Column: Gale Sayers and ‘Brian’s Song’ changed sports movies, and male friendship, forever
There are some movies that change the world and then the world moves on. Maybe the change sticks, maybe it doesn’t. Either way, people eventually forget about the movie itself unless something occurs to remind them.
The death of Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers on Wednesday reminds those of us old enough to remember of the wonder that was, and is, “Brian’s Song.”
Honestly, if you want to know on which side of 50 someone is, just hum a few notes of the film’s plaintive theme song and watch the eyes. For those who have any memory of its airing in 1971 as an ABC Movie of the Week, or the many re-airings during the ‘70s or even the paperback novel version of the movie, the tears should be pretty much instantaneous.
Based on a portion of Sayers’ autobiography “I Am Third,” “Brian’s Song” told the story of the friendship between Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams) and Brian Piccolo (James Caan). The men met as rookies on the Chicago Bears and became the first interracial roommates in the NFL. Both running backs, the two were obviously competitive and temperamentally quite different — Sayers was shy and serious, Piccolo a gregarious funny man — but they grew to appreciate each other. Piccolo was diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer in 1969 and died in 1970 at the age of 26. A month before his teammate’s death, Sayers was given the George S. Halas Courage Award; accepting it, he said the judges had chosen the wrong man and gave an emotional speech about his love for and admiration of Piccolo.
The speech scene in “Brian’s Song” remains the most heartbreaking few minutes of any sports movie ever.
The film, which aired just a year after Piccolo’s death, is a beautiful thing still. Yes, it is a 1971 TV movie, with all that implies, and there is a scene in which Piccolo uses the N-word as a means of forcing Sayers to train harder, which devolves into laughter in a way that seems hopelessly optimistic about the obsolescence of the term.
But “Brian’s Song” also serves as a reminder that “family entertainment” can deliver just as powerful a punch as any hard-R tale of gritty realism — and that social revolution comes in many forms, some of them quite unexpected.
Chicago Bears great Gale Sayers died Wednesday at 77, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Written by William Blinn, it is a straightforward story, laid out in the opening minutes by Jack Warden (who also plays Chicago Bears head coach George Halas) in what may be the best use of narration in the history of film:
“This is the story about two men, one named Gale Sayers, the other Brian Piccolo. They came from different parts of the country, they competed for the same job. One was white, the other Black. ... Our story is about how they came to know each other, fight each other and help each other. Ernest Hemingway said that every true story ends in death. Well, this is a true story.”
Are you crying yet? I am. “Brian’s Song” broke the hearts of millions, and they stayed broken for years. It was the most watched, and wept over, television movie of the year, so popular that it was shown in theaters for a time. It launched the film careers of both Caan and Williams (one would next star in “The Godfather,” the other in “Lady Sings the Blues”), won five Emmys, a Peabody and a permanent place high on various lists of best sports films ever.
A film so good that a 2001 attempt to remake it felt like an insult to many, in part because the original had achieved what no other film ever had; in 74 minutes, “Brian’s Song” taught American men that it was OK to cry over a non-canine death in a movie.
Its theme song, “The Hands of Time (Brian’s Song)” — written by the Oscar-winning team of Michel Legrand (music) and Marilyn and Alan Bergman (lyrics) — won a Grammy for an instrumental version and became perhaps the most oft-adapted and instantly recognizable song in the country.
I had just turned 8 when the film premiered, but the song provided a backdrop for even my teenage years. It was covered by parental favorites like Perry Como and Johnny Mathis and became an anthem of longing and loss. Its instrumental version was even more popular. Used by young gymnasts, figure skaters and school orchestras, it captured the film’s heart and pathos in just a few deceptively simple series of notes; several girls of my own acquaintance took piano lessons solely to learn how to play the music from “Brian’s Song.”
It was a film with a social conscience — the historic interracial aspect of the men’s friendship was an obvious, and at the time, quite risky theme. Caan and Williams brought Piccolo and Sayers instantly and intensely to life (Caan managed to do this while wearing white socks and penny loafers and uttering, with apparent sincerity, words like “golly”) and their bond, built on competition and mutual respect, was a hopeful sign after a decade of righteous racial protest.
But it was the romance, to use the term in its most general meaning, that made “Brian’s Song” so memorable. The depth of their relationship was revolutionary.
For too many years, straight men in film and television were allowed to show emotion toward other straight men only on the battlefield and then in brief, oblique and usually wisecracking ways. Butch and Sundance, those titans of bromance, exchanged little more than a look before facing death together. On screen, as in life, any man who publicly expressed feelings for another man not related to him by blood risked being considered (gasp) gay. And gay men were rarely allowed to exist in film and television; those who did were not allowed to show any emotion toward any man except in subtext — or, occasionally, apologetically on their deathbeds.
For a straight man to use the L-word when speaking of a male friend was simply out of the question.
Unless you were Gale Sayers.
“I love Brian Piccolo,” Sayers said when he accepted the Halas Award at a New York banquet. (I’m not going to recount the entire speech because a. I will cry and b. you should watch “Brian’s Song,” which uses the real-life speech verbatim, yourself.) Think about this for a moment. A Black man saying that, and about a white man, in 1970, out loud, at a gathering of football players. No wonder he won an award for courage.
When those words are uttered in “Brian’s Song,” walls shook, ceilings fell and men were suddenly allowed to name the deep feelings they have for other men with the word that homophobia had silenced among them for so long.
It probably helped that Piccolo was dying and that both men were football players, sports being the peacetime equivalent of war. Still, the gallons of salt water shed over “Brian’s Song” were not just tears of grief, they were tears of recognition and relief. Male friendships did matter that much, men were capable of experiencing and expressing loss in ways that did not involve anger or repression.
“Brian’s Song” unleashed a whole new genre of sports movie, in which enlightenment came through death or extreme injury. “Bang the Drum Slowly,” “Something for Joey,” “The Champ,” “The Other Side of the Mountain,” “Remember the Titans” “Million Dollar Baby” and, of course, “We Are Marshall,” (which depicts a truly horrific tragedy that occurred the same year Brian Piccolo died).
All were valuable stories in themselves, but they also were part of a canon in which sports figures allow us to explore the many variations of human love. That canon may have begun with the “Win just one for the Gipper” speech in “Knute Rockne: All American” way back in 1940, but it was immortalized in “Brian’s Song.”
For good or ill, America’s relationship with sports makes athletes seem more alive than ordinary mortals — and so their deaths, or severe injuries, seem even more tragic. Sports too has been one of the most visible bellwethers of social change, which can lend these stories a broader context. But for all its classic imagery, including the famously throat-closing sight of Sayers’ and Piccolo’s hands clasped, “Brian’s Song” touched the millions who saw it not because its story was important but because it was true. In the emotional as well as literal sense.
Every obituary, every piece about Sayers’ death, referenced “Brian’s Song,” and it’s important to remember why. Sayers was an extraordinary football player but he was also a genuinely courageous man. In 1970, he opened his heart and spoke the truth.
Fifty years later, it still takes only a few familiar notes of a very simple song to make us weep again, in gratitude.
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