Mr. Pierson, whose mother was an author and screenwriter, graduated from Harvard University and became a correspondent for Time and Life magazines before entering show business as a network television writer in the late 1950s.
In a career spanning five decades, he co-wrote the screenplay to the Scott Turow legal mystery “Presumed Innocent” (1990) and directed and co-wrote the Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson rock-music remake of “A Star Is Born” (1976). As a consulting producer, he helped shape the story lines of recent series including AMC’s “Mad Men” and CBS’s “The Good Wife.” He was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 2001 to 2005 and of the Writers Guild of America, West.
Mr. Pierson’s maiden screenplay — based on a Roy Chanslor novel — was “Cat Ballou” (1965). It starred Lee Marvin in Oscar-winning dual roles: a ruthless killer and a broken-down gunslinger who helps a schoolmarm (Jane Fonda). The movie also featured Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as the makeshift Greek chorus.
“I think I was the 11th writer on the project, but they had all been trying to do it as a serious story,” Mr. Pierson told the reference guide Contemporary Authors in 1986. “The last writer before me, Walter Newman — whose name also is on the screenplay — continued to try to write it as a serious picture.
“He got so fed up with it finally that he said to the producers, ‘You know, every time I write this damn thing, it comes out funny.’ Somebody had the common sense to say, ‘Well, why don’t you go on and try it as a comedy?’ ”
In 1967, Mr. Pierson worked with Donn Pearce to adapt Pearce’s novel “Cool Hand Luke” about a Southern chain-gang prisoner (Paul Newman) who refuses to buckle to authority. Mr. Pierson came up with the film’s most quoted line — “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” — spoken to Luke by the brutal crew captain (Strother Martin).
Pearce, a former convict, said he “hated” the line, that it sounded too writerly for a chain-gang captain. The remark, he told the Palm Beach Post in 2007, “was snide and untrue and unrealistic.”
His was the minority opinion. Writing in the New York Times, film critic Bosley Crowther praised the “sharp script” with helping elevate “this brutal picture above the ruck of prison films and into the range of intelligent contemplation of the ironies of life.” In 2005, the American Film Institute ranked the “failure to communicate” line No. 11 among the top 100 movie quotes.
Mr. Pierson won an Oscar for his original screenplay of “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), which was based on a bank robbery in Brooklyn. The film, directed by Sidney Lumet, starred Al Pacino as a would-be thief who tries to steal money for his lover’s sex-change operation and becomes caught in a hostage situation beyond his control.