Back in the Summer of 1971, things around the Chicago Bears training camp were definitely not “business as usual.” While head coach Jim Dooley and his various assistants, including my father, Abe Gibron, were trying to grade talent for the upcoming season, Hollywood had stepped in. Gale Sayers’ autobiographical best seller, ‘I Am Third,’ was being turned into a TV movie and there were lights and cameras everywhere. In between the recognizable football names and typical Bears family members were grips, lighting crew, production teams, and perhaps most importantly, actors. It had been a little more than a year since Brian Piccolo had died of cancer and the team was still reeling from the news. The presence of the filmmakers was merely making matters worse, especially for my dad.
Piccolo and his family had been very close to mine. He came to our home in Michigan City quite often, and his genial smile and Italian sensibility played perfectly into my dad’s larger than life ethnic background and designs. When he died, my father was devastated, so when he was asked to play himself, it became imperative to do whatever he could to make the movie better. Of course, his status as a rank amateur was obvious in every moment he was featured on the screen (he’s the big, burly man who calls Piccolo a “bone-headed spaghetti eater”) and yet he was very proud of the experience.
I myself was almost in the movie as well.
During a moment when stars Billy Dee Williams and James Caan are talking on the sidelines, there’s a young man in a print shirt and pants holding a water tray. That’s Bill Dooley, the Head Coach’s kid. I was also working the sidelines that game, so they called me over to handle the retake. Williams and Caan repeated their lines, I did what I was told, but apparently was left on the cutting room floor. After that game (the Bears were playing at Notre Dame stadium while their home stadium, Soldier Field, was getting a revamp), the actors and filmmakers all came to our house for a big party. Driving back from South Bend, I found myself seated between the two main stars in the backseat while my dad talked to Jack Warden (who played George Halas in the film) up front.
‘Brian’s Song‘ became a firm fixture in my life on November 30, 1971, when it premiered as part of the ABC Movie of the Week line-up. Instantly considered a classic, it was all my friends and our neighbors could talk about. When the movie was nominated for several Emmys, my dad actually watched the awards show (something he rarely did) and called Jack Warden personally after he won. Over the years, I have run into hundreds of people who’ve been touched by the film, wondering how well I knew the subjects (as well as a 10 year old kid could, I would offer) and those who played them, as well as any other tidbits about the time Tinseltown came to Rennselaer, Indiana (the home of the Bears camp at St. Joseph’s College).
Perhaps this is why I have such a visceral reaction to the news today that Nicholas Sparks has bought the rights to Sayers’ book ‘I Am Third’ (upon which ‘Brian’s Song’ is based) and the more recent ‘Sayers: My Life and Times’ with the purpose of turning them into – you guessed it – a feature film. Now, ‘Brian’s Song’ was already remade, again as a TV movie, back in 2001 (with an actor playing my dad, oddly enough) so this is apparently NOT going to be another attempt at that material. Instead, according to Deadline.com, Sparks (with support from Theresa Park and Michael Costigan) will focus on all aspects of the Sayers/Piccolo story: their individual accomplishments in college; their successes and failures as part of the Bears; the racial issues the team faced in the late ’60s (I remember those well); Sayers’ injury and rehab, as well as Piccolo’s diagnosis and death.
Currently, no script has been written and no casting is being considered. Instead, this announcement lets people like me know that the man responsible for such horrible hackneyed drivel as ‘Message in a Bottle,’ ‘Nights in Rodanthe,’ and ‘Dear John,’ among others, will be responsible for putting a significant part of my life onscreen. The problem I had with the 2001 remake was the tone (it seemed to treat Piccolo like a clown, while Sayers was somber to a fault) as well as the (mis)casting. Hopefully, Sparks’ name will inspire some name stars to step up and take on the roles. I will also be interested in seeing if they feature my father, and if so, who plays him.
Of course, none of this will replace how powerful and beloved the original ‘Brian’s Song’ is. Even now, I can’t watch the movie without being whisked back to that stiflingly hot summer, where professional football players sat star struck by the soon to be famous men suited up alongside them. Considering its legacy and the individuals its interpreting, Sparks and Company have their work cut out for them. ‘Brian’s Song’ was and remains a benchmark. Perhaps this latest look at Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo should be left on the sidelines as well.