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In November 1971, ABC stepped into the film subgenre known as the “guy cry,” and scored a massive hit with Brian’s Song.
The TV movie was in the tradition of sad-but-uplifting sports films that dates back to 1942’s The Pride of the Yankees and continued with 1973’s Bang the Drum Slowly. The 74-minute film told the true story of Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams, then 34, who would go on to play Lando Calrissian in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back) and his mid-’60s friendship with fellow player and roommate Brian Piccolo (James Caan, then 31, who would appear as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather a year later).
The tearjerker’s key element is Piccolo’s death at 26 from cancer. “The film was really a love story about two guys from different backgrounds coming together,” says Williams.
The Hollywood Reporter called Song “a tastefully done, well-written movie that didn’t capitalize on a sad situation, but rather was about life and wonderful relationships.” Other critics didn’t agree. The New York Times said the film “left no possible manipulation of emotions unmanipulated.” (For a little historical context, The Hollywood Reporter‘s review ran alongside one for The Doors’ performance at the Hollywood Palladium four months after the death of Jim Morrison. “Though it’s not the same band, it’s a great band,” said The Hollywood Reporter.)
Whatever the reviews, Song was a ratings blockbuster that drew 48 percent of possible viewers the night it aired. It won a DGA Award, four Emmys (including outstanding single program) and a Peabody for quality storytelling.
The film was such a phenomenon that a month after the broadcast, it was given a full-scale, Christmastime premiere event in Chicago and a brief theatrical run there as well as in L.A.’s Century City. (It did nearly nothing at the box office.)
Song also spawned the 2001 TV movie remake with Mekhi Phifer and Sean Maher that aired on ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney.
“What made this movie work was the relationship between these guys and the way it touched people’s lives,” says Williams. “I once ran into a guy who told me that when he needed a catharsis, he’d lock himself in the library and put on Brian’s Song. For some, the movie was a religious experience.”
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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