by Brian Helgeland
Frank Pierson has died and the film and television world justly mourns his passing. Frank’s first writing credit, as far as I can tell, was an episode of Have Gun Will Travel in 1959. His last credit was a 2012 episode of the series Mad Men. That’s a 53 year career to save you the math. Are you kidding me? Six decades? If longevity is one measure of a writer’s life – and believe me it is – then Frank could rest his laurels right there. Of course, the quality and integrity of his work stands the test of time as well. Add to that a history of service and giving back, particularly to the Writer’s Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science, and you have a career unrivaled from where I sit. And, oh yeah, he wrote COOL HAND LUKE and DOG DAY AFTERNOON.
I first met Frank in London in January 1996. I was there to direct an episode of Tales From The Crypt that I had written. I had never been to London before, so already it was the culmination of a longtime dream, never mind that I was directing the for first time. I had a weekend off during prep and I visited Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus. For years I had been futilely searching for a copy of the COOL HAND LUKE soundtrack (Lalo Schifrin – now there’s a movie man). Low and behold, there it was! I found it on a German label in the import soundtrack bin. This was the Holy Grail to me. I didn’t know if it even existed, but for years I couldn’t leave any record shop without checking to see if they had it.
I was staying at the Athenaeum Hotel across from Green Park and it was with a spring in my step that I headed back that way, bound for my room where a CD player awaited. At the front desk I stopped to change some dollars for pounds. It was there facing away from the lobby that I heard Americans speaking. Or an American would be more like it. A man was explaining a trip to Kenya he had just returned from. Waiting for my dough, I turned to clock him.
Frank Pierson. There he was. Pontificating. A group of four or five gathered around him. I recognized him at once. He was a hero of mine and I was compelled to do something I have never done before or since. I stepped over to introduce myself. I stopped a respectable distance away and waited for him to finish, to take notice of me and see what I wanted. But he didn’t. He kept talking and talking. At a certain point even those listening to him started to get embarrassed for me. It was obvious Frank was carefully avoiding me, making a point of not noticing me. I felt like an intruder because that is what I was. All the same though, give me a break.
Finally, I shuffled back a foot or two and started away. At that moment, he turned toward me and said, “Yes? What do you want?” Completely at a loss, I mumbled something about me being a screenwriter and him being Frank Pierson. He was fully aware of who he was and he then quite sarcastically said, “Let me guess: you became a writer because of me.” Intruder or not, now I was pissed. I wanted to slink away, but I managed to mumble that, while he was not the oak tree my acorn had fallen from, I did very much admire COOL HAND LUKE. To this I got, “Oh, COOL HAND LUKE, good for you. Is there anything else?” In fairness he was tired, jet-lagged and cranky. In fact, the Frank Pierson I knew was not an easy man and that is eternally to his credit.
But at that moment Kismet came full circle. Yahtzee descended. Call it what you will, but I presented him with Lalo Schifrin’s soundtrack, music his words had in no small part inspired. I handed it over, gave it to him. He had never seen a copy of it himself, though unlike me he hadn’t searched the world for one either. There was a processing silence, followed by the magic words, “Meet me at the bar at five o’clock.”
I drank with Frank that night for several hours during which he raconteured his way through the 1960s and 70s. He asked me about my young career and offered a helpful observation or two. It was a fantastic day and night and I got much more than the handshake I was hoping for. I met Frank several times after that. Almost always unplanned and strangely, for better or worse, almost always at some odd moment when I kind of needed to see him. He took me down a peg more than once and at other times lifted me up. Like the time he came up out of nowhere and hugged me in valet parking at the Beverly Hilton while I was waiting for my car after I won the WGA award in 1998. For some reason deft ennui had owned that night and it had left me lonely and out of sorts and suddenly there was Frank bear hugging me and slapping me on the back and everything seemed right. Perfect even. There were other moments, but the last time I saw him was over a year ago in a restaurant in West Los Angeles. I was having lunch with a producer and I saw Frank walk by to where he was eating his lunch with someone else. He looked like he was having a bad day. He didn’t see me and after thinking it over I decided not to step up and interrupt him as I had in London 15 years earlier. I wish I had. I won’t get another chance. I wish he had looked up at me after making me wait two minutes and said, “Yes? What do you want?”
I would have finally told him the truth. “Frank Pierson, I wanted to tell you I became a writer because of you.”
BRIAN HELGELAND has written and adapted many features during his career as a screenwriter, including the Academy Award winning film L.A. CONFIDENTIAL for which he received the Oscar for his work. Among his credits are his original screenplays for CONSPIRACY THEORY, GREEN ZONE and A KNIGHT’S TALE, along with his adaptations of PAYBACK, MAN ON FIRE, and MYSTIC RIVER. Helgeland also wrote the upcoming 42.