CHICAGO – It was a film that only lasted for 74 minutes and never had a major national theatrical release, yet its impact has lasted as long as any sports movie ever made.
James Caan had a lot to do with that.
The actor, who passed away at the age of 82 on Thursday, portrayed Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo in the film “Brian’s Song,” a made-for-television film that aired on ABC on November 30, 1971. He along with Billy Dee Williams, who played Gale Sayers, brought to life the story of a most unlikely friendship that was cultivated here in Chicago.
From different backgrounds, the pair formed a close bond that started when they arrived with the Bears in 1965 and eventually they became the first interracial roommates in the history of the NFL. Caan’s humorous, wise-cracking portrayal of Piccolo was balanced with the shy, quiet nature of Sayers that Williams helped come across the screen.
Their bond along with the one formed between the families of each became the subject of the film, all the way up until Piccolo’s death on June 16, 1970 at the age of 26. The emotional scene of Sayers talking to a dying Piccolo in a hospital room has been known to make a number of people cry.
Because of these performances and the story itself, Brian’s Song is considered one of the greatest television movies ever made and among the classic sports films of all time. It would win a Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding single program while both Caan and Williams were nominated for best actor.
After Caan’s death, many have mentioned his role as Piccolo as one of the more iconic in his long career and certainly one that fans in Chicago recall clearly. On Thursday, Williams remembered Caan with a picture of the two on Twitter in a weight room in tribute to the pair having a few workout scenes in the film.
WGN News Now featured Caan’s performance in this edition of #WGNTBT. Watch the segment in the video above.