Frank Pierson: Writer and director who won an Oscar and two Emmys

His later career was notable for his work dealing with episodes in the history of America

Often adapting existing material, the writer and director Frank Pierson collected three Oscar nominations, with his script for Dog Day Afternoon delivering a statuette. He also collected two Emmys for directing. As well as films revolving around either crime or show-business he directed several studies of important moments in American history.

After war service Pierson studied cultural anthropology at Harvard and became a journalist for magazines including Time, Life and others. Meanwhile he wrote scripts on spec and in 1959 began a four-year association with the western television series Have Gun – Will Travel, graduating from story editor, through writer to director and producer.

Pierson's break into film came with the comedy-western Cat Ballou for which he and Walter Newman shared an Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination. Roy Chanslor's novel had defeated several writers until Newman had the idea of making it into a comedy but, bored, he created the outline structure and left Pierson to write it. In 1967 Pierson shared an Oscar nomination with novelist and former inmate Donn Pearce for the chain-gang drama Cool Hand Luke, capturing the character's self-destructive pride. The same year he scripted The Happening, a hipster drop-out comedy about a kidnapping that goes wrong.

Pierson moved into directing in 1969, overseeing his adaptation of John le Carré's The Looking Glass War. Among the many changes – some to try to appeal to a younger audience – one was forced, as Paramount owned the character rights to George Smiley. In 1971 Pierson created the TV series Nichols about a disillusioned soldier's return home to 1914 Arizona.

Pierson had greater success scripting Sidney Lumet's heist movie The Anderson Tapes, whose fascination with surveillance presaged several conspiracy thrillers. His Oscar came for Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975), which tapped into post-Vietnam anti-establishment feeling. It was based on a Life magazine article about a heist that the robber hoped would pay for his lover's sex-change operation but which degenerates into a siege, although the robbers develop a camaraderie with the bank staff and, for a while, have public sympathy. However, it inevitably ends badly. The story rights helped pay for the operation but the surviving robber wrote to the New York Times pointing out some of the factual errors.

The following year Pierson climbed back into the director's chair for a rock-remake of A Star Is Born. His article "My Battles with Barbra and Jon" described his struggle with the film's star, Barbra Streisand and the producer, her then boyfriend Jon Peters, as they constantly attempted to wrestle control from everyone. Still, Pierson didn't spare his own blushes and pays tribute where appropriate.

The last cinema film Pierson directed was King of the Gypsies (1978), a study of criminal and violent New York gypsies. But his screenwriting and TV directing careers continued as successfully as ever. His script for Haywire (1980) was based on the tragic life of the actress Margaret Sullavan, based on her daughter Brooke Hayward's memoir.

Back with crime, his adaptation of Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent (1990) was efficiently directed by Alan J Pakula and starred Harrison Ford as a DA implicated in the death of a colleague and former lover, and struggling to prove his innocence.

In the early 1990s Pierson directed several impressive TV movies on American history, garnering various awards and nominations. Citizen Cohn (1992), starring James Woods, is a biopic of Roy Cohn, the infamous red-scare lawyer and McCarthy's right-hand man. As he lies in hospital, dying of Aids, his hallucinations track his entire life.

Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee (1994), based on a Sioux woman's memoir, follows her struggle to learn about and publicise the 1890 massacre. Gary Sinise played the wartime President in Truman (1995), while 2000's Dirty Pictures, again starring Woods, recreated the storm that surrounded Robert Mapplethorpe's sadomasochistic photographs.

Moving outside America, Conspiracy (2001) recreated the Wannsee Conference that initiated the Nazis' policy of final solution, with Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich. Pierson ended his career back on serial TV, as consulting producer and occasional writer on the high-end dramas The Good Wife and Mad Men.

Pierson was recognised with numerous industry awards and served in various capacities at the Writers' Guild of America, the Sundance Institute and the American Film Institute. As a teacher he was keen to counter what he felt was the lack of ambition and falling quality of scripts and the decreasing cine-literacy of writers, who had no grasp of the full range of film history. In 2001 he began a four-year term as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Frank Romer Pierson, screenwriter, director and producer: born Chappaqua, New York 12 May 1925; married 1948 Polly Stokes (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter), 1978 Dori Derfner (marriage dissolved), 1990 Helene; died Los Angeles 22 July 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe