Al Silverman, Writer Behind ‘Brian’s Song,’ Is Dead at 92
Al Silverman, a magazine editor and publishing executive who collaborated with the Chicago Bears halfback Gale Sayers on an autobiography that was adapted into “Brian’s Song,” the popular 1971 television movie about the friendship between Mr. Sayers and his dying teammate, Brian Piccolo, died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 92.
His son Brian confirmed the death.
In 1969, when he began his conversations with Mr. Sayers, Mr. Silverman was well known in sports publishing. He had been a prolific freelance writer in the 1950s for various magazines, including Sport, a popular monthly, which hired him as its editor in chief in 1960, and where he was still working. He had also written books about, or with, sports figures like Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Frank Robinson.
In Mr. Sayers, who was 26, Mr. Silverman had a sensational young player as a subject: In his first three seasons, beginning in 1965, his speed and elusiveness had made him a superstar. But an injury to his right knee during a game in 1968 imperiled his career; he was still recovering when he began to tell his life story to Mr. Silverman, who wrote about his regimen of physical rehabilitation for Sport.
Their book, “I Am Third” (1970), contained one chapter called “Pick,” about his friendship with Mr. Piccolo, who died of lung cancer in 1970. (The book’s title refers to a sign Mr. Sayers had seen on his college track coach’s desk: “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.”)
“As much as they cut into this man, as much as he was inflicted with terrible pain and discomfort, as much as he was faced with all these tortures, his spirit would not be destroyed,” Mr. Sayers and Mr. Silverman wrote. “That was the beautiful nature of Brian Piccolo.”
The story told in that chapter became the basis for “Brian’s Song,” a tear-jerker that starred Billy Dee Williams as Mr. Sayers and James Caan as Mr. Piccolo and became one of the most-watched TV movies of all time and won the 1972 Emmy Award for outstanding single program. It was remade for television in 2001 with Mekhi Phifer and Sean Maher.
“I don’t remember my father talking about his greatest projects, but in terms of royalties, it was the best,” Brian Silverman said by telephone.
Mr. Silverman left the sports world in 1972, when he joined the Book-of-the-Month Club mail-order concern as executive vice president and editorial director. While there, Mr. Silverman understood that smart marketing was as important as selecting the right books for its broad swath of readers.
“He had a great gift for creating an event out of an editorial decision and making book-club members feel like participants in the event, at a time when book clubs were considered predictable,” Larry Shapiro, the club’s former executive editor, said in an email.
During his 16 years at the Book-of-the-Month Club, Mr. Silverman rose to president and later chief executive before joining Viking Books as a general editor.
“The thrill was working for the first time in my life with writers, which you don’t do at Book-of-the-Month Club,” he told Publishers Weekly in an interview in 2002. “At Viking I was given great writers to work with, including William Kennedy, Robertson Davies and Saul Bellow.”
Mr. Silverman also edited several of T. C. Boyle’s books, including the novel “The Tortilla Curtain” (1995).
“He gave me his full support and a devotion rare in the publishing world,” Mr. Boyle wrote in an email. “He was generous with his time and affection, an editor who cared deeply about his authors.”
Elwyn Harmon Silverman was born on April 12, 1926, in Lynn, Mass. His father, Henry, was a tailor, and his mother, Minnie (Damsky) Silverman, was a homemaker.
Al grew up a fan of the Boston Braves and later wrote a biography of Warren Spahn, the Braves’ Hall of Fame pitcher. After graduating from Boston University and serving stateside in the Navy during World War II, Mr. Silverman began freelancing.
As editor of Sport, one of his ceremonial tasks was to award a sports car to the athlete designated most valuable player in the World Series, the National Basketball Association finals and other postseason championships.
When the running back Paul Hornung was celebrated for leading the Green Bay Packers to the 1961 National Football League championship, Sport awarded him a 1962 Corvette. Mr. Hornung soon after sold the car and got into a dispute with the Internal Revenue Service in United States Tax Court after he failed to disclose the full market value of the car as part of his gross income for 1962.
“My father testified to Hornung’s defense that he should not pay income tax on the car,” Brian Silverman said. His father argued that the car was an unsolicited reward for Mr. Hornung’s talents and thus should be tax-exempt — “the same as a Nobel Prize, because football was Hornung’s art and he performed it to an award-winning degree.” Mr. Hornung lost the case.
Mr. Silverman later collaborated with Mr. Hornung on his memoir “Football and the Single Man” (1965).
In addition to his son Brian, Mr. Silverman is survived by his wife, Rosa (Magaro) Silverman; two other sons, Thomas and Matthew; and seven grandchildren.
Mr. Silverman continued to write books after retiring from Viking. He returned to sports with “It’s Not Over ’Til It’s Over: Stories Behind the Most Magnificent, Heart-Stoping Miracles of Our Time” (2002), and he wrote about postwar book publishing in “The Time of Their Lives” (2008).
In his review of “The Time of Their Lives” for The New York Times, the novelist and playwright Bruce Jay Friedman called it “a wonderful book, filled with anecdotal treasures.”
“It could have been written only by a ‘bookman,’ ” he added, “someone with printer’s ink in his blood and bones.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the surname of a former executive director of the Book-of-the-Month Club. He is Larry Shapiro, not Jacobs.
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