Remembering “Brian’s Song” (R.I.P. Gale Sayers)

Just got word that Gale Sayers (b. 1943) has finally followed his old NFL roommate Brian Piccolo to the Great Gridiron in the Sky, almost exactly 50 years behind his friend. Sayers and Piccolo played for the Chicago Bears in the late ’60s; they were the first integrated roommates in the NFL. Piccolo died of cancer in 1970.

I know all this not because I’m a massive football fan, but because screenwriter William Blinn turned Sayers’ memoir I Am Third into a 1971 ABC TV movie of the week called Brian’s Song. Brian’s Song was and is a big deal. It’s widely lauded as one of the best TV movies of all time. It was so well-received it was later released in movie theatres, and the screenplay was published in paperback form (this was the days before home video). I acquired a copy at a yard sale sometime soon after it came out; it was, I believe, the first screenplay I ever read.  And they replayed the movie on TV many times as well, so I also watched it at quite a young age. It’s quite the tearjerker. Billy Dee Williams was Sayers; James Caan was Piccolo. Jack Warden was Coach George Halas. Joy Pace, then best known as a regular on The Young Lawyers (1969-71) was Sayers’ wife. Shelly Fabares, later of Coach, was Piccolo’s. Also in the cast, David Huddleston, Bernie Casey, and Dick Butkus. 

The show itself won an Emmy, as did Blinn for the script and Warden for his performance. Blinn went on to be one of the scriptwriters on Roots, and one of the creators of Starsky and Hutch (come to think of it, that would have been a much better show if one of the two stars was black. It’s a good indicator in fact of the backsliding Hollywood had already begun to do by that time in the area of racial representation). In 1977, Sayers became the youngest person every inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’ll always be well memorialized by his ground-breaking bio-pic.