direct resonant throughline, in all his work. Because he was so principled he stuck to it. It was either part of the essence of the character or the story or not in the movie. That, combined with his great imagination, made for great stuff.
Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie)
I was standing outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion having just accepted the Academy Award for The Usual Suspects. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty cocky. I was in a long line of people waiting for their cars when, from out of the crowd, a hand gripped the Oscar and pulled it from mine. There was Frank Pierson, hefting the statue in one hand. "Yeah," he said. "They still weigh about the same."
Thank you, Frank, for always putting things in perspective.
Robin Swicord (Little Women, Memoirs of a Geisha)
He was physically so striking, with his lanky frame – you imagined that he had been the same size since he was 18. He had the white hair and sometimes a white beard, and those piercing eyes – beautiful light blue eyes. And his face would have a look, a little mischievous; a sparkle there, like something was crossing his mind. That was his face in repose. He never apologized or accommodated or tried to make himself liked, but he was just adored by everyone. In some sense he never gave a shit what you thought of him. At the same time he was highly attuned to other people’s emotions. It was not that he was oblivious. He knew exactly what you thought, but it didn’t bother him in the slightest.
He had a way of looking at people who were talented – a passionate contagious excitement when work was good and he met someone talented... He was never threatened and competitive. He had such a generosity about other people, which was somehow related to the flip side of “I don’t care what you think of me.” He had enormous confidence, so someone else’s talent didn’t make him feel insecure.
David Milch (Deadwood, Hill Street Blues)
We met where we tended to spend most of our time together, which was in the dining room of the Farm, where both of us had our offices. He was a grand gentleman and an enormously gifted writer. He carried himself with such grace and dignity and kindness towards those who were just starting out on a path that he had walked.
His ear was terrific. He had a marvelous eye, and he was a student of human nature. He did not suffer foolishness in any of its many varieties. If you took him as seriously as you ought to have, he was a very imposing guy. He loved his work, and I think it’s what carried him up to the last.
We used to enjoy walking together. Frank rarely let an opportunity pass for a remark on anyone walking in the opposite direction.
Howard A. Rodman (Savage Grace, August)
Frank's screenplays were impeccably crafted. But the craft was never at the expense of wild, uncontainable character. His people were, moment-to-moment, surprising; but their actions, in retrospect, seemed inevitable. This is harder to do than it seems and Frank was a master at it.
Frank himself could have stepped out of a Pierson screenplay. (Have you seen many other 87-year-olds tear out of the parking lot of Musso in a top-down Tesla?) He did not suffer fools gladly and had little patience for bad, or even adequate, work. He was not shy about letting you know. But when he smiled, or uttered a grunt of approval, you were on top of the world.
He wasn't elected president of the WGAW, or of AMPAS, because he was slick, or politic, or ingratiating. (At awards ceremonies, he'd look like Paul Bunyan in a tux.) But there was never a room I saw him in – at the Guild, at the Academy, at Sundance, at Musso – where he didn't command immediate and thorough respect. It was his bearing. But more: it was the knowledge that he'd done a lifetime of honest work, and wasn't done yet.
I always knew Frank was not young, but it never crossed my mind, not even vaguely, that he might someday die. He was a force of nature as well as an icon of the cinema. It's hard to imagine him gone: his death is a shock as well as a surprise.
Acclaimed Screenwriter-Director and Past WGAW President Frank Pierson Dies at 87
Frank Pierson on the origin of his most famous line and why his scripts never “fail to communicate.”