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The True Story Behind ‘The Best Beer Run Ever’

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Chickie Donohue, 81, has been telling saloon stories since his teens, but there’s one he not has to inform.

It’s about his preposterously unlikely trip to Vietnam in 1967 to bring his soldier friends a beer and a hug of support from their home neighborhood of Inwood in Upper Manhattan.

The soldiers, all stationed with different units, were gobsmacked to see their neighborhood buddy in well-worn dungarees and a checked shirt suddenly show up in foxholes and tent barracks and hand them a warm one from his duffel bag.

Over a long time, it became a widely known, and widely disbelieved, tale in Inwood saloons and amongst Donohue’s fellow sandhogs, the urban miners who dig train and water tunnels deep in town’s bedrock.

But now, Donohue is as amazed as anyone to see his story go from Latest York’s gritty bars and muddy tunnels to the massive screen.

It has become “The Best Beer Run Ever,” an adventure-comedy directed by Peter Farrelly and starring Zac Efron as Donohue. It opened in theaters on Sept. 23 and can reach Apple TV+ on Sept. 30.

During his 4 months in Vietnam, Donohue visited 4 friends. All survived harrowing combat tours to return home. They’re all still alive and meet for dinner recurrently in Latest York.

When the film premiered this month on the Toronto International Film Festival, the producers flew them up, all expenses paid. It was a far cry from rations in muddy foxholes. There have been luxury hotel rooms, $250 each day food stipends, a red carpet and a screening where the boys earned a standing ovation.

On a recent weekday, a day after flying home, Donohue slapped a $100 bill on the bar on the Tubby Hook Tavern in Inwood, his buddy Rick Duggan, 74, sitting beside him.

The owner, Niall Henry, clapped Donohue on the shoulder and said, “I mean, you’re a good-looking guy, Chickie, but come on — Zac Efron? Give me a break.”

“I had never heard of him,” Donohue said. “But my granddaughter told me he’s this, he’s that — so he passed the smell test for the family.”

Donohue, whose given name is John, grew up in Inwood when it was an Irish American enclave dense with bars. He ran errands for the old-timers within the Democratic clubs and bookie joints. He said that by late 1967, he knew greater than 20 young men from the neighborhood who had died within the Vietnam War.

So one night at Doc Fiddler’s saloon in Inwood, when a patriotic bartender nicknamed the Colonel (played within the film by Bill Murray) blasted antiwar demonstrators and blurted out that somebody must bring a beer to the local boys fighting over there, Donohue shocked his fellow patrons by volunteering.

At 26, he was a Marine Corps veteran (stationed in Japan and elsewhere) and dealing as a merchant seaman. He signed on with a ship transporting ammunition from Latest York to Vietnam and brought a duffel bag filled with American beer and whatever information he could find on the whereabouts of a half-dozen soldier friends.

He essentially sneaked across the country to search out his buddies’ units, navigating through restricted areas and military officialdom, and hitching rides on Jeeps and planes.

“The story went all through the neighborhood, but some people sure had their doubts,” said Duggan, a retired Latest York City police lieutenant who grew up in the identical Inwood apartment constructing as Donohue.

Duggan showed bar patrons images of Donohue eating rations along with his ambush patrol unit, photos he took with the Kodak Instamatic camera his mother sent him in Vietnam.

Donohue said that when photos like these were available, over time, they helped him back up his far-fetched story and “I didn’t need to buy a beer for a very long time in Inwood.”

“But obviously I never dreamed it’d be a movie.”

How the beer run story went from Inwood bars to the massive screen is itself one other dizzying Chickie tale. As Andrew Muscato, certainly one of the film’s producers, put it, “Making the film was almost as unlikely because the beer run itself” and required “the identical form of hubris and naïveté it takes to bring beer right into a war zone.”

Donohue said the story began with the Latest York Every day News strike of 1990 when the owners were intent on putting out a “scab paper” despite a labor walkout. He said he thwarted management by getting their rail shipment of Canadian newsprint diverted to the Dakotas, with help from his union allies.

Anyway, throughout the strike, Donohue and his beer run story drew the eye of a News reporter, Joanna Molloy, who eventually collaborated with him on a 2017 book, also titled “The Best Beer Run Ever.”

While writing the book, she met Muscato, a documentary filmmaker on the lookout for a project. They arranged to satisfy Donohue and the 4 Vietnam buddies at a bar to listen to the definitive beer run story. The buddies brought their pictures and Donohue brought the stamped passport issued from the American Embassy in Saigon.

Muscato secured financing from Pabst Blue Ribbon to make a brief documentary called, you guessed it, “The Best Beer Run Ever,” which became widely viewed on Pabst’s YouTube channel.

Muscato said his goal was to document the trip, “or else it will have remained this fantastical barroom tale.”

The short ran only 13 minutes, however it solidified the story’s credibility and caught the eye of executives on the production company Skydance, which in 2017 decided to make the film together with Muscato.

Muscato’s short also caught Farrelly’s attention while he was making “Green Book,” the 2018 drama that may go on to win best picture, and he was hooked straight away.

“I used to be a minute in, and I used to be like, ‘You’re kidding me,’” he said in a phone interview.

“The concept, on the face of it, is ridiculous: a man brings beer to his friends within the Vietnam War, that’s ludicrous,” said Farrelly, who signed on as director.

Early on, he asked Donohue how familiar he was with the wealthy genre of Vietnam movies.

Only one, Donohue replied sincerely: “Forrest Gump.”

Muscato said that Efron got his hands on the script and quickly approached Skydance hoping to play Donohue. (Efron was not available to comment for this text.)

This was quite a hoot to Donohue’s family and friends, a hunk like Efron playing a person who had never placed much stock in appearances, especially when laboring underground or running the locker room trailer at a job site often called the “hog house,” where sandhogs shower and launder their mining clothes once back above ground.

A primary-timer on a movie set, Donohue watched Efron and was initially confused about why filming involved so many takes.

“At first I wasn’t impressed,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘Jeez, doesn’t the child listen?’ I’ve had lots of jobs and if I needed to be told to do something again and again, I might have been fired immediately.”

Donohue then saw that Efron was using those takes to hone his portrayal.

“He asked me, ‘Did you do that or that?’ He wanted my help,” Donohue said. “It felt good that he wanted my participation.”

“I’m no judge of great acting but I believe he really nailed me,” he said. “Watching him playing me, I felt the identical emotion that I felt 50-something years ago.”

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