“He was smiling … He had it on his face right to the very end.” At least that’s what I’d like to think happened in the final minutes of Frank Pierson’s life. The 87-year-old screenwriter died of natural causes in Los Angeles, The Hollywood Reporter reported Monday morning.
The Cool Hand Luke scribe, responsible for the previous one-liner and a muthaload of others (see below) from the southern-fried prison flick, had also penned the scripts for a slew of top-shelf titles including Dog Day Afternoon, Presumed Innocent, Cat Ballou, Citizen Cohn, and, more recently, was the token octogenarian on the Mad Men writing staff.
No question Pierson was a respected figure among the studios, or at least a figurehead. Screenplays aside, he resided as president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences from 2001 to 2005, but, honestly, who other than the ass-licking champs of Oscar campaigns give a shit? Ditch all the other credits, too, for that matter. To the Everyman moviegoer, Pierson’s runaway contribution was the 1967 on-screen anthem for sticking it to The Man, the Paul Newman vehicle that serves as a reminder to us all how we should behave in and out of prison – don’t take shit from nobody, even when you’ve got two sets of shackles clamped at your knees and ankles.
For those who haven’t seen the Stuart Rosenberg-directed Cool Hand Luke, first let me say I’m sorry that your elders’ taste is in their ass. How many times they made you sit through The Way We Were and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang without bothering to share a movie that, for many, was an absolute life-changer. Based on the 1965 slack-jawed novel of the same name that vaguely doubles as a memoir, ex-con/author Donn Pearce recounts his days in a Florida chain gang populated by burglars, bullshit artists, and, of course, our titular alcoholic war hero. We don’t meet Lucas Jackson until about chapter three, where we find out that he’s looking at two years for cutting the heads off of parking meters. Because that’s what war heroes do when they come home to a place where the rules and regs don’t make sense anymore.
It may have been Pearce’s recollections that gave the blueprints, but it was Pierson who was responsible for creating the soliloquies that’ve been mimicked for decades in locker rooms and on back porches between drunken nephews and uncles.
Plus he gave us a pre-Easy Rider Dennis Hopper, making duck noises while wearing soap-on-a-rope!
In the book, everything was recounted by the author in mostly flashbacks. (In real life, he was busted in 1949 for safecracking at the age of 21; in the movie he was a forgettable inmate named “Sailor.”) Pierson pushed the autobiographical riff to the side to make way for all the southern grotesque characters to come out the woodwork. Who can forget the most notable of all, the prison camp’s captain, played by the late great Strother Martin? The Indiana-born U.S. Navy swimming instructor fell into showbiz by teaching movie stars’ children the backstroke on their luscious Hollywood estates.
He trudged his way through a heap of boob tube westerns before sneaking onto the silver screen, but Martin didn’t become a household
name face until given the opportunity to breathe life into Pierson’s script. Some of those lines, my two faves that come to mind embedded above and below, are as memorable as anything Vivien Leigh blubbered while that house was burning or when Bogart hit on Claude Rains at the end of Casablanca. So pour one out for Pierson. If it wasn’t for him, Pearce’s memory may have never been realized by the scraggily Martin.