The Pre-History of Frank R. Pierson
August 2, 2012
Let us begin with the inevitable New York Times correction, since the “paper of record” rarely manages to get the early television facts right in its obituaries. I hate to pick on the Times, since it followed up its coverage of the gifted screenwriter-director Frank Pierson’s unexpected death last week with a nice round-up of tributes from his colleagues. But William Yardley’s original obit refers to Have Gun – Will Travel as a “1962 television series,” a date that is incorrect in any sense: the classic western debuted in 1957, and Pierson worked on it from 1959 through early 1962, departing late in its fifth season. (The Times’s error has been predictably amplified elsewhere, as in this piece which claims that Pierson entered television in 1962, as Have Gun’s “story editor” – perhaps an accurate description, but never his actual title.)
We’ll come back to Have Gun, but first let’s examine another tidbit from the Times obit, which claims that Pierson (at the time, and already in his mid-thirties, a reporter for Time and Life magazines; here’s a sample, from 1953) sold his first teleplay to the Alcoa Theater/Goodyear Playhouse in 1958. That’s probably accurate, although the finished episode – a Pierson credit you won’t find anywhere on the interwebs, until now – did not air until November 23, 1959. “Point of Impact,” starring Peter Lawford and concerning an Air Force plane crash that kills American civilians, and judged as “labored” by Daily Variety, had over the course of a year passed through the hands of two other writers, Martin M. Goldsmith and Richard DeRoy, leaving Pierson with only a story credit. (The episode was directed by Arthur Hiller, who like Pierson would one day serve as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.) By the time the Alcoa aired, Pierson was on staff at Have Gun and his first effort for that series, a rewrite of “Shot by Request,” had slid onto the air on October 10, beating out the Alcoa as his official television debut by six weeks.
Alcoa/Goodyear is an important show, perhaps the only filmed, Los Angeles-based anthology that came close to emulating its gritty, live-telecast New York counterparts. It remains unheralded, probably because it’s so hard to see: I have an incomplete set, telecast decades ago on A&E and butchered to about 21 minutes per. Pierson’s episode is one of the few that’s missing, so I cannot assess its quality. From 1958 until 1960, Alcoa/Goodyear was executive produced by William Sackheim, an important shepherd of new talent who gathered an impressive roster of young writers (Stirling Silliphant, Howard Rodman, Adrian Spies, Leonard Freeman) and directors (Robert Ellis Miller, Walter Grauman, Elliot Silverstein). Many of those names would crisscross with Pierson’s again during his early television years.
Have Gun – Will Travel was one of the first television shows to be wholly hijacked by its star. It was already an offbeat western, its hero a black-clad dandy as well as a scary tough-guy, and Boone, beneath his rugged looks, aspired to serious art. He ran an acting workshop on the side and cast most of his protégés in the show. Have Gun’s success lent Boone the clout to influence its story material in directions that a network would usually not approve, toward comedy and bitter existentialism and allegory. Pierson, hired as an associate, found himself elevated to the producer’s chair within a few months when the show’s creator, Sam Rolfe, ended his tenure on Have Gun in a fistfight with Boone. Boone and Pierson were a good match, at least at first; Boone liked to encourage new talent, and Pierson shared his literary pretensions.
“I was reading a lot of French philosophers at the time and heavy into French cinema as well,” Pierson said in Martin Grams, Jr. and Les Rayburn’s The Have Gun – Will Travel Companion. “I felt there was a sardonic attitude that I tended to bring to the show . . . We were always trying to do new things [and] the danger was that the audience who was tuning in every night was expecting to have a Have Gun – Will Travel experience. The danger was we were taking them outside that experience.” Pierson cultivated his own set of young writers (including Jack Curtis, Robert E. Thompson, and Rodman, who would cross paths with Pierson a number of times, falling out with him bitterly over a rewrite of the telefilm The Neon Ceiling). He also penned some good episodes himself, including “The Campaign of Billy Banjo” (which brought politics to the Old West) and “Out at the Old Ballpark” (which brought, yes, baseball to the Old West).
Eventually the egos clashed – what Boone and his producer had there, you might say, was a failure to communicate – and Pierson exited Have Gun amicably, moving over to Screen Gems to produce an unusual show for the man who discovered him, Bill Sackheim. Empire was a modern western, an Edna Ferber-esque family melodrama and a proto-Dallas, shot in vivid color and on location in Santa Fe. Pierson and his associate producer, Anthony Wilson (another Alcoa veteran), alternated episodes with the team of Hal Hudson (late of Zane Grey Theater) and Andy White (soon to produce The Loner for Rod Serling). Empire had the ingredients of a meaty, meaningful epic, but the network botched it, eliminating the female characters (played by Anne Seymour and Terry Moore) and adding two-fisted ranchhand Charles Bronson to vie for screen time with the original leads, Richard Egan and Ryan O’Neal.
Still, Pierson did some of his best early work on Empire, becoming a triple-threat (producer, writer, director) for the first time on “The Four Thumbs Story,” an elegy for a Native American war veteran (Ray Danton) whose propensity for violence makes him unfit for human companionship. The forward-looking episode, an adaptation of a chapter from William Eastlake’s Go in Beauty (Sydney Pollack, who worked for Pierson on Have Gun, would turn an Eastlake novel into Castle Keep), anticipates the interest Hollywood would take in Native American affairs a half-decade later, and in particular Abraham Polonsky’s comeback film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.
Empire – still undervalued, and like Alcoa/Goodyear a casualty of anemic distribution, last glimpsed on the Family Channel almost thirty years ago – morphed into a shortened form, retitled Redigo, and died after half a season, evidently without Pierson’s involvement. Pierson then aligned with Naked City and Route 66, writing two scripts for the former (“The S.S. American Dream” was nominated for a WGA Award) and one for the latter. A generational saga, not altogether coherent (especially the ending) and wildly miscast (Pat Hingle and William Shatner as father-and-son Maine lobstermen, named Thayer and Menemsha!), “Build Your Houses With Their Backs to the Sea” begins with the line: “If it’s not too late, Papa, I want to apologize for my behavior during childhood, adolescence, and early manhood.” Watching it today, one can only marvel that something so opaque could find its way onto network television.
Alvin Sargent, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Julia and Ordinary People, also worked on Empire, Route 66, and Naked City during this time. Sargent told me yesterday that
we both worked for Billy Sackheim and Bert Leonard and we both admired and enjoyed them. I was only beginning a career and had the good fortune to have an agent who got me jobs with these shows. These men were my teachers, taking time to work with me in a way that felt as if I was in the hands and hearts of people who believed I could always make a script better. Small offices, small meetings. The scripts written fast, and quickly on a screen. A writer could see their work a number of times a year. I could learn from that. I could make an adjustment in my mind about dialogue and behavior that could be written better. Something of a screen test for a writer.
Frank Pierson’s screen test didn’t last long. In 1965 he rewrote the parody western Cat Ballou, which won Lee Marvin an Academy Award, and moved on to a series of important features, including Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon (for which Pierson won his own Oscar). Pierson also directed three films – The Looking Glass War, A Star Is Born, and King of the Gypsies – all of which are confident, complex, and underrated.
In between, he continued to dabble in television, notably creating and producing Nichols, the James Garner flop that retains a bit of a cult following. Although this, too, was a comic western, it was less an extension of Cat Ballou (or Maverick) than an attempt to bring the much darker, bolder genre revisionism of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or even The Wild Bunch to television. Like The Wild Bunch, Pierson’s brilliant, devilishly funny pilot was set at the very end of the West, where the reluctant lawman (Garner, of course) rides a motorcycle and flirts with a local girl (Margot Kidder) who appears very, very stoned, and everyone seems quite dangerously confused and surly about the rapid social and technological changes surrounding them. Unfortunately – and just as Pierson’s erstwhile friend Howard Rodman would do a few years later in his melancholy deconstruction of the private eye genre, Harry O – Pierson wrote in such a distinctive voice that nobody else could emulate it, and Nichols devolved into an uneasy and somewhat cartoonish updating of Garner’s old schtick from Maverick.
As many of his obituarists have noted, Pierson outwitted a relentlessly ageist industry and remained productive right up to the end, directing some terrific made-for-television movies (especially 2001’s Conspiracy) and recently spending two years on the staff of Mad Men, with a season of The Good Wife in between. The danger with Mad Men, of course, is that Pierson might have been installed as a gray-bearded eminence, an oracle whom the youngsters could ask “what was it really like back then”; but Matthew Weiner seems to have genuinely valued him as a peer and “Signal 30,” the episode that Pierson co-wrote this year, was seen as perhaps the season’s high point. I wonder whether anyone has noticed that the accomplishment of writing episodic television over a fifty-year span – and not just any episodic television, but some of the most acclaimed dramatic series of 1962 and of 2012 – is likely a unique and unrepeatable record.