Chickie Donohue, 81, has been telling saloon stories since his teens, but there’s one he no longer has to tell.
It is 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 decades, it became a widely known, and widely disbelieved, tale in Inwood saloons and among Donohue’s fellow sandhogs, the urban miners who dig train and water tunnels deep in the city’s bedrock.
But now, Donohue is as amazed as anyone to see his story go from New York’s gritty bars and muddy tunnels to the big screen.
It has turned into “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” an adventure-comedy directed by Peter Farrelly and starring Zac Efron as Donohue. It opened in theaters on Sept. 23 and will reach Apple TV+ on Sept. 30.
During his four months in Vietnam, Donohue visited four friends. All survived harrowing combat tours to return home. They are all still alive and meet for dinner regularly in New York.
When the film premiered this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, the producers flew them up, all expenses paid. It was a far cry from rations in muddy foxholes. There were luxury hotel rooms, $250 daily 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 at 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 in the Democratic clubs and bookie joints. He said that by late 1967, he knew more than 20 young men from the neighborhood who had died in the Vietnam War.
So one night at Doc Fiddler’s saloon in Inwood, when a patriotic bartender nicknamed the Colonel (played in the film by Bill Murray) blasted antiwar demonstrators and blurted out that someone ought to 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 working as a merchant seaman. He signed on with a ship transporting ammunition from New York to Vietnam and brought a duffel bag full of American beer and whatever information he could find on the whereabouts of a half-dozen soldier friends.
He essentially sneaked around the country to find 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 New York City police lieutenant who grew up in the same Inwood apartment building as Donohue.
Duggan showed bar patrons images of Donohue eating rations 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 on hand, over the years, they helped him back up his far-fetched story and “I didn’t have to buy a beer for a 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 big screen is itself another dizzying Chickie tale. As Andrew Muscato, one of the film’s producers, put it, “Making the film was almost as unlikely as the beer run itself” and required “the same kind of hubris and naïveté it takes to bring beer into a war zone.”
Donohue said the story began with the New York Daily 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, during the strike, Donohue and his beer run story drew the attention of a News reporter, Joanna Molloy, who eventually collaborated with him on a 2017 book, also titled “The Greatest Beer Run Ever.”
While writing the book, she met Muscato, a documentary filmmaker looking for a project. They arranged to meet Donohue and the four Vietnam buddies at a bar to hear 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 short documentary called, you guessed it, “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” which became widely viewed on Pabst’s YouTube channel.
Muscato said his goal was to document the trip, “or else it would have remained this fantastical barroom tale.”
The short ran only 13 minutes, but it solidified the story’s credibility and caught the attention of executives at the production company Skydance, which in 2017 decided to make the film along with Muscato.
Muscato’s short also caught Farrelly’s attention while he was making “Green Book,” the 2018 drama that would go on to win best picture, and he was hooked right away.
“I was a minute in, and I was like, ‘You’re kidding me,’” he said in a phone interview.
“The concept, on the face of it, is ridiculous: a guy brings beer to his friends in the Vietnam War, that’s ludicrous,” said Farrelly, who signed on as director.
Early on, he asked Donohue how familiar he was with the rich genre of Vietnam films.
Just 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 article.)
This was quite a hoot to Donohue’s friends and family, a hunk like Efron playing a man who had never placed much stock in appearances, especially when laboring underground or running the locker room trailer at a job site known as the “hog house,” where sandhogs shower and launder their mining clothes once back above ground.
A first-timer on a movie set, Donohue watched Efron and was initially confused about why filming involved so many takes.
“In the beginning I wasn’t impressed,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘Jeez, doesn’t the kid listen?’ I’ve had a lot of jobs and if I had to be told to do something over and over, I would have been fired immediately.”
Donohue then saw that Efron was using those takes to hone his portrayal.
“He asked me, ‘Did you do this 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 think he really nailed me,” he said. “Watching him playing me, I felt the same emotion that I felt 50-something years ago.”