June 04, 2016

The Athletes in Film Blogathon - Brian's Song (1971)

Thanks to Aurora and Rich for hosting the blogathon. Please visit Aurora's Once Upon a Screen and Rich's Wide Screen World. You'll be glad you did.

I enjoy watching the films of former athletes who became actors. I also enjoy watching films with a sports theme, most especially the ones dealing with a specific athlete's life and career.

I'll be focusing on one of the best go-for-the-jugular, real-life sports tearjerkers ever, the 1971 telefilm Brian's Song.

"There's no question that Brian Piccolo's story was amplified by the movie. And now generations later, you don't know how many guys who ordinarily would be loath to admit that they shed a tear, will tell you at the drop of a hat, I still cry every time I see Brian's Song," says Bob Costas on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Brian's Song tells the details of the life of Brian Piccolo (played by James Caan), a Wake Forest University football player stricken with terminal cancer after turning pro, told through his friendship with Chicago Bears running back teammate Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams), who helps him through the difficult struggle.

Brian's Song was adapted by William Blinn from the novel I Am Third by Gale Sayers with Al Silverman. The made-for-TV (ABC) production starred James Caan as Brian Piccolo, Billy Dee Williams as Gale Sayers, Jack Warden as Coach George S. Halas, Shelley Fabares as Joy Piccolo, Judy Pace as Linda Sayers, Bernie Casey as J.C. Caroline, David Huddleston as Ed McCaskey, Ron Feinberg as Doug Atkins, Jack Concannon as Himself, Abe Gibron as Himself, Ed O'Bradovich as Himself, Dick Butkus as Himself, and Chicago Bears as Themselves.

Brian's Song was directed by Buzz Kulik, produced by Paul Junger Witt for Screen Gems, photographed by Joseph F. Biroc, edited by Bud S. Isaacs, with a theme composed by Michel Legrand.

It premiered on ABC's Tuesday Movie of the Week on November 30, 1971. The original running time was 74 minutes (in a 90 minute time slot - 8:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.).

The film won an Emmy Award for Best Dramatic Program (1971–72). William Blinn won an Emmy for his teleplay, and Jack Warden won for his performance as Coach Halas. Caan and Williams were both nominated for best leading actor. Buzz Kulik was nominated for an Emmy for his direction and won "Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television" from the Directors Guild of America.

At the time, Brian's Song was the fourth most-watched film ever to air on television, behind only the theatrical blockbusters Ben-Hur, The Birds and The Bridge On the River Kwai.

A trio of trivia:
1. Louis Gossett, Jr. was originally cast as Gale Sayers. Days before shooting began, Gossett tore his Achilles' tendon while working out.
2. Bewitched fans will notice the interior of Gale Sayers' house was the interior set of Darrin and Samantha's house.
3. Before filming his death scene, James Caan reportedly said, "Hold my cigarette and hold my can of Coke, I have to die."

"Hands of Time" (Theme from the Screen Gems Television Production Brian's Song) with music by Michel Legrand and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman was a popular tune during the early 1970s and has become a standard. Legrand's instrumental version of the theme song charted for eight weeks in 1972, peaking at #56.

If the hands of time were hands that I could hold, I'd keep them warm and in my hands they'd not turn cold.
Hand in hand we'd choose the moments that should last; the lovely moments that should have no future and no past.
The summer from the top of a swing, the comfort in the sound of a lullaby.
The innocence of leaves in the spring.
But most of all the moment when love first touched me!
All the happy days would never learn to fly until the hands of time would choose to wave "good-bye."

Instrumental by Michel Legrand

Instrumental by Henry Mancini

Perry Como Sings "Hands of Time"

Johnny Mathis Sings "Hands of Time"

About Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers
Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo

Louis Brian Piccolo (October 31, 1943 - June 16, 1970) was a professional football player, a running back for the Chicago Bears for four years. He died at age 26 from embryonal cell carcinoma, an aggressive form of germ cell testicular cancer, first diagnosed after it had spread to his chest cavity.

Born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Piccolo was the youngest of three sons of Joseph and Irene Piccolo. The family moved to Florida when he was three.

Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Pic, as he was known to his friends, was a super jock. A standout in four sports, he lettered in football, baseball, basketball and track.

After graduating in 1961, he played college football at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, leading the nation in rushing and scoring his senior year. But when he wasn't drafted—a stunning disappointment—he signed with the Bears as a free agent.

Piccolo and Sayers were running backs when they met at Bears training camp in the mid-'60s.

During their rookie season, Sayers was named NFL Rookie Player of the Year while Piccolo warmed the bench. Ultimately, both were named to the Bears' starting backfield in 1969 after Piccolo had assisted Sayers with his rehab from a severe right knee injury he sustained on November 10, 1968.

Piccolo's cancer was discovered in November 1969 and he died seven months later.

Gale Eugene Sayers (born May 30, 1943 in Wichita, Kansas), also known as "Magic" and the "Kansas Comet," is a former American college and professional football player who was a running back in the National Football League for seven seasons during the 1960s and early 1970s. He played college football for the University of Kansas and was twice recognized as an All-American. He was a first-round pick in the 1965 NFL Draft and played his entire pro career for the NFL's Chicago Bears.

Sayers is a member of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the youngest inductee in the Hall's history, and the College Football Hall of Fame.

Two horrific knee injuries ended his career. The right knee injury was sustained on November 10, 1968 and the left knee injury was sustained on August 29, 1970.

Sayers is a successful entrepreneur in the information technology field and an active philanthropist.

I watched Brian's Song with my family when it was originally shown on the ABC Movie of the Week on November 30, 1971. I was 11 at the time and was profoundly affected by this telefilm. My immediate reaction was tears. My mother and I sniffled through most of the broadcast and bawled after the movie ended. My father and brother held back their emotions but I remember them both with watery eyes and "choked up" voices.

The next day, I sought out the trusty school librarian and asked if there was a book about Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers. She recommended Brian Piccolo: A Short Season by Jeannie Morris and I Am Third by Gale Sayers with Al Silverman. She ordered them for me via the Weekly Reader Book Club, an economical option for an avid 11-year-old reader. I still own the books. They're in my bedroom bookcase.

While devouring the books, I learned about what a hideous disease cancer really is. The knowledge of cancer's ugliness and its impact on the family would stand me in good stead when my father was dying of the illness a few years later.

Brian Piccolo began coughing early in the 1969 season. On November 16 in Atlanta, after scoring a fourth quarter touchdown in a 48-31 loss to the Falcons, he removed himself from the game, bothered by chest pains, the persistent cough, and shortness of breath.

Two days later, Piccolo took a chest X-ray. A tumor was spotted in his left lung. It had spread from a cancerous testicle. Piccolo was sent to New York's Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Surgeons removed his testicle and part of his left lung on November 28.

Two weeks later, the Bears organized a press conference at his home and Piccolo announced his intent to continue playing football.

Piccolo began chemotherapy treatments and spent Christmas at home with his wife and three young daughters.

On April 9, 1970, his left lung and left chest wall were removed. He received radioactive iodine seeds and radiation.

Six weeks later, Sayers, who had recovered from his knee injury to win the NFL rushing title, was honored with the George Halas Award as the league's most courageous player for the 1969 season. At a ceremony in New York on May 23, 1970, Sayers gave an emotional speech saying there was somebody more deserving of the award.

The Speech Delivered by Billy Dee Williams in Brian's Song

MP3 File of the Speech (Billy Dee Williams)

Piccolo was re-admitted to the hospital in early June, bothered by chest pain. It was determined the cancer had spread to his lower chest and liver. He died on June 16, 1970.

Is life fair? No, it isn't. My parents had always told me this when I cried about bad things happening to good people. Brian Piccolo's story made me see this truth. Did he deserve to died of cancer at 26, leaving a wife the same age and three small daughters, Lori, 4 1/2, Traci, 3, and Kristi, 1 1/2? No, he didn't. But it happened whether he deserved it or not. Life is like that sometimes.

I learned kindness toward those who are disabled. Brian Piccolo adored his sister-in-law, Carol Murrath. Carol has cerebral palsy (and is still living as of 2016). Brian gave her a tiny engagement ring when he became engaged to Joy Murrath. And Joy noted, "But the only one he kissed was Carol!"

At Brian and Joy's Christmas 1964 wedding, he fed a piece of wedding cake to Carol immediately after feeding the first piece to Joy, his bride. Brian told Joy he tried to give Carol as many wonderful experiences as he could.

I also learned about true friendship. Gale Sayers, a shy, African-American man, and Brian Piccolo, an outgoing, German-Hungarian-Italian-American man, became friends during a time in our country when interracial friendship was frowned upon. They were the first mixed race roommates on the Chicago Bears team. Magic and Pic's friendship was color blind. So was the friendship of Linda Sayers and Joy Piccolo.

When Sayers suffered a potential career-ending right knee injury (a ruptured cartilage and two torn ligaments), Piccolo pushed him hard during his rehabilitation. Sure, he wanted to beat Sayers for the starting position, but only if Sayers was playing at 100 percent.

Sayers and his wife provided love and support to Piccolo and his family during Brian's fatal illness.

An excerpt from I Am Third by Gale Sayers with Al Silverman:
As much as they cut into this man, as much as he was inflicted with terrible pain and discomfort, as much as he suffered because of this wicked disease that struck him like a thunderbolt flashing out of a clear sky -- as much as he was faced with all these tortures, his spirit would not be destroyed. That was the beautiful nature of Brian Piccolo. 
There was a time, just before he went into the hospital again, then he sat down at home and wrote a letter to Freddy Steinmark of the University of Texas. Steinmark had played on Texas's 1969 national championship football team. Just after the season they discovered that Steinmark had bone cancer. They amputated his leg. And Pic sat down and wrote him a letter. I asked him what he said to the boy. 
"I told him that I, more than any other football player, understood a few things that must have gone through his mind. Because I had gone through the same thing. I told him never to lose courage and to remember that there was always hope."
I've always remembered how Louis (he preferred Luigi) Brian Piccolo played the game and lived his life: at full speed, with a smile on his face and never, never giving up.

I want a new generation to watch Brian's Song, read A Short Season and I Am Third, and learn the same things from them as I have.

I must mention that in 1970 the survival rate for men with testicular cancer that had spread through the body was five percent. Today testicular cancer has among the highest cure rate of all cancers.

I must also mention that the 2001 Brian's Song remake starring Sean Maher as Brian Piccolo and Mekhi Phifer as Gale Sayers was a pale imitation. My advice is to skip it.

SportsCentury: Brian Piccolo

About Brian Piccolo - I Am Third


Rich said...

I had heard of this movie, growing up a sports fan, but I didn't realize how much of a tearjerker it was. Sounds good.

Caftan Woman said...

A beautiful article. I appreciate your sharing the impact of the Piccolo story on your life and reminding me of a great friendship and film.

Citizen Screen said...

Fantastic post on this heart-wrenching movie, which the Athletes blogathon couldn't do without. I particularly love the background information and the memories you brought back. I've watched Brian's Song many times, but it's been years. I think I'm a lot more sensitive as I "mature." Thanks so much for this terrific entry.


Tonya said...

This is lovely. I didn't see it when it originally aired, but I remember my uncle weeping that night. A few years later when ABC rebroadcast it, biy, did I understand why he cried and I did too. Each time I watch it, I do! Who doesn't? :-) I love your background info here too. Thanks for a warm and touching post.

Silver Screenings said...

This does like a beautiful and haunting film, especially if you have such vivid memories of watching it when it first aired. I think I'd be missing out if I didn't try to track it down. I'll be sure to have the tissue handy!

Thanks for including the background story of the real athletes. This post is a wonderful tribute to them.