Frank Pierson, Former Movie Academy President, Writer and Director, Dies at 87

Frank Pierson Headshot - P 2012
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Frank Pierson Headshot - P 2012

UPDATED: The Oscar winner for "Dog Day Afternoon" served as head of AMPAS from 2001-05.

Frank Pierson, who won an Academy Award for best original screenplay for Dog Day Afternoon and was nominated for two Academy Awards for adapted screenplay for Cat Ballou and Cool Hand Luke, died Monday in Los Angeles of natural causes following a short illness. More recently, Pierson served as president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science from 2001-05. He was 87.

Pierson was currently working as writer and consulting producer on Mad Men and had served the same duties on several episodes of The Good Wife.

"Young rock 'n' rollers always look to the old bluesmen as models of how to keep their art strong and rebellious into older years. For screenwriters, Frank has been our old blues master for a long time. From great, great movies like Cat Ballou, Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon, to his joining the writing staffs of The Good Wife and Mad Men well past his 80th birthday, he's always shown us -- better than anyone else -- how to do it with class, grace, humor, strength, brilliance, generosity and a joyful tenacity," said Academy governor of the writers branch Phil Robinson in a statement.

"He was both a great and a good man, I miss him already and feel very, very lucky to have known him," he said.

Pierson won Emmy awards for TV directing: Truman (1995) and Conspiracy (2001). He also garnered a CableACE award for Citizen Cohen (1992), a biopic on the notorious Red baiter Roy Cohn.

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A man of long-term service to the industry, Pierson received the Writers Guild of America’s top three honors – Laurel Award for Lifetime Achievement, Valentine Davies Award and Edmund H. North Award. He served as president of the WGA from 1981-83 and 1993-95. Pierson also taught at the Sundance Institute for the summer labs, as well as served as the artistic director of the American Film Institute.

Pierson himself had a pedigreed and broad cultural background. He was born May 12, 1925 in Chappaqua, New York, and was educated at Harvard University. He subsequently served as a correspondent for Time magazine. Following that journalistic stint, he became a story editor for various TV shows. Following a robust TV writing career, he launched into directing. While continuing to write, he made his film directing debut with The Looking Glass War in 1969. He also directed the 1976 version of A Star Is Born, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson and directed King of the Gypsies in 1978.

His additional screenwriting credits, include a wide range of movies, including: The Anderson Tapes, Presumed Innocent, In Country, The Looking Glass War, The Happening and King of the Gypsies.

In more recent years, Pierson focused his energies on TV, distinguishing himself with such projects as Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee (1994). His TV career began during the halcyon days of the ‘50s. He had written for TV for more than 40 years, beginning in the ‘50s with such renown series as Have Gun Will Travel, Route 66 and Naked City.

In addition, he has served the WGA in a number of capacities, either chairing or serving as a member of more than 25 WGA committees, including: Negotiating, Professional Status of Writers, Screen Credits, Laurel Award and Awards Show, among others.

Pierson is a past member of the board of the Los Angeles Theater Center, as well as a lecturer at the USC School of Cinema and Television. More recently, he served on the boards of a variety of organizations, including: Artists Rights Foundation and Humanitas Foundation.

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In an interview for the WGA conducted by Alan Waldman in 2003, Pierson lamented the downslide in script quality: “I’m really disturbed about two things today. 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 other thing, which I see with the people that I am teaching, is a matching impoverishment of the language of films …. For most of my students now, film history began with Steven Spielberg. Ironically, Steven himself was brought up studying the film of people who had a very board literary and liberal arts background.”

For his adaptation of Cat Ballou, Pierson was also honored by the Berlin International Film Festival with an honorable mention notice. In 1987, he was tributed by the Virginia Film Festival with a special screening of Cool Hand Luke.

Pierson is survived by his wife Helene, his children, Michael and Eve, and five grandchildren.

A private funeral for the family will be held this week. A public memorial will be planned in the near future. The family requests that contributions be made to Stand Up 2 Cancer.