New version of Brian's Song to air on Sunday nightPosted: Sunday December 02, 2001 2:38 AM
Updated: Sunday December 02, 2001 4:01 AM
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Get out the tissues.
Brian's Song, a story about the friendship between teammates on the Chicago Bears, is being retold 31 years after becoming the first TV movie that made it OK for men to cry.
The original won five Emmys. It starred Billy Dee Williams as Gale Sayers and James Caan as Brian Piccolo, who is diagnosed with a malignant tumor near his heart.
"It really is extraordinary what an impact it had on so many people," said Sean Maher, who plays Piccolo in the remake. "Everyone that I mentioned it to could remember where they were, how hard they cried, who they were with, and how hard their sister cried."
Did Mekhi Phifer, who plays Sayers, and Maher cry when they watched the original before filming began?
"Well, you know, I cried internally," Phifer said, smiling.
"I was definitely moved," Maher said.
The remake of Brian's Song airs Sunday (Dec. 2) on ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney (7 p.m. EST). Ben Gazzara co-stars as Bears coach George Halas.
The script by John Gray is based on the beloved 1971 movie written by William Blinn. Both were drawn from Sayers' autobiography, I Am Third.
Piccolo's widow, Joy Piccolo O'Connell, didn't participate in the original and was surprised to be approached for a new movie after so many years.
"It's a good story, and I think the youth today need good stories," she said. "In Brian's death, so much has happened, so much money has been raised, and it affects all of us. If this story can be told today, things will continue to get better for everybody, and I'm glad to be a part of it."
Some might see the remake as further proof there are no original ideas in Hollywood, but co-executive producer Neil Meron disagrees.
"We felt we could add something new and something fresh for a new generation," said Meron, who along with partner Craig Zadan, has done popular retellings of Annie and Cinderella for television.
"It's an overwhelmingly emotional and positive story about uplifting of the human spirit and, against all odds, how we can survive against impossible odds. So it's always valid to tell those stories," Meron said.
It's no secret that Piccolo dies at the end of both movies.
What happens in between is the unlikely friendship that develops between the comical Piccolo and shy Sayers when they become the NFL's first interracial roommates. Piccolo was white; Sayers is black.
Some dialogue from the original script was used again. Key scenes are repeated, including the first awkward meeting of Sayers and Piccolo at training camp in 1965, and the banquet where Sayers wins the George Halas award for the most courageous player in football.
Knowing Piccolo is near death, a tearful Sayers gives a poignant acceptance speech and says, "I love Brian Piccolo and I want you to love him."
What's different this time around is viewers won't hear racial slurs. In the original, Sayers donates blood to Piccolo, who cracks, "I've had a craving for chitlins."
"We do address the chasm between black and white, but in a very subtle way that doesn't really deflect from the central story," Meron said.
The wives (Joy Piccolo played by Paula Cale of Providence and Linda Sayers played by Elise Neal of The Hughleys) are given more time in the new movie. They were footnotes in the 74-minute original; the new one runs 105 minutes without commercials.
"She educated me a lot about what it was like to be so young and to be having these three little children and to be going through the devastation that she went through," Cale said of Piccolo O'Connell's help.
Of course, there's football, often in slow motion, which is sure to irritate fans of the game.
"For the astute football fan, they will say, 'Well, that's not real believable,'" Gale Sayers said. "But this is not about football. It's about two individuals having a good time together and one gets injured and one dies."
What is authentic are the NFL logos and old team uniforms, some of which were found in a Los Angeles warehouse after being used in the original. The producers had to cut a rights deal with the league.
The memorable theme music from the original is replayed at certain times, including over the closing credits. The script was vetted by the NFL, the Chicago Bears, Piccolo O'Connell and Sayers.
"The Chicago Bears gave us great comments on the script and kept us honest," writer Gray said. "They still revere Brian's memory very much."
Piccolo died at 26 in 1970, leaving behind his wife and three daughters. Today, more than half of the victims who suffer Piccolo's rare form of cancer are cured.
Joy remarried three years later and had two sons. Now 57 and living in Delavan, Wis., she remains president of the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund, which has raised more than $5 million.
Sayers, 58, was elected to the football Hall of Fame in 1977. He owns a company that provides computers and software to Fortune 500 companies.
He watched the original and the remake only once.
"We know all of the good times that Brian brought us, and we know the real sad times when he was sick and when he was dying," he said. "I don't need to see a film of that because I lived it."