It is unclear why -- or even if -- men had tear ducts prior to 1971, for none had ever wept in public, though Walter Cronkite famously came close, removing his glasses in 1963 to announce the death of President Kennedy.
So it was a watershed event in every sense of the phrase when ABC aired its "Tuesday Night Movie of the Week" on November 30, 1971, and men failed to blink back tears in front of their wives and children and even each other for the first time in human history.
Forty years ago tonight, at 8:30 Eastern time, half of all television sets in use in America were tuned to the premier of
Only 17 months earlier, Piccolo had died of cancer at age 26, leaving behind a wife and three daughters. Actor James Caan, who hated the hurried production schedules of TV, agreed to play Piccolo because he liked the script, by William Blinn, based on a chapter of
Sayers, in turn, was to be played by Louis Gossett, Jr., who tore his Achilles while working out for the role a few days before filming was scheduled to begin. And so it was that Billy Dee Williams teamed up with Caan to join pepper spray and kidney stones on the very short list of things guaranteed to induce tears.
And then Piccolo's own story changed all that. The nation's leading rusher as a halfback at Wake Forest in 1964, he joined the Bears and became roommates with the great Sayers. The men were positional rivals, and the first interracial roommates on the team, but Piccolo parodied the period's racial tensions with a subversive sense of humor. As production wrapped on
From a four-decade remove, it's easy to forget the impact of
It also undercut its own Movie-of-the-Week mawkishness with insults and locker-room humor. In that way, and many others,
Its critical acclaim was nearly, but not quite, universal. "As a film,
And that was the whole point. Piccolo's story moved people -- significantly -- to tears. "Some might call it corny," said President Nixon, a man not given to literal or metaphorical gushing. "[But] believe me, it was one of the great motion pictures I have seen."
Almost everyone else agreed. At the time,
Sayers' autobiography likewise became a late-blooming hit, as did Blinn's screenplay, published in book form. James Caan and Billy Dee Williams became stars, Caan appearing next in
A year after its original broadcast, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving of 1972,
People who didn't know football, or even the movie, were still touched by
In one more measure of its enduring significance, the song and the movie have, in the last four decades, been endlessly sampled and parodied--lampooned in National Lampoon, re-enacted on
William Blinn, the
In a 2008 interview for the Archive of American Television, Blinn was asked about the movie's legacy. "It's easy," he replied instantly. "I can't tell you how many times guys have said to me, 'That's the first time I cried around other guys.' That sounds stupid. And it is to some degree. And now it's on television as a clichéd joke, and that's OK, I got no problem with that. But there's something to be said for that. Kurt Russell said 'I'd never cried at a movie before that picture.' Manipulative? Yeah, sure it is. Sentimental? Yes, sure it is. So what?"
Superman had Kryptonite. The rest of us have