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TV Refview: ABC revives moving story of Bears who became buddies

Friday, November 30, 2001

By Michael E. Hill, The Washington Post

"Oh," sighed a colleague, when told there was going to be a remake of "Brian's Song." "Oh, no."



WHEN: Sunday at 7 p.m. as part of "Wonderful World of Disney" on ABC.

STARRING: Sean Maher and Mekhi Phifer.


It was not the lament of a movie buff who automatically rejects the idea of refilming a classic. It was the simple regret of someone who had a clear memory of a movie that made an emotional connection 30 years ago.

The original "Brian's Song" was that kind of movie. It told the true story of Gale Sayers, the stellar running back for the Chicago Bears, played by Billy Dee Williams, and his oil-and-water friendship with teammate and fellow running back Brian Piccolo. James Caan played Piccolo.

A new version airs at 7 p.m. Sunday as part of ABC's "Wonderful World of Disney." And if they had to redo this landmark film, at least they put it in the hands of two of television's master recyclers.

"The main reason Neil and I wanted to do it," said executive producer Craig Zadan, "was the challenge of doing something more grown-up for the 'Wonderful World of Disney.' "

"It's bold," said Neil Meron, the other executive producer. "We're asking the family audience to take on more than a fairy tale or a squishy animal story."

The story, unfolding from 1965 to 1970, opens with Sayers, the much-heralded collegiate star from Kansas, strolling into the Bears camp. Piccolo, who will compete with Sayers for a spot in the Bears backfield, is there to greet him.

The huge differences between the two men become obvious before the first commercial.

Sayers: African-American, quiet and shy. Or, was he arrogant?

Piccolo: White, outgoing and a wise-cracker. Or, was he a racist jerk?

Piccolo is played by Sean Maher, recently seen in Fox's "The $treet," and Mekhi Phifer, fresh from HBO's "A Lesson Before Dying," portrays Sayers. They become roommates as the Bears pair players by position, a break from the custom that had white players rooming with whites and blacks with blacks.

Maher has most of the film's snappiest lines as the Sayers-Piccolo relationship takes shape. When Sayers suffers a career-threatening injury, it is Piccolo who eggs him on while he rehabilitates his knee.

Later, it is Sayers lending the support as Piccolo's illness puts his career and life on the line.

"We don't think it deals with terminal cancer," said Meron of the devastating illness depicted in the film. "It's about survival, courage, the human spirit. It's a plot point, but not what the show is about."

Meron and Zadan, who helped reshape the classics "Cinderella" and "Annie" for television, had many choices to make in updating "Brian's Song."

Joy Piccolo O'Connell, Piccolo's widow, felt that only part of their story had been told in the original, said Zadan.

Meron added, "She said she would love to see the relationship between the wives and their husbands, between the two wives, to see Brian as a family man with young daughters." And she thought there could be more on how the course of Piccolo's illness was endured, Meron said.

And what did Zadan and Meron do with that haunting theme composed for the original film by Michel Legrand?

The new score is from Richard Marvin, who wrote the music for "Six Feet Under." The Legrand theme is used at a few key emotional moments, understated with a single instrument.

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