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Charles Pierce (1938–2010)

Charles Bryant Pierce was an independent filmmaker from Arkansas whose movies have become cult classics. Films that he wrote, directed, and/or produced include The Legend of Boggy Creek, Bootleggers, and The Town that Dreaded Sundown, which were not only made in Arkansas with local actors but also drew their inspiration from Arkansas themes. He is believed to be the source of one of the most famous lines in American film history: “Go ahead, make my day.”

Charles B. Pierce was born in Hammond, Indiana, on June 16, 1938, the son of Mack McKenny Pierce and Mayven Bryant Pierce. When he was a few months old, the family moved to Hampton (Calhoun County) in the south-central part of Arkansas. Living in Hampton, Pierce grew up next door to Harry Thomason, who later became successful as producer and director of such projects as TV’s Designing Women.

According to Pierce’s family, one of his chores growing up was mowing the lawn. His father came home one day at lunchtime and asked if the boy planned to mow the yard anytime soon, adding, “When I come home tonight and the yard has not been mowed, you’re gonna MAKE MY DAY.” Later in life, Charles Pierce would recall the admonition to great advantage.

By the mid-1960s, Pierce was working as art director at KTAL-TV in Shreveport, Louisiana, and he later became a weatherman and hosted a children’s cartoon program there. Returning to Arkansas, he started an advertising business on State Line Avenue in Texarkana (Miller County), also playing a character called Mayor Chuckles on a local television show.

In 1971, there were local headlines about a Sasquatch-like creature sighted in the vicinity around the nearby town of Fouke (Miller County). The “Fouke Monster” was reportedly seen in the Boggy Creek area and accused of attacking dogs and livestock as well as a local family. In 1972, while still working in advertising, Pierce created a semi-documentary film originally titled Tracking the Fouke Monster, later renamed The Legend of Boggy Creek. Pierce shot the movie with a camera he assembled himself at home. Much of the movie was filmed in Fouke and Texarkana with local residents and students as actors and/or crew. Estimates place the cost of making the eighty-seven-minute film at about $165,000. Becoming popular as a drive-in horror feature around the country, it became one of the top ten highest-grossing movies of the year, earning over $20 million. In an interview with the Tulsa World more than twenty-five years later, Daniel Myrick, director of the 1999 hit movie The Blair Witch Project, which was filmed in the same semi-documentary style, cited Pierce’s Boggy Creek as an influence.

Subsequent to The Legend of Boggy Creek, films directed by Pierce were Bootleggers (1974), Winterhawk (1975), The Winds of Autumn (1976), The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976), Grayeagle (1977), The Norseman (1978), The Evictors (1979), Sacred Ground (1983), Boggy Creek II (1985), Hawken’s Breed (1987), and Chasing the Wind (1998). His earlier films in particular were filmed in Arkansas and/or featured Arkansas themes and local residents in their production.

After moving to California in the 1980s to further his career, he became friends with actor/director Clint Eastwood while living in Carmel, where Eastwood was elected mayor in 1986. After sharing a story treatment that Eastwood liked, Pierce became a writer for the fourth in the Dirty Harry series, Sudden Impact (1983), which Eastwood directed. Its most famous line, “Go ahead, make my day,” has been ranked in the top ten of the American Film Institute’s top movie quotes of all time.

Returning to his own films, Pierce was the star, writer, director, and co-producer of the 1985 sequel, The Barbaric Beast of Boggy Creek, Part II, which was re-titled Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues. The movie also contains footage of a University of Arkansas (UA) Razorback football game in Fayetteville (Washington County), complete with hog-hatted fans.

Pierce acquired the nickname “Sparkplug” due to his energy; he was always thinking about his next project while completing another. While filming 1987’s Hawken’s Breed with Peter Fonda in the area around Dover, Tennessee, Pierce met his future wife, Beth. They married, and he relocated there permanently. The couple had three children.

In the course of his career, Pierce also worked as set decorator on a number of TV shows such as MacGyver, Remington Steele, and the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone, as well as movies including The Cheap Detective and The Outlaw Josey Wales. He shared a 1987 Emmy nomination in Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries or a Special for his work on the first part of the CBS television spoof of prime-time soaps, Fresno.

Along with appearing in Boggy Creek II, Pierce acted in several of his films, including Bootleggers (1974), The Winds of Autumn (1976), and The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976). Pierce directed a number of noted character actors such as Slim Pickens, Jack Elam, Kathleen Freeman, Woody Strode, and L. Q. Jones, along with lead actors including Jaclyn Smith (in her first movie role), Dawn Wells, Andrew Prine, Lee Majors, Cornel Wilde, Mel Ferrer, Vic Morrow, Michael Parks, Peter Fonda, and Academy Award winner Ben Johnson.

Pierce died on March 5, 2010, at Signature Care nursing home in Dover, Tennessee. He is buried at Stewart Memorial Gardens near his home in Dover. Pierce was spotlighted by the Little Rock Film Festival in 2008 with a retrospective, received the Arkansas Arts Council’s Judges Special Recognition award in 2009, and will be honored annually by the Little Rock Film Festival through the Charles B. Pierce Award for Best Film Made in Arkansas. He was inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in 2010.

For additional information:
“‘Boggy Creek’ Filmmaker Dies.” Jonesboro Sun. March 7, 2010, p. 2A.

“Charles B. Pierce.” Internet Movie Database http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0682309 (accessed April 26, 2010).

Jenkins, Derek. “Charles Pierce Retrospective.” Arkansas Times, May 15, 2008, p. 21.

Nancy Hendricks
Arkansas State University

Last Updated 9/7/2010

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