America cried that night, and didn’t care who knew it. Brian’s Song — based on Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers’ book, I Am Third — played on one of three sets in the country, making it the most watched TV movie ever when it first aired on Nov. 30, 1971. So popular was this story about the friendship between Sayers and his cancer-stricken teammate, Brian Piccolo, that Columbia Pictures even briefly released the film in theaters.
The ABC tearjerker’s appeal sprang from a combination of compelling themes: male bonding (long before the men’s movement), racial harmony (the ebullient Piccolo and the reticent Sayers were the Bears’ first interracial roommates), and dying young (Piccolo had succumbed in 1970 at age 26). Hey, it even had football.
Combined with those juicy elements was the exceptional chemistry between two little-known actors, Billy Dee Williams (Sayers) and James Caan (Piccolo). A year later both would be marquee names, in Lady Sings the Blues and The Godfather, respectively. With a critically acclaimed script by William Blinn and a Michel Legrand score, it’s not surprising that Brian’s Song garnered 11 Emmy nominations. It won three — for dramatic program, teleplay adaptation, and supporting actor (for Jack Warden’s portrayal of legendary Bears coach George Halas).
”The entire experience was an act of love,” says Williams. ”You know how sometimes everything falls into place? This film was one of those moments. Everybody stopped. Even Nixon dropped what he was doing to watch it.” Near the end of Brian’s Song, Sayers is seen accepting an award, saying, ”I love Brian Piccolo.” By that time, everyone else did too.
Nov. 30, 1971
Audiences were hooked on Gene Hackman in The French Connection. The nonfiction best-seller was Eleanor and Franklin, and Isaac Hayes topped the pop charts with his ”Theme from ‘Shaft.”’