“I’d like to say a few words about a guy I know, a friend of mine. His name is Brian Piccolo.”
Nov. 31, 1971. It was the quietest school bus ride ever. Nobody talked much. Nobody horsed around. Nobody looked each other in the eye.
And by “nobody,” I mean boys.
The night before, the ABC Movie of the Week showed Brian’s Song, the story of the real-life relationship between Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo (James Caan) and Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams). And if you could go back in time to that sad morning, stand at the back of that school bus and either play a recording of the movie’s theme song, written by Michel Legrand, or say in a deep Billy Dee Williams voice, “I Love Brian Piccolo,” you could make every boy on that bus burst into tears.
Some still would cry today hearing those sounds or suddenly get something in their eye or stuck in their throat watching the clip of the speech from the movie on YouTube. Fifty-two years later.
But they won’t talk about it. Brian’s Song is personal for all of us. I was 12 when I watched it on TV that fateful night, and I guarantee it was the first time I cried watching something on TV. Cried? I bawled my eyes out alone In my bedroom. I watched it on a small black & white portable TV and wept.
So, when the disc for Brian’s Song arrived from Netflix the other day, I hesitated before popping it in and hitting play. I added it to my list because I was curious how I would react after all these years. People form nostalgic connections to films from their past all the time, be it the first film they saw in a theater (Babes in Toyland in rerelease) or a movie they saw on a ‘special’ date (The Jerk, a first and last date because she didn’t think it was funny). For a film fan turned professional critic like me, it may be the first film you ever got paid to review (Angel Heart in 1987). But a movie that made you cry when you were 12? That connection is a bit trickier.
First things first: I didn’t cry this time. Maybe there were goosebumps when I saw Billy Dee Williams head for the podium to deliver the speech, but no tears were shed. I didn’t scoff at the film, either. It’s still an emotional experience to watch Brian’s Song, but more of a sad memory than a real-time reaction.
I was much more shocked by the movie than I remember being when I watched it as a kid: I don’t remember Caan calling Williams the “N-word.”
It happens in a funny scene where Piccolo is helping Sayers work out following a devastating, almost career-ending injury. Sayers has given up all hope of a comeback, and Piccolo is trying anything to motivate his best friend. A lot of locker room banter soon escalates to the word being said, followed by the pause heard around the viewing world. And then Piccolo and Sayers, Caan and Williams, laugh hysterically. Out of context, or viewed through a 2023 lens, one may immediately react that there is nothing funny about a white man using the “N-word,” but that doesn’t do the scene or the actors justice. Piccolo and Sayers broke a lot of taboos during their brief time together in the glare of the world’s judgemental spotlight, including being among the first mixed-race roommates in the National Football League. There is no hate or hidden meaning in what Piccolo says; he just tries to say the most outrageous thing he can think of to motivate his friend, a friend he is trying desperately to get through to. Their joint laughter over the absurdity of it all is empowering.
Of course, such insights were lost to 12-year-old me back in 1971. I probably laughed because they were laughing, just as I wanted to run in slow motion with my own theme song because I saw them do it. And I cried because, in that brief 73 minutes I spent with them, Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, James Caan, and Billy Dee Williams became my heroes, and it’s sad when heroes die, even on a small black & white portable TV.