Frank Pierson’s capacity for plumbing the emotional and motivational depths of society’s outsiders seems boundless. In his early days as a writer, he gave voice to Paladin, the iconoclastic gentleman gunfighter of HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL. Later, he made a name for himself with COOL HAND LUKE, featuring Paul Newman as an outsider among outsiders. As his career progressed, he tackled that same isolation in many incarnations, from Bruce Willis’s Vietnam vet (IN COUNTRY) to Harrison Ford’s wrongfully accused officer of the court (PRESUMED INNOCENT) to Barbara Streisand’s feminist trailblazer (A STAR IS BORN), and, perhaps most famously, Al Pacino’s uniquely motivated bank robber in DOG DAY AFTERNOON.
(Of Pacino’s character – and really, could a movie like that ever get made today? – Pierson notes that, basically, “this was a guy who was always trying to do good things for people.”)
His ability to appreciate and express such remarkable characters may come from his family life. In our exclusive interview with Pierson, he describes an odd process his mother – herself a professional writer – employed to invoke her own muse: She’d remove all her clothing, go into an empty room, shut the door and turn off all the lights, and wait until her hand began to write. Watch the video, and note how he describes the process. He clearly recognizes its oddity, but at the same time it was a completely normal aspect of his upbringing. Plus, hey, it’s his mom.
He describes his whole life as a writer, including his battle with dyslexia (before it was recognized as a learning disability), his time as a TIME and LIFE writer (during which time he witnessed an atom bomb test in the Nevada desert), his beginnings on HAVE GUN, and his experiences as a writer operating in the late days of the Hollywood Blacklist (which he would research further when he directed TRUMAN in 1995).
Most recently, in the years before his death in 2012, Pierson worked on two critically-acclaimed TV shows: MAD MEN and THE GOOD WIFE.
The interview has a lot of wonderful moments, but my favorite was Pierson’s description of the fascination he feels working on a movie set:
“It’s pretend reality, but it also has the seed of truth, and there’s a little magic in it. And it’s something that we make up, Something we create ourselves. And it was absolutely so mesmerizing and fascinating.”
Check out the video – posted in two parts – below.