‘Brian’s Song’ is forever
The 45th anniversary of one of the best football films ever
Wednesday marks the 45th anniversary of the made-for-TV movie Brian’s Song. The iconic film about the iconic friendship between Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers and his Chicago Bears teammate, running back Brian Piccolo, who died in 1970 of testicular cancer. Based on William Blinn’s adaptation of Sayers’ 1971 autobiography I Am Third, sales of the autobiography soared after the movie aired as The ABC Movie of the Week. And Billy Dee Williams and James Caan, who were relatively unknown when they assumed the roles of Sayers and Piccolo, were catapulted into superstardom. The film would also go on to win four of its eight Emmy nominations.
“Do I remember it? I certainly do,” said Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who recalls crying after watching the film. “[I learned about having] love for your teammates. Going through something together. Your struggles together. Your triumphs together.”
Judy Pace Flood, widow of late MLB All-Star Curt Flood, portrayed Sayers’ wife Linda. She calls it a love story. “It’s the first bro romance on film. It was the first time that men actually cried in front of other people. It may have been the first time that kids ever saw their fathers cry.”
Piccolo was a white running back from Wake Forest University who led the nation in rushing and scoring as a senior in 1964. Funny and fun-loving, he signed with the Chicago Bears as a free agent, and developed cancer shortly thereafter. Sayers, black and from the University of Kansas, was a quiet one. In 1965, the Bears drafted him in the first round, fourth overall. At the height of the civil rights movement, these two opposites developed a loving friendship while competing for the same job: starting halfback for the Chicago Bears.
Despite being the ACC Player of the Year in 1964, Piccolo was considered undersized at 6 feet, 205 pounds. Sayers was a speedy 6 foot 195-pounder and a two-time All-American. Piccolo spent the 1965 season on the Bears’ taxi squad while Sayers starred. The following year both made the team.
In 1968, when Sayers tore ligaments in his right knee, it was Piccolo who inspired him through a grueling rehabilitation. The following season, Piccolo was moved to fullback, enabling the two to start in the backfield together. “The movie was crafted in a special manner,” said Pace. “It’s shown in junior high and high schools as part of the curriculum. It’s interesting that today some kids don’t get the importance of the movie. Sayers and Piccolo were the first, a black man and a white man, to room together [on the Bears]. Things have come full forward … they don’t think of it as being anything special. But back then, it was.”
“I was very surprised the movie became so popular and had such a positive impact on myself and others,” said Sayers in an email. “The producers, directors, writers, actors and everyone involved in the film did a tremendous job of telling my story and what is important to me and many other Americans. The belief that God is first, my friends and family are second, and I am third.”
Piccolo had a form of testicular cancer called embryonal cell carcinoma. In Piccolo’s case, cancerous cells had metastasized to his chest. After having an initial surgery to remove the tumor, he had to undergo a second procedure in April 1970 that was more invasive. He had his left lung and pectoral muscle removed. It wasn’t long afterward that it was determined that the cancer had spread to other organs. Piccolo was 26 years old when he died on June 16, 1970, leaving a wife and three daughters behind.
For Pace, it took more than 10 years before she saw her performance. An agent told her it was not a good idea for an actress to look back on previous performances. “But I have seen it and yes, I’ve cried. I cried when I was reading for the role. It’s a very emotional movie.”
In a movie filled with emotional moments, one that stands out is when Sayers is presented with the George S. Halas Award as the most courageous player in professional football at the Professional Football Writers annual dinner in New York. Sayers wanted Piccolo to attend the banquet with him. Sayers was going to give the award to Piccolo, but the day he arrived in New York was the day Piccolo left the hospital to go home. He had finished a series of cobalt treatments and doctors said he could spend a few weeks at home, then return to the hospital for more treatment.
In Piccolo’s absence, Sayers gave a speech that left the banquet hall silent. In the film, Williams repeats the speech with the same emotion and energy. “He has the heart of a giant,” Sayers said in words repeated by Williams, “and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent, cancer. He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word courage 24 hours a day of his life. You flatter me by giving me this award, but I can tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo.”
Sayers said he doesn’t know what he will be doing Wednesday night. “I don’t have any plans to celebrate the anniversary of the movie — but you never know,” said Sayers. “Maybe I will watch it again with my family for old times’ sake.
Brian’s Song is a love story that transcended race, taking camaraderie, loyalty, friendship and teamwork to an emotional level that usually results in tears.
An Entertainment Weekly poll lists Brian’s Song as the seventh-best ”guy-cry” flicks of all time.
“Here’s a fact that many people don’t know,” said Pace. “When I auditioned, and I did audition for the film with ABC, I auditioned with Lou Gossett [Jr.]. James Caan and Lou Gossett had the roles. A few days later I get a call that Lou can’t play the role. Lou got hurt playing basketball.”
After Gossett tore his Achilles tendon, Pace recalls reading the part again with several actors. She said her screen test with Williams was outstanding and he clinched the role by giving a great speech.
“I read with about five or six actors, but the one who stood out was Billy Dee,” she said. “That’s who got the role and he was magnificent.”
As a side note, Gossett became depressed over missing his “shot.” But producer David L. Wolper promised Gossett the first great role that came along. About six years later, Wolper kept his word and cast Gossett as Fiddler in Roots. Gossett’s Emmy-winning role in the 1977 telemovie blockbuster made him a star.
Pace, who at 75 is charming and personable, said there was another reason that movie was a hit.
“We liked each other [as a cast],” said Pace. “I was in love with Shelley [Fabares], who portrayed Joy Piccolo, Brian’s wife. I had watched her on The Donna Reed Show. She was the best teenager going. I had seen her as a child growing up and we’re about the same age. [Fabares is two years younger.] She was like that person you grew up with.
”Billy and I had worked together before on a series where we played boyfriend-girlfriend. And James, he was just handsome, funny, an incredible personality. He and Billy got along so well. When you were shooting movies for television in those days, you didn’t have a lot of lay-around time. You shot a movie with lightening speed. ”
A lot has changed since then, but the feelings are still strong. Joy Piccolo has since remarried and moved on with her life.
“Unfortunately I have not stayed in touch with Joy as much as I would have liked, but she and her family will always be in my thoughts and prayers,” said Sayers.
When Piccolo became ill with cancer, Sayers stayed faithfully by his side until his death.
After Piccolo’s death, the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Foundation was founded by his widow and several friends. Now, thanks to research, more men have been diagnosed and cured of testicular cancer.
The reaction to the movie was so phenomenal that it was later shown in theaters by Columbia Pictures. There was even a major premiere in Chicago. But the film didn’t do well on the big screen and was withdrawn.
In 2001, Columbia TriStar Television made a remake of Brian’s Song with Sean Maher playing the role of Piccolo and Mekhi Phifer portraying Sayers.
“I didn’t see the [original] movie before taking the part,” said Maher. “A lot of people ask me if I did, but I didn’t. It’s a very strong story, one with a lot of feeling. I tried to convey that [with my performance].
“[I thought] it was a very rewarding film. There is a lot of lessons that can be learned from it. I feel fortunate to have been a part of it. It was an experience that I won’t forget.”