Forty years later Brian's Song still resonates -- and produces tears

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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 Brian's Song, a 90-minute made-for-TV film about the brief, unlikely friendship between Chicago Bears' teammates Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers.

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 I Am Third, Sayers' little-read autobiography of 1970.

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.

Before Brian's Song, the cultural proscription against men crying was so strong that Piccolo himself, sometime after his diagnosis, reportedly told his wife, Joy: "You can't cry. It's a league rule."

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 Brian's Song, Jim Murray wrote how Piccolo was once asked what he and Sayers talked about. "Oh, the usual racist stuff," Piccolo replied. "He calls me by my nickname, 'Honky'. We get along fine as long as he doesn't use the bathroom. He sleeps in the lampshade."

From a four-decade remove, it's easy to forget the impact of Brian's Song. The scene in which Piccolo and Sayers run slow-motion wind sprints in the park -- to a lachrymose theme song that would become unshakeable -- long predated the same tableaus in Chariots of Fire and Rocky III and countless other sports movies.

It also undercut its own Movie-of-the-Week mawkishness with insults and locker-room humor. In that way, and many others, Brian's Song was the first bromance, apologizing for its own sentimentality with general ball-busting and inappropriate jokes. In the hospital, when Piccolo is told he was given Sayers' blood -- both were Type B -- he tells his teammate: "That explains it then. I've had this craving for chitlins all day."

Its critical acclaim was nearly, but not quite, universal. "As a film, Brian's Song adds little to the art of cinema or even to the profession of filmmaking," wrote John J. O'Connor in The New York Times. "As a movie, it is pretty much straightforward cliché. The basic story, however, is moving."

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, Brian's Song was the fourth most-watched film ever to air on television, behind only the theatrical blockbusters Ben-Hur, The Birds and The Bridge On the River Kwai. It received 11 Emmy nominations and was briefly released in theaters. Its theme song -- Brian's Song, or The Hands of Time -- made the charts, burrowing into ears and never leaving.

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 The Godfather, Williams in Lady Sings the Blues.

A year after its original broadcast, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving of 1972, Brian's Song re-aired, beginning a longstanding American tradition that would see my father exercise his tear ducts once a year, on a regular schedule, like Old Faithful or the fountains at Caesar's Palace.

People who didn't know football, or even the movie, were still touched by Brian's Song. Shortly after the film's second airing, in December of 1972, Ella Fitzgerald asked a reporter visiting her home in Beverly Hills: "What was that show about football? You know, one of the guys dies? Brian's Song. Such a beautiful song. Michael Legrand wrote it." And then, in her own den, she sang it. Johnny Mathis and Perry Como and Henry Mancini, among others, would record it, too.

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 The King of Queens used as the title of a Family Guy episode.

William Blinn, the Brian's Song screenwriter, went on to win an Emmy for Roots, and created Starsky and Hutch and Eight Is Enough, and produced the television series Fame, among many other achievements. But he will also be remembered as an Edison of sorts -- the inventor of man tears.

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 Brian's Song, the first -- and still most surefire -- Male Tearjerker. Others have followed, but let's not forget: Brian's Song opened the floodgates.