The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion RIP James Caan, who taught millions of American males how to cry

U.S. actor James Caan holds a news conference to open the 6th annual Hollyshorts Film Festival August 5, 2010 in Los Angeles. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP)

On the evening of Nov. 30, 1971, American males got in touch with our feelings, thanks to a TV movie called “Brian’s Song.”

It was the Tuesday after the long Thanksgiving weekend. We’d celebrated the holiday in the manly way: dad in his jacket and tie and me in an itchy sweater, accompanying the womenfolk to church. We mumbled along as the congregation sang “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” because mumbling was more masculine than singing. Then we returned home to watch football while mom toiled in the steamy kitchen.

Did we offer to help? Ha! Males did not cook in those days unless they were outdoors, or French. The sole exception to this rule was the carving of the Thanksgiving turkey, a solemn task reserved for The Father — even if, like mine, he was neither a butcher nor a surgeon but simply worked at a warehouse.

We might say today that carving the turkey was “a performance of masculine stereotypes.” So it was. But we had no words for such a concept because we weren’t in touch with our feelings. Dads carved turkeys. We knew this from pictures in our schoolbooks.

Follow David Von Drehle's opinionsFollow

Equally rigid was the rule that Big Boys Don’t Cry. This Eleventh Commandment was a source of great concern to me. At 10 years old, I was most definitely a Big Boy, with a poster of an NFL lineman over my bed and a plastic ring from Woolworth’s on my girlfriend’s finger. But I was still known to cry sometimes. I secretly feared I was a crybaby.

On the fateful night, we took our customary places around the 19-inch TV screen. It seems unimaginable now, but back then, Americans had only three choices (apart from local programming and educational stuff). The obvious choice for manly males was the new movie on ABC. It was about football.

But it was not about football. “Brian’s Song” was a love story to the sound of crashing shoulder pads and trilling whistles, with a haunting theme song that soon filled the radio airwaves. It celebrated the real-life brotherhood between the gifted halfback Gale Sayers (played by supercool Billy Dee Williams) and the bantam fullback Brian Piccolo on the Chicago Bears football team of the late 1960s. James Caan played Piccolo.

Gale Sayers’s speech in ‘Brian’s Song’ is an essential piece of sports-movie history

Their friendship was the beau ideal of warrior comrades. Shared struggles ripened into mutual respect, then deepened into genuine trust and, finally, as Piccolo faced his early death by cancer, became something even more. “I love Brian Piccolo,” Sayers declared — in life and in the movie. It was a shocking statement to the wartime generation and its sons, boldly naming a feeling we craved despite its fearsome power.

Men cried that night for the young and beautiful dead, and for those who survived them and went on.

It had not always been true that big boys don’t cry. The literature of past ages is full of tears of joy, of sorrow, of pride, of wonder. Even the Bible pauses for this two-word verse: “Jesus wept.” But there was a damming of the tear ducts among men who knew the love and loss of comrades from Ypres to Iwo Jima to Ia Drang.

And the bond between Sayers and Piccolo was something more in 1971, when the nation was aflame. Sayers was Black. Piccolo was White. Their brief and glorious friendship suggested that healing might be possible, even as Piccolo’s death at 26 warned of its evanescence.

“Brian’s Song” came at the start of a decade of magnificent filmmaking, but it was not a great movie. Only a powerful one. It was a statement of intense feeling that neither hid nor apologized for its heart. It was an argument in favor of caring, the case for giving a damn.

I tried not to cry during the final minutes, dutifully performing my masculine stereotype. But I failed. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a guy who succeeded. When I stole a guilty glimpse toward my father to see if he had caught me welling up, I saw glassy pools in his eyes.

I don’t know that he cried very often after that. I, on the other hand, have been a river of tears. It’s a joke among my family and friends. Here’s a sunrise. Here’s a commercial for coffee at Christmas. Here’s a sappy old song on the radio. Dave’s probably going to weep. I’ve learned to stop apologizing.

James Caan, Oscar nominee for 'The Godfather,' dies at 82

Caan went on to play Sonny Corleone in arguably the best of those 1970s masterpieces, “The Godfather.” His performance earned an Oscar nomination. Yet for me and for millions of American males who were surprised by feeling on that long-ago November night, he was forever Brian Piccolo. Which is why, when news came of his death, I cried.