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Fearless Behind the Scenes: A Writer's Art of Sharing

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By Michael Drew and Bob Hughes

When movie and television actors die, their passing reminds us of places we were. Actors are often bookmarks for our collective memory, the personal recollection of a moment of youth or a certain relationship.

But when a writer passes on, it triggers something else. A sense of disconnection, perhaps. At least for me, as a writer who seeks to connect with readers. Even if the writer wrote for films.

In the past few days, some well-known performers, including movie and television actor Ernest Borgnine, The Jeffersons star Sherman Helmsley, and Chad Everett of the television show Medical Center have passed on, triggering nostalgia for sitcoms and dramas past.

But it was the death of screenwriter Frank Pierson that gave me pause. Mr. Pierson wrote several memorable movies, including Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon, and late in life he also worked on such excellent television dramas as The Good Wife and Mad Men.

Pierson had an ear for the telling line, as in Cool Hand Luke: "What we have here is failure to communicate." A screenwriter should be able to write great zingy lines like that. And for me, as a writer, although I'm just as likely as the next person to attribute a quote to the actor speaking the line rather than to the man who actually wrote it for the actor to speak, I am still aware that it's the writer who was responsible for the dialogue, and not the actor, however gifted a performer he or she is.

It might have been easy for an actor to embody his dialogue, since Pierson (who began his career as a journalist) wrote character, which can be a rare thing in movies, especially since so many films are predicated on action. When writing his Oscar-winning screenplay for the Sidney Lumet movie Dog Day Afternoon, Pierson had a hard time arriving at a three-dimensional portrayal of the central character, played by Al Pacino. Until he realized that the character was a people-pleaser. Then it flowed, then it made sense, then it became inherently dramatic, because it was based on a person rather than a gimmick.

This kind of insight is rare in screenwriting -- getting to the psychology of a character as a motivation for his actions rather than simply using actions to draw the broad outlines of a character -- and it shows Pierson's instinctive grasp of personality type.

But he was also a teacher, and a mentor -- and such generosity is also rare.

Movies are collaborative, of course, and writing is most often solitary. What Pierson also did was share: He realized the importance of imparting his hard-won wisdom to other writers, so that although they might struggle on their own with their work, they might also benefit from the work that someone else had done, to show them that it's possible to create something good. Even if you have doubts about where you're going with a project, as Pierson did.

That sharing is something special: Writers are often considered mere chattel and replaceable. How hard is it, after all, to string a few words together? Harder than you think, and Frank Pierson knew it. That's why he wanted to help others. Writing might be solitary, but that doesn't mean we have to be alone.