Brian's Song is a 1971 ABC Movie of the Week that recounts the details of the life of Brian Piccolo, a Chicago Bears football player stricken with terminal cancer after turning pro in 1965, told through his friendship with Bears teammate Gale Sayers. Piccolo's and Sayers's sharply differing temperaments and racial backgrounds made them unlikely to become as close friends as they did, including becoming the first interracial roommates in the history of the National Football League, and the film chronicles the evolution of their friendship, ending with Piccolo's death in 1970. The production was such a success on ABC that it was later shown in theaters by Columbia Pictures, with a major premiere in Chicago; however, it was soon withdrawn for lack of business. Critics have called the movie one of the finest telefilms ever made. A 2005 readers poll taken by Entertainment Weekly ranked Brian's Song seventh in its list of the top "guy-cry" films ever made.
The movie is based on Sayers's account of his friendship with Piccolo and coping with Piccolo's illness in Sayers's 1970 autobiography, I Am Third. The film was written by veteran screenwriter William Blinn, whose script one Dallas television critic called "highly restrained, steering clear of any overt sentimentality the genuine affection the two men felt so deeply for each other."
Although based on a true story, the film does include some fictional scenes. For example, the head coach, George Halas, tells Sayers that he wants to bench Piccolo when he suspects that there may be a problem affecting his performance. He later learns of Brian's cancer. In reality, Jim Dooley was the head coach at that time, as Halas had retired from the position following the 1967 season.
PlotThe movie begins as Chicago Bears rookie running back Gale Sayers arrives at team practice as an errant punt is sent to Sayers. Fellow rookie running back Brian Piccolo goes to retrieve the ball, and Sayers flips it to him. Before Sayers meets with coach George Halas in his office, Piccolo tells him – as a prank – that Halas has a hearing problem, and Sayers acts strangely at the meeting. Sayers pranks him back by placing mashed potatoes on his seat while Piccolo is singing his alma mater's fight song.
During practice, Piccolo struggles while Sayers shines. Sayers and Piccolo are placed as roommates, a rarity during the racial strife at the time. When they are placed together Brian is scared he didn't make the team, and Gale makes a great point saying "if you didn't make the team, we wouldn't be placed together as roommates." Their friendship flourishes, in football and in life, quickly extending to their wives, Joy Piccolo and Linda Sayers. Sayers quickly becomes a standout player, but he injures his knee in a game against the San Francisco 49ers. To aid in Sayers's recovery, Piccolo brings a weight machine to his house. In Sayers' place, Piccolo rushes for 160 yards in a 17–16 win over the Los Angeles Rams and is given the game ball. Piccolo challenges Sayers to a race across the park, where Sayers stumbles but wins. Piccolo wins the starting fullback position, meaning both he and Sayers will now be on the field together, and both excel in their roles.
Piccolo starts to lose weight and his performance declines, so he is sent to a hospital for a diagnosis. Soon after, Halas tells Sayers that Piccolo has cancer and will have part of a lung removed. In an emotional speech to his teammates, Sayers states that they will win the game for Piccolo and give him the game ball. When the players later visit the hospital, Piccolo teases them about losing the game, laughing that the line in the old movie wasn’t "let’s blow one for the Gipper."
After a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Sayers visits Joy, who reveals that Piccolo has to have another surgery for his tumor. After he is awarded the "George S. Halas Most Courageous Player Award", Sayers dedicates his award to Piccolo, telling the crowd that they had selected the wrong person for the prize and saying, "I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him, too. And tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him." In a call, Sayers mentions that he gave Piccolo a pint of blood while he was in critical condition. Piccolo dies with his wife by his side. The movie ends with a flashback of Piccolo and Sayers running through the park, while the narrator says that Piccolo died at age 26 and is remembered not for how he died but for how he lived.
- James Caan as Brian Piccolo
- Billy Dee Williams as Gale Sayers
- Jack Warden as Coach George 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
- Chicago Bears as Themselves
Legrand's instrumental version of the theme song charted for eight weeks in 1972, peaking at No. 56 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also won the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition.
ReceptionThe film received acclaim and is often cited as one of the greatest television films ever made, as well as one of the greatest sports films.
The film was the most watched movie on U.S. television during 1971 and the most watched made-for-TV movie ever with a Nielsen rating of 32.9 and an audience share of 48% until it was surpassed by The Night Stalker in January 1972.
It holds a 92% "Fresh" score on Rotten Tomatoes based on 12 critics, with a consensus stating "Buoyed by standout performances from James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, Brian's Song is a touching tale of friendship whose central relationship transcendeds its standard sports movie moments."
Television critic Matt Zoller Seitz in his 2016 book co-written with Alan Sepinwall titled named Brian's Song as the fifth greatest American TV-movie of all time, stating that the film was "The dramatic and emotional template for a good number of sports films and male weepies ", as well as "an influential early example of the interracial buddy movie."
AccoladesThe film won an Emmy Award for Best Dramatic Program. 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.
|Eddie Awards||Best Edited Television Program||Brian's Song|
|Directors Guild of America Award||Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television||Buzz Kulik|
|Emmy Award||Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography for Entertainment Programming – For a Special or Feature Length Program Made for Television||Brian's Song|
|Emmy Award||Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in Drama||Jack Warden|
|Emmy Award||Outstanding Single Program – Drama or Comedy||Brian's Song|
|Emmy Award||Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama – Adaptation||Brian's Song|
|Emmy Award||Outstanding Achievement in Film Sound Editing||Brian's Song|
|Emmy Award||Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition – For a Special Program||Brian's Song|
|Emmy Award||Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Drama – A Single Program||Buzz Kulik|
|Emmy Award||Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role||James Caan|
Billy Dee Williams
|Golden Globe Award||Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries or Television Film||Brian's Song|
|PGA Awards||PGA Hall of Fame – Television Programs||Brian's Song|
|Peabody Award||Peabody Award||ABC Television|
|TV Land Award||Blockbuster Movie of the Week||James Caan|
Billy Dee Williams