Brian’s Song (1971)
We’re going back to television! In writing last week’s column on “Too Young a Hero,” I was looking over the filmography of director Buzz Kulik and saw that among his credits is one of the most iconic television movies ever, “Brian’s Song,” which also gets mentioned as among the best sports flicks, too. It’s universally regarded as the one movie that can get grown men to weeping.
The TV drama was so successful, in fact, that according to its Wikipedia page it actually enjoyed a theatrical run after its broadcast — a feat I’ve never heard of another show replicating.
“Brian’s Song” had become one of those objects that I knew more through its pop-culture reputation than any first-hand experience with it. So I decided to extend my foray into TV movies for one more week.
I was mildly disappointed in “Brian’s Song.” Its production values and dialogue, while certainly good by the standards of 1971 television, have not held up well with the years. Seen in a modern light, the movie has an undeniable hammy tinge. And at 74 minutes minus commercials, the story of the friendship between two professional football players feels short-shrifted and hurried.
The teleplay by William Blinn is much overpraised, in my humble opinion, despite its Emmy and Peabody award wins. It follows a pretty standard and predictable three-act format: the meeting and initial rivalry between Chicago Bears running backs Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo; their deepening friendship as emnity gives way to comradely affection; and Piccolo’s diagnosis and death from a rare form of cancer.
I’d use the term “television movie-of-the-week” as a put-down to describe the material, except that’s exactly what “Brian’s Song” is.
What saves the movie is the tremendous acting, with all due credit to Kulik’s direction. It helped that the three main roles were all helmed by big-screen veterans: James Caan as Piccolo, Billy Dee Williams as Sayers and Jack Warden as crusty coach George Halas. Even the supporting parts, including the men’s wives and fellow players, feel solidly rooted and authentic.
Caan has a corner on insouciant charm and milks it for everything it’s worth with his twinkly smile and easygoing grace. Williams has the harder role as the more internal Sayers, a man who had to be coaxed into uttering more than a few words in a row, and uses his facial expressions and mannerisms to convey his character’s almost timid reserve.
I feel compelled to point out that Caan and Williams were in their early- and mid-30s, respectively, when the movie was made, playing men who age from 22 to 26 — the latter being when Piccolo tragically passed away.
What’s notable is that Kulik and Blinn don’t go for big, maudlin sentimental moments. The relationship between Sayers and Piccolo is kept distinctly masculine — lots of teasing and joshing, but with a deep undercurrent of respect and ardor.
“I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him, too,” Sayers says in the movie’s most oft-quoted line, apparently a direct quote from a speech he gave.
The filmmakers play up the racial aspect of a black man and a white man bonding in 1965, and one memorable scene has Piccolo trying to motivate Sayers’ rehabilitation from a dreadful knee injury by calling him the n-word, which is so ham-fisted and ridiculous that it only provokes peals of laughter.
In the talent department, Piccolo perennially plays second fiddle to the highly regarded Sayers, who ended up having a terrific, though injury-shortened, career and became the youngest person ever inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. Something the movie doesn’t show is that Piccolo actually didn’t even make the team the first year both men joined the Bears, being relegated to the modern equivalent of the practice team.
I confess that I did not tear up while watching “Brian’s Song” or even come close to doing so. It’s a well-done TV movie, with splendid acting you don’t normally see in that medium. But I found its reputation overinflated.