Ireland has never been counted among the world's wealthier nations. In 1960 it must have been a hot contender for last place on the World's Poorest list. I got my first impression of Irish poverty on the way into Dublin from the airport. This was the first stop on my far-flung search for locations for The Big Gamble. There was roadwork being done, and some of the laborers were using rocks to drive nails into wooden planks. The Public Works Department couldn't afford to provide hammers.
While conditions in Ireland may have been primitive, the people were anything but. Everyone an eccentric. Every one a lover of the intellect. Every one endowed with an impish humor, which was used as a buffer against a dour and gritty environment. That, and staggering amounts of whiskey and Guinness.
As I stepped out of the hotel my first night there, a twelve-year-old newsboy confronted me, urging me to buy one of his papers. I didn't want a newspaper, but one look at him and I couldn't resist. He was a street urchin in every conceivable sense. Barefoot, with filthy, ragged clothes, disheveled red hair, and a pug-nosed, dirty face that had the map of Ireland written all over it. I dug into my pocket and came up with a fistful of small change. "Here," I said, calling him over and holding open my coin-filled hand, "I'll take a paper, but I don't understand the money. You do it."
He didn't hesitate. Poking around in the coins, he picked out the exact amount and gave me a paper. "Good for you," I said. "I know the money, all right. I just wanted to see what you would do." With that, I poured the rest of the coins into his hand. "This," I said, "is for being honest."
It didn't come to much money, five shillings at the most, but his blue eyes widened and his face lit up with an open-mouthed smile. "T'anks, mister," he said in awed tones, obviously overwhelmed with this remarkable windfall. Then he turned and ran off down the street. I was the patronizing American spreading largess among the unwashed peasantry and feeling rather smug about it, too.
The next evening I left the hotel with several of my colleagues. As I came out the door I saw my newsboy, and he saw me. "There he is!" he started shouting and pointing. About eight other newsboys came running to him. It was clear they had been waiting for me. This, I thought, is going to cost me dearly.
"There he is!" my lad continued to shout as the others gathered around him. "That's him! The crazy American millionaire!" Then, instead of rushing at me with outstretched hands, as I expected, they literally fell about, laughing. They screamed with laughter and held their sides and stamped their bare feet as they pointed me out to the passerby. They weren't there to exploit the situation. They were there to have a good laugh at the lunatic who gives money away. It was humiliating, but it was insightful.
I got another insight a few days later. Not feeling too well with an upset stomach, I stopped in at a chemist's-pharmacist's-shop not far from the hotel. A young, rosy-cheeked girl in a white smock was behind the counter. I asked for a bottle of Entero-Viaform, which was a popular prescription cure in the 60's. The young lady said "Yes, sar," and disappeared through a curtained doorway at the rear of the tiny shop.
A minute or two later Barry Fitzgerald came bustling out through the curtain. If it wasn't Barry Fitzgerald it was someone who was trying hard to be just like him. He wore a rumpled, stained, open white smock over a well-worn, slightly frayed tweed vest and trousers. "Whell, now," he said, coming toward me, "are ya the gentleman wantin' the Entero-Viaform?" I said that I was.
"Ah, yes," he said. "I'm afraid I can't give it to ya. It's on the pyson list, ya know."
"The pyson list?" I asked. "What's that?"
"The pyson list," he replied. "Like arsenic and stuff like that. It's ridiculous, of course, but it's on the list."
"That's strange," I said. "I've been taking it for years without any problem, and I really need it now."
He gave this some thought for a moment. "Would it be too much trouble for ya to get a doctor's prescription?" he inquired politely.
"Yes, it would," I answered. "You see, I'd have to go back to the hotel and call a doctor. Then he'd have to come over and examine me and then he'd prescribe Entero-Viaform and charge me a nice fee and then I'd have to come back here."
"Ah, yes," the chemist said, nodding his head in understanding. "I see what ya mean." A small, devilish smile crossed his face, and the skin beside his eyes creased in conspiratorial humor. Then he made three statements that, to me at least, encompass a great deal of Irish philosophy and logic.
"Whell," he said with a chuckle, "it's only the law, ya know." He started toward the curtained doorway, then stopped and turned back. "Anyhow, who'd be the wiser?" he half-whispered. Again he moved toward the curtain and again he came back. "Besides," he said, toping it all off, "it'd be good for international relations." He'd covered all the bases and I got my Entero-Viaform.
The reason for my being in Dublin was not for location scouting alone, but also to do some casting. That part had gone quite well. How could it not when you had the Abbey Players and the Gate Theater to choose from? Hilton Edwards was running the Gate. Orson Welles idolized him and claimed that he'd learned what he knew about acting from Edwards during the years they'd worked together at the Gate. The reason Orson didn't end up at the Abbey, he'd told me, was that one of the requirements there was that you had to learn to speak and act in Gaelic. This Orson refused to do, and the Abbey's loss was the Gate's gain. Since I'd worked with Orson on my last two films, Hilton and I had much in common.
We were lunching one day, Hilton and I, in the staid and proper dining room of the Shelbourne Hotel, where I was staying. Edwards told me that his colleague and principal actor at the Gate, Michéal MacLiammóir, would be joining us. He did, and I wasn't prepared for him at all.
He breezed through the dining room, wearing a full-flowing opera cape; carrying a huge, gold-topped cane; and wearing a large black fedora hat pulled well over one eye, à la John Barrymore. He swooped down on our table like a great bat. After the waiters divested him of his props, I got a close-up look at him. I was startled but tried not to show it. Under a green velvet smoking jacket there was an extravagantly full black bow tie. He was an Oscar Wilde version of Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Most alarming of all were his face and head. On top was a wavy, black, shoulder-length wig. There was no attempt to disguise what it so obviously was, since it didn't fit him at all. It was nicely askew, and you could easily see right under the hairline.
Heavy, theatrical eyes. Two large, round red spots on his cheeks made him look like an escaped chorus girl from Blossom Time. His whole face was plastered in pancake makeup, best described by something that Goodman Ace once said to me about the appearance of Tallulah Bankhead. "She wore," he said, "seven layers of pancake, with syrup in between."
His whole aspect was so outlandish I couldn't possibly ignore or overlook it. Some comment was in order, I felt, or else I'd surely be insulting him or be considered an insensitive lout. This getup had to be intended for some theatrical event, I reasoned, so I pursued that concept.
"What time do you have to get back to the theater?" I asked.
"Oh, no special time," he replied airily.
"Don't you have a performance this afternoon?" I went on.
"Oh. A rehearsal, then?"
MacLiammóir looked puzzled. "No, we're not rehearsing anything at the moment."
I covered my face with the menu while I tried to extricate my foot from my mouth. This was his everyday appearance. He always looked like this. Once again I was trapped by the Irish character. I realized then that I was the only one in the room taking any notice whatsoever of this flamboyant eccentric. No one stared, the diners didn't even look up. The captains, waiters, and busboys greeted him with affectionate recognition and took care of his needs no differently than they did anyone else's. Eccentricity is a way of life in Hibernia. He was one of them, and God bless him who lives his life as he damn well pleases.
Although the casting may have been going well, I was having some difficulty with the location search. I couldn't find a pub. Not that there aren't enough pubs in Dublin to fill a book the size of the Manhattan telephone directory. I just couldn't find one I liked. Over a two-day period I saw dozens, but they lacked character and color. Some were drab, some were dreary, all were dirt-poor and depressing-looking.
At the end of a wearisome day of pub-crawling I called my staff together at the Shelbourne. Obviously, I told them, we're missing something. There's got to be an interesting, colorful pub in this town. We just don't know where to look. See if you can find a real pub expert, someone who knows every place there is. There must be somebody like that around.
The next morning, as I stepped off the elevator into the lobby, Julien Derode, our production manager, greeted me, his face wreathed in smiles. "We found your pub expert. We were very lucky, but we got him. He's the very best there is," he said, pointing proudly to a tubby figure seated in one of the lobby armchairs.
I walked over to where he was pointing, and the figure rose to meet me. Pub expert, indeed. I found myself shaking the hand of Brendan Behan.
The last time I saw Behan was at the Wyndham's Theater in London. I hadn't met him, but I saw him. There was no way of avoiding it. It was during a performance of his play The Hostage. He was seated in a box just to the right of the stage and making a spectacle of himself. He was gloriously drunk and shouting a mixture of ribald advice and insulting criticism at the actors on the stage. The actors, being a spunky and spirited bunch, were giving back as good as they got. It was hilarious. The audience loved it and got into the spirit of the thing, shouting abuse at both parties. Behan turned his attention to the audience, showering them with profanity. The place was in an uproar. Apparently this was something that happened several times a week. It was one of the best nights I've ever experienced in the theater.
Now, there he was before me, the eccentrics' eccentric, the embodiment of all the wonderful madness that is Ireland's. Looking like a retired, overweight prizefighter with his bloated face, much-broken nose, and missing front teeth, he wore a cheap suit two sizes too large for him. Derode was right about our being lucky. Behan had, that very morning, been released from the hospital, where he'd been "drying out." He had come, in fact, directly from the hospital to the hotel.
We chatted for a few minutes while I described what I was looking for and he told me about his health. His liver was shot and he had some diabetes. The hospital had detoxified him, kept him "dry" for some time, and discharged him with a warning that if he drank, he would die. "One drink," he told me, "and I'm gone." I inquired if he really felt up to doing what I was asking, visiting pub after pub for most of the day. Wouldn't the temptation to drink be too great? I didn't want to be responsible for the death of Ireland's greatest living playwright, I told him.
Behan laughed delightedly at that and assured me he was taking the doctor's advice seriously. He would stay strictly with fruit juice, he promised. Not only that, he had brought along insurance in the form of a friend, a gray-haired, military-looking gentleman with a huge, curled mustache and whom he introduced as the captain. The captain would keep an eye on him and see that, no matter what, he didn't touch alcohol. We had a car and driver standing by and hit the first of his recommended pubs about three minutes after opening time. It was already half filled with costumers, all of whom gave him a boisterous greeting. Brendan waved his right arm at them in response. This brought a laugh and a query from one of them. "What's happened to y'r hand, Brendan?" he asked.
I noticed then, for the first time, that he'd tucked his right hand up into the loose sleeve of his jacket so it wasn't visible. "I don't know," he answered. "It's gone. Left it somewhere." This started the patrons speculating as to what could have happened to it, but Brendan paid no further attention to them. He used the "missing hand" gag for the rest of the day, and it always got the same reaction.
True to his word, Brendan ordered a fruit juice in every pub we visited. The captain, however, had a whiskey. After the third pub the captain was having trouble walking, and Brendan had to assist him. After the fourth, we both had to assist him. After the fifth pub, Brendan's insurance lapsed. The captain was too drunk to stand up and finally fell asleep in the car.
Riding in the car seemed to bring out something in Brendan. Something wild and wonderful. In the pubs he was quiet and reserved. Everyone knew him and were obviously tremendously pleased to see him. He'd converse softly but briefly with his friends, then settle down contentedly at a table with his fruit juice while I looked around.
Once in the car, his entire demeanor changed. He became a fountain of poetry, limericks, anecdotes, blasphemy, jokes, history, literature, and song. Totally stream-of-consciousness and nonstop, it flowed and gushed from him in English, French, and Gaelic. It was a display that would have put the fountains of the Villa d'Este to shame. I was enthralled.
We came close to hitting an old woman at an intersection. She raised her cane and shook it angrily at us and told us to look where we were going. Brendan rolled down his window and stuck his head out. "Aw, shut up, you old bitch," he yelled at her furiously. "What are you complainin' about? You'll be dead soon enough, anyhow!"
On a busy corner on Grafton Street about six old crones in black dresses and shawls were queued up waiting for a bus. Brendan shouted for us to stop the car. We all thought something was wrong, but he leapt out of the car before it came to a halt and joined the old biddies. They gathered around him, cackling like the witches in Macbeth, kissing him and patting him and asking after his health.
With his arms akimbo, Brendan launched into some sort of Irish song and jig. The crones, who were now joined by several more who appeared from nowhere, formed a circle around him, clapping their hands in tempo as he sang a bawdy anti-British song at the top of his lungs and whose verses ended up with the stirring words, "and we'll wrap our balls in the English flag!" The crones shrieked with laughter every time he came to that part.
By the time he finished, a sizable crowd had gathered and gave him a rousing cheer as he came back to the car. The crones waved and shouted their blessings on him until we were out of sight.
We were passing through one of the more depressed areas of Dublin, on a street lined on both sides with identical tall, decaying red brick, Georgian buildings, when he pointed out what he referred to as his ancestral home. We stopped to look at this famous site. It was a tenement, just like all the others on the street. In fact, it was a tenement when the Behans lived there, before Brendan was born, during the time of the Troubles.
That was a truly terrifying period, he told me, particularly because of the almost constant artillery shelling of the neighborhood. Sometimes the family couldn't get out of the house for days, and they became desperate for food and supplies.
What they'd had to do, he said, was wait for a break in the bombardment, then dash madly out to the nearby building that had been hit, blindly grab the first thing they could lift, then run back home. "One time," he related, "when they were practically starving there was a lull in the shelling. My father ran across the street to a shop that had just been wrecked. He was scared to death, so he grabbed the first two boxes he saw and ran like hell, thinkin' that any minute he'd be killed. When he got home he found he'd brought back, at the risk of life and limb, twelve wigs and six pairs of ballet shoes." The shop, it seems, had been a theatrical supply house.
"It wasn't too bad," he added. "My uncle brought back two pairs of skis."
By the time we reached the last pub, we were all feeling a bit tired. The captain had recovered sufficiently to rejoin us for a refreshing pint of Guinness. Brendan settled into a booth and ordered his fruit juice, and I sat alongside him. "You know," he said to me, "I've been invited to do a speaking tour of Canada and then do an appearance in Los Angeles. Do you think I should go?"
"Don't you want to?"
"Oh, yes, I do."
"Then what's the problem?"
"Well, do you think I'll be lionized?"
"Without question. Of course you'll be lionized."
"Will they make me drink, do you think?"
"They'll certainly be offering you drinks, but no one can force you. You can always refuse."
He shook his head doubtfully. "I'm afraid if I go on this trip, I'll die." He was completely and touchingly sincere.
"Then don't go, Brendan," I urged. "Please, don't go."
He sat there thinking for a moment, then looked at me and said, "What do they charge for a room at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles?"
That question really came out of left field. I was so startled that I laughed. How did he even know the name of a hospital there? I wondered. It was an indication of how deeply concerned he was about his health. I told him what I thought the going rate was, and he brightened considerably. "Well, now," he said. "That's not as bad as I thought. Maybe I'll go after all."
Then he changed the subject. "Tell me, if I wrote a screenplay for you, would you direct it?"
I was thunderstruck. Brendan Behan writing a screenplay for me? It took me a minute to recover. "Would I direct it? It would be one of the greatest honors of my life to do anything you wrote."
"Okay. What do you want it to be about?"
Again I was stunned. "Brendan, I'm not interested in doing a picture about what I think. You're a great, innovative writer. I want to do a film about what you think. I want your ideas."
"Ah, yes, I see. Then that's what I'll do. I promise you." He held out his hand, and we shook on it. I couldn't believe he was serious, but it didn't matter to me. I was too flattered to care.
We were leaving for London in a couple of hours, so we returned to the Shelbourne to pick up our luggage and check out. A wide, wooden veranda, with old-fashioned rocking chairs, lined the front of the hotel. As we walked up the broad steps to the entrance, Brendan scurried away from us and sat in one of the chairs, folded his hands in his lap, and started rocking. I came over to see if he was all right.
He paid no attention to me but started a conversation with the empty chair next to him on his left. "Good mornin', Father O'Herlihy," he said. "It's a fine day, now, isn't it?" He then got up and sat in the chair he'd addressed, crossed his hands in his lap, and started rocking. "Yes, it is, Father Flanagan," he responded to the chair he'd just left. "In fact , it's better than we deserve here in East Orange, New Jersey."
I stared at him in delighted wonderment. There had been a very small item in the morning newspaper about some crazy, funny thing that had happened to two priests in East Orange, New Jersey. It had caught my eye and I read it with some amusement. So, apparently, had Brendan. Now here he was doing an entire sketch about the two priests, playing both parts, hopping from one chair to the other.
His antics stopped a small group of bewildered, gaping tourists, but Brendan went right on for my benefit. The dialogue and the situation he was improvising were screamingly funny. It was a display of dazzling, creative brilliance, and I knew I was privileged to be in the presence of an extraordinary human being.
We said good-bye in the lobby. "Brendan," I said, "this has been the most memorable day I've ever spent. I'll never forget it." He embraced me in a big bear hug. "Me, too," he said. "Me, too. And I won't forget about the screenplay, either." Then he left with the captain.
About an hour later we checked out into the airport. At that time there was a small, fenced-in area outside the departure gate where visitors could watch passengers board their plane. As I passed by this area I heard my name being called. Surely, I thought, it was meant for somebody else with the same name, but I looked around anyhow. There, behind the fence, waving and laughing. were Brendan and the captain. I went over to them. "What are you doing here, Brendan?" I asked, amazed. "We said good-bye at the hotel."
"I know," he answered, delighted that he had surprised me, "but I just wanted to see you off." We shook hands again. "Have a safe flight and God bless you," he said.
I waled out to the plane and climbed the portable gangway. When I got to the top I looked back. Brendan was still there, waving a crumpled white handkerchief. I waved backand entered the cabin. There was an empty seat on the side facing the terminal. I took it and looked out the window. Brendan could no longer see me, but there he was, still waving the handkerchief.
Ten minutes later the phone started to move. Brendan was still there, waving. A few moments later we were rushing down the runway for takeoff. My window still faced the terminal and I could see the now almost deserted visitors' area. Brendan was still there, waving his white crumpled handkerchief. I watched him until he was lost to view.
I had a large lump in my throat most of the way to Paris.
About a year later I was in my apartment on Via Monte Giordano, in Rome, when a small package arrived in the mail. On opening it I found a book and an accompanying letter. The book was a copy of Borstal Boy, by Brendan Behan. The letter was from someone I didn't know but whose name was familiar: Michael Todd, Jr.
The book, the letter stated, had been purchased for film production by Todd, Jr. The screenplay was to be written by the author. Brendan, the letter went on, was insisting that I direct the movie. He would hear of no one else. Would I please read the book and let them know if I was interested?
To say that I was touched would be a monumental understatement. After a year of great activity for him, at the very peak of his mad, brilliant career, he hadn't forgotten our brief encounter. And he hadn't forgotten his promise. He still intended to write a screenplay for me.
I didn't have to read the book to know that I'd want to do it, but I did. It was as good as I'd hoped it would be. I sent a letter to Michael Todd, Jr., telling him how much I loved it and how happy I'd be to direct the screenplay.
I never received a reply. There were financing problems, I learned subsequently, and the project was abandoned.
Behan died in 1964, having literally drunk himself to death. I couldn't claim to be a close, longtime friend of his. I wasn't a pal or a confidant. The time that I knew him was measured in hours, not years. Still, I felt a strong sense of loss. I thought of the wonderful plays and books he'd written in the short, fiery forty-one years he lived. And I thought of the wonderful plays and books and, yes, even screenplays he had in him that the world would now never see. This immensely talented, madcap, ribald Dublin wit had gone and had taken all that great promise with him.
Commenting on the death of Behan in the London newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, Alan Brien wrote:
I remember visiting him in hospital in London some years ago when the obituaries were already in type. "Brendan," I said, "do you ever think about death?" He heaved his bulk about in silence under the covers like a beached whale.
Then he burst out - "Think about death? Begod, man I'd rather be dead than think about death."
It was one of the most courageous and honest remarks ever made by a dangerously sick man. I would like to remember it as his epitah.
in Just Tell Me When to Cry - Encounters with the greats, near-greats and ingrates of Hollywood, de Richard Fleischer, capítulo XIV