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On November 30, 1971, Brian's Song debuted as an ABC Movie of the Week. Normally, TV audiences were treated to campy comedies, nail-biting thrillers, or science fiction. Few expected this football flick to be so loaded with emotion. But the friendship between Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo certainly tugged at heart strings.
The result: five Primetime Emmy Awards!
Aside from the powerful story, this film featured some of the industry's top talents in acting, writing, and music. So let's dive deeper into one of the biggest touchdowns in TV movie history.
1. Williams wasn't the original actor cast.
Louis Gossett Jr. was originally cast as Gale Sayers. However, just before shooting started, Gossett tore his Achilles’ tendon. That's when Williams stepped in. As the story goes, producer David L. Womper made a big promise to cast Gossett in the next big part that he could place him in. While that promise took six years, it was worth the wait. Gossett appeared as Fiddler in Roots and won an Emmy for his performance.
2. James Caan was the faster runner in real life.
James Caan grew up playing high school football and could run circles around Billy Dee Williams. When they filmed their racing scene, Caan ran slower to convince viewers that Williams was the speedier of the two.
3. They technically filmed the movie on the wrong field.
Although the Chicago Bears were playing on Soldier Field while Brian’s Song was filming, Brian Piccolo actually played out his whole career at Wrigley Field. It would've been a little more accurate if the movie was filmed there instead.
4. Dick Butkus made his acting debut.
When Dick Butkus agreed to take an uncredited part in Brian's Song, it led to a long acting career for the football pro. He went on to act in more than 50 roles in film and TV. His first credited role would come three years later in an episode of Emergency!
5. Caan almost passed on the part.
James Caan almost didn't take the part in Brian's Song because he wanted to focus on major movies. In the end, it was the strength of the script that convinced him to accept the role of Brian Piccolo. It was the last role he filmed before playing Sonny Corleone in The Godfather.
6. It had its big screen debut.
Most made-for-TV movies remain on the small screen, but Brian's Song had bigger ideas. Due to its critical success and popularity, Columbia Pictures decided to release it in theaters. They even kicked off the theatrical run with a big premiere in Chicago.
7. Sayers lived in the Bewitched house, sort of.
The interior they used to shoot Gale Sayers’ house is the same set that was used as the Stevens’ home in Bewitched. Squint and wiggle your nose, and you might see it.