If you don’t think a kickoff return from a half-century ago can make you cry, have a seat next to me and let’s cue up ‘‘Brian’s Song.’’
The setup: Shortly after we’ve learned Bears running back Brian Piccolo has cancer and is facing insurmountable odds, we cut to real-life game footage of Piccolo’s great friend Gale Sayers standing on the goal line of the muddy turf of Wrigley Field, awaiting a kick from the Los Angeles Rams.
As a piano plays the beautiful and plaintive theme from ‘‘Brian’s Song,’’ Sayers takes the kick in stride at the 8-yard line and begins winding through the defenders, cutting this way and that, changing directions, following his blockers, heading into the open field. With the strings accompanying the piano and the music swelling, Sayers reaches the end zone untouched.
It’s a moment of sporting triumph cloaked in the context of overwhelming sadness because Sayers knows — and we know — Piccolo soon will be gone.
That entire scene in ‘‘Brian’s Song’’ takes up a mere 30 seconds, and other than a quick reaction shot of Jack Warden as George Halas on the sidelines, it doesn’t even feature original footage. Yet it is a brilliant piece of filmmaking in a great movie that is no less great because it was made-for-television.
Based on Sayers’ book ‘‘I Am Third’’ (‘‘The Lord is first, my friends are second, I am third’’) and featuring a couple of star-making performances from young actors Billy Dee Williams as Sayers and James Caan as Piccolo, ‘‘Brian’s Song’’ was an ABC ‘‘Movie of the Week’’ that premiered on
Nov. 30, 1971, and achieved a Nielsen rating of 32.9 and an audience share of 48 percent, making it the most-watched TV movie in history to that point.
To this day, it ranks among the best sports movies, the best buddy movies and the most ‘‘crying-est’’ movies you’ll ever see.
Revisiting the film for the first time in many a year, I wasn’t surprised to see that Caan and Williams (and the supporting players, including many Bears players as themselves in minor roles) were as terrific as I’d remembered and that the emotional impact is as strong as ever.
What I did find a bit startling was the frank and raw manner in which the film addresses the racial context of the seemingly unlikely friendship between Piccolo and Sayers.
Not that Piccolo and Sayers ever had a problem. It was the rest of the world that needed to catch up.
When Sayers is told he and Piccolo will be roommates on the road — the first black and white roommates in NFL history — he shrugs it off and says it’s not a big deal. But veteran defensive back J.C. Caroline (Bernie Casey) tells Sayers it will be a big deal, especially when they’re on the road in certain cities.
And after Sayers suffers a devastating knee injury, Piccolo helps him rehab and tries to motivate him by calling him the N-word multiple times. Sayers doubles over in laughter and calls his wife, Linda, over and repeats what happened. They all crack up because Piccolo is so utterly unconvincing in trying to sound like a racist redneck.
Although the scene is effective and, of course, is the furthest thing from advocating racism, there’s no way we’d see that sequence with that language on network television in 2019.
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Lou Gossett originally was cast as Sayers, but after he tore his Achilles tendon playing basketball, Williams was cast for a filming schedule that included some exterior shots in Chicago (in one scene, the injured Sayers hobbles along the lakefront, hearing the results of a Bears game on his transistor radio); at the Bears’ old training camp in Rensselaer, Indiana; and in Los Angeles (the interior of the Sayers’ house was the interior of the ‘‘Bewitched’’ house).
The 1965 training-camp sequences effectively set the tone for the story, with Sayers and Piccolo clashing at first but quickly becoming friends. But some of the details are fantastically at odds with the current climate of the NFL.
As the gruff but lovable Bears assistant coach Abe Gibron — played by Bears assistant coach Abe Gibron — barks encouragement at players as they run the 40-yard dash and practice plays, it appears as though about three reporters and maybe a dozen fans have shown up to watch.
Then there’s the office ‘‘suite’’ of Halas (a well-cast Warden), which consists of a bookshelf, a metal desk, some battered filing cabinets, an old film projector and an unmade bed in the next room. Geez, we knew ‘‘Papa Bear’’ was cheap, but it looks like he’s living in an SRO.
Williams and Caan are magic together, as Sayers quickly establishes himself as an NFL superstar in his rookie season and Piccolo barely clings to a roster spot. Piccolo helps Sayers emerge from his shell, while Sayers encourages Piccolo and offers some advice on how to execute certain plays, i.e., the halfback option.
Also outstanding are Shelley Fabares as Joy Piccolo and Judy Pace as Linda Sayers. ‘‘Brian’s Song’’ has some nice moments when the four of them go out for Chicago pizza or attend an awards banquet, and we see how they’ve become one of those ‘‘couples couples’’ that just love spending time together.
We know what’s coming, of course, yet it’s still devastating when Sayers gets the news about Piccolo’s condition and addresses his teammates in the locker room — and even more so when he accepts the George S. Halas Courage Award for his comeback from injury and tells the audience:
‘‘You flatter me by giving me this award, but I say to you here and now, Brian Piccolo is the man of courage. . . . I love Brian Piccolo. And I’d like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.’’
Director Buzz Kulik, a seasoned veteran with a TV résumé dating to Golden Age shows such as ‘‘Playhouse 90,’’ ‘‘Gunsmoke’’ and ‘‘The Twilight Zone,’’ doesn’t get enough credit for his sure-handed, economical work here. Clocking in at just 74 minutes (they had to leave room for commercials), ‘‘Brian’s Song’’ is a well-paced, timeless classic, ending with that perfect freeze-frame shot of a joyful Piccolo in mid-run, with Warden’s voice-over telling us: ‘‘Brian Piccolo died of cancer at the age of 26. He left a wife and three daughters.’’
Like all great sports movies, ‘‘Brian’s Song’’ is about so much more than the game.