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MISSION IMPOSSIBLE; In 1962 newspaper publisher David Astor sent a reporter to a job in Dublin - he had SEVEN DAYS either to get Brendan Behan off the drink.. or take down his last words.

Byline: EAMONN O'HANLON

A TOP Hollywood scriptwriter has revealed how he was sent to 1960s Dublin on a doomed mission to save Brendan Behan's life.

Clancy Sigal was dispatched from London in 1962 by British newspaper publisher David Astor amid fears that Behan was drinking himself to death.

American-born Sigal, who now lives in Los Angeles, said he arrived in Ireland confident he could tempt the legendary Irish writer off the bottle.

But Behan, who was already suffering from liver disease and the diabetes that would eventually kill him, celebrated the American's arrival by taking him on a huge bender.

Sigal said: "I was sent there to cajole Behan into entering detox in England, or if that failed, to catch for posterity his dying words.

"But the week I spent with him in Dublin, at his Ballsbridge home and making the lethal rounds at Jury's, Bailey's, the Dolphin - up and down the bars of Pearl Street - was brutally alcoholic, phantasmagoric, and for me, unforgettable.

"Everyone, including Behan, knew he was dying - of diabetes, of liver and life itself - and some were impatient that he was taking such a God almighty long time at it."

Sigal spoke out following the Los Angeles premier of Borstal Boy - Dubliner Peter Sheridan's acclaimed movie about Behan's early life.

Although Behan was active in the IRA as a teenager, he was the toast of literary London and New York by the early sixties, thanks to the success of his plays The Hostage and The Quare Fellow.

But his reputation for boozing and wild behaviour was also at its height following drunken TV appearances on both sides of the Atlantic.

Behan caused a sensation when he slurred his way through one an infamous exchange with TV chatshow host Malcolm Muggeridge.

At one stage he told Muggeridge he was bored and asked: "Why are millions of people watching two boring old farts like us when they could be out walking the dog, having a pint, making love, or all three at the same time."

It was at this time that Astor - the son of a British viscount - told friends Behan was a rare genius and vowed his newspaper, The Observer, would help him back to sobriety.

Sigal was given seven days and an unlimited budget to persuade Behan to return to London with him.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Sigal said: "Wherever we went in Dublin, him wheezing and coughing and spitting blood into a handkerchief, he seemed to know everybody.

"Old school friends, booze-up pals, IRA comrades, hangers-on, admirers, and ex-lovers surrounded him on every street, in every pub, feeding him whiskey, bits of sly gossip, slier malice, thumps on the back... and always, always more Jameson's whiskey."

Sigal remembered Behan as "huge, sprawling, dishevelled" with blood stains and cigarette burns on his clothes and several days of stubble on his "yellowish, drink-splotched" face.

The american was forced to return to London alone and eventually went on to forge a career as an author and screenwriter.

His latest movie, Frida, starring Salma Hayed and Antonio Banderas is due to be released in Ireland later this year.

He said Behan was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, but paid the ultimate price by playing up to the public's image of him as the "outrageous drunken paddy".

Sigal said: "He could write his fool head off in private and in public make a fall-down sloppy buffoon of himself.

"At the peak of his popularity in the early 1960s, he gave audiences a caricature of an Irishman, free with his sex, and curses, and a prodigy with the English language."

Sigal said he last saw Behan almost two years after his failed mission to Dublin.

The setting was the Central Middlesex Hospital where Behan had been taken after collapsing while on a visit to London.

Behan died aged just 41 on March 20, 1964, and is buried in Dublin's Glasnevin cemetery.

His coffin was given an IRA guard of honour, with one British newspaper summing up the tragedy of his life with the words: "Too young to die, but

CAPTION(S):

TOO DRUNK TO LIVE: Brendan Behan knew drinking alcohol would eventually kill him; MISSION: David Astor
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 14, 2002
Words:702
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