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IRELAND'S king of comedy Brendan Grace loves being famous. He was friends with the late Frank Sinatra and he has dined at The Savoy in London with Michael Caine and Roger Moore.

Yet the 48-year-old entertainer remains unaffected by the trappings of fame.

He lives in sun-kissed Florida with Eileen, his wife of 25 years, and his four children.

But he still comes back to Ireland every year to perform his hilarious routine in the clubs and theatres where he first made a name for himself.

Brendan got his first break in 1974 when his debut single Cushy Butterfield went straight to number one. The single launched his career as cabaret artist across the country.

He became a household name in the 1980s after his schoolboy character Bottler appeared on one of Ireland's most popular television advertisements.

And he won a new generation of fans with the character he created and played in Father Ted - the gruesome Father Fintan Stack with the hairy hands.

But it was his friendship with Ol' Blue Eyes which made him a star across the world and led to him emigrating to America with his family in 1994.

Sinatra took a particular shine to Brendan when he met him in 1990 and immediately asked the funnyman to support him on dates in Britain and the States.

"That time was all like a fairytale to me," he said. "Sinatra was a real legend. While he sometimes came across as a difficult man, he was totally relaxed and very pleasant when he came to Ireland.

"He loved everything to do with Ireland and he said that his biggest regret was not performing here sooner. The people who looked after him had a tendency not to be nice - I didn't like them at all - but the man himself was great.

"The promoter Oliver Barry threw a party for Sinatra, Sammy Davies Jnr and Liza Minelli before they were due to appear in Lansdowne Road.

"I was chosen to entertain them at the party and Sinatra and Sammy Davies Jnr enjoyed my act so much that they asked me to perform as support to them in America.

"At that stage I wasn't sure whether I should make such a big move. But then Sinatra came back to Ireland and invited me to support him on his British gigs.

"It went down really well and I ended up entertaining him at private parties. He loved my routine and asked me again to come over to America, but I didn't want to uproot Eileen and the children.

"But we thought we'd give it a go in 1994 and packed our bags and moved to Palm Beach in Florida. We've been there ever since.

"It's a brilliant lifestyle - as soon we moved there we knew we'd made the right decision. We have great friends out there and the children love it.

"My sister Marie ended up coming over a few years later and lives near us. I've had a lot of good fortune since I moved there and my family love the lifestyle.

"I was so happy and delighted to be receiving such praise from people such as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davies Jnr. They opened a lot of doors for me in America.

"In fact, they are still the trump card on my CV. It's great to be able to say that I worked with great entertainers like them.

"When Sinatra died I felt that it was the end of an era."

Brendan's comic skills were honed in the playground as he protected himself from childhood jibes about his weight.

"I don't know where the comedy came from. Although my parents, Seamus and Chrissie, both had a great sense of humour, there was never any entertainers in the family. I was the first one.

"I was the fat boy at school and there wasn't much more for me to do other than make people laugh. I was the subject of a lot of jokes because of my weight so I used it to my advantage so people would laugh at me because of what I said.

"Laughter became a defensive mechanism for me so that people wouldn't know that I was offended or hurt. In fact I don't think much has changed now.

"People still need comedy - it's an essential part of their lives and a great way of escaping for a few hours.

"I actually started off in a folk band in 1970 when I was 19. I never had any ambitions to become an entertainer. In fact I think I had every other job under the sun before I started singing. I drove vans by day and worked in pubs at night.

"But then I heard that these two fellas in a folk group called Gingermen were looking for a singer and I went to meet them.

"I used to sing in the bars I worked in so I knew I could entertain people - in fact I was known as the singing waiter.

"I stayed with the band for a few years and gained great experience because I was performing in front of an audience for the first time.

"We never travelled far, just to Limerick and Galway, but we had a great innings when we were together. I earned enough money to buy a few pints each night.

"I was able to buy eight pints of Smithwicks out of a pound - my children don't believe me when I tell them that.

"I thought I'd have nothing to loose by going solo so I supported bands like the Wolfetones and Red Hurely.

"I started putting a few comic routines into my performances and they went down really well with the audience. I listened to other comedians and read jokes books to build up a repertoire.

"I wasn't and I'm still not into observational humour. I tell the traditional jokes, like the ones about mother-in-laws and I pick fun at myself so I always get a laugh.

"I developed my style on comedians like Ken Goodwin, Frank Carson and Les Dawson.

"But I didn't really hit the big time until 1974 when I had my number one single. It was a ballad from the North of England and the television presenter Shay Healy rewrote the lyrics to include things about Dublin.

"I couldn't believe it when the record reached number one. I was only 23 and I'd just got married to Eileen. So, really, from the beginning of my career I had a high profile.

"Suddenly I was earning pounds 50 a night instead of pounds 5 but I had no problem coping with it. I always wondered what it would feel like to be famous and I found that I loved it.

"I was a bit worried that such a big breakthrough had happened so early in my career that I'd never repeat it. But I needn't have worried - I took to fame like a duck to water.

"After that I appeared on the Late Late Show and that added another pounds 50 on my fee - it was great. I was world famous in Ireland. That's the way I felt.

"I'd created a character called Bottler - a kind of a Dennis the Menace naughty schoolboy which I performed on stage. After the Late Late Show people started identifying with him.

"I didn't want to move further afield from Ireland then. I was quite happy where I was. I did some shows in Irish clubs in England and America, but my favourite audiences were in Ireland.

"Fame didn't change me then or now. My lifestyle stayed the same. It didn't change my relationship with Eileen because we got married as my career started taking off.

"We were lucky enough to be able to buy a house and a car and eat in nice restaurants. Our marriage grew alongside everything else.

"I met Eileen when I was doing a gig in Wexford in 1972. I heard this unusual laugh from the audience which I kept focusing on. I met a girl I knew after the show and Eileen was with her.

"They'd travelled down to Wexford from Dublin for the weekend. I remember asking Eileen if she was the one with the strange laugh and she laughed. I took a shine to her and that was it - we got married in 1974.

"I knew the first night I saw her that I would be with her for the rest of my life.

"Her support over the years has been so important to me. If I didn't have a family to come home to each night in this business I'd have died of liver failure years ago.

"Having Eileen and the children made me knuckle down and be responsible. My career has driven us apart at times. But at the end of the day I couldn't have done any of this without her. She's a brilliant showbusiness wife."

Once Brendan's career took off he bought his parents a comfortable house in north Dublin and moved in along with his sister Maria.

"That's was the great thing about making good money. My parents were still alive and could enjoy the benefits of it.

"The first thing I did was buy my parents a house. I still lived at home at that stage and I wanted somewhere with a garden because we lived on the top floor of a block of flats.

"I didn't want them to have to climb six flights of stairs anymore. Being able to look after my family was vitally important to me.

"My father was from the country and he always wanted to grow scallions. That was one of the first things he did when we moved into the new house.

"I was extremely close to my parents. They were very supportive of what I wanted to do and they never told me to get a proper job.

"In fact my father loved showbusiness and spent most of his working life surrounded by stars as he worked in the pub directly opposite the Royal Theatre in Dublin.

"He became my travelling companion because Eileen couldn't travel with me when she became pregnant a year after we got married.

"It was a lonely life for Eileen and I at the start because we spent a lot of time apart. And when she gave birth to our first child Amanda in 1975 I felt on top of the world.

"Becoming a father was one of the best feelings in the world which wasn't matched until Eileen had our other three children.

"After that my career just kept taking off. There were different breaks - for instance when I got the role of Narrator in Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in Dublin.

"I actually had to learn my lines for that on my honeymoon.

"In 1979 I was in a bad motorcycle accident and was in hospital for a few months with pretty bad injuries.

"I smashed up both my legs and broke a few ribs. I also had to have a few bone grafts - it was pretty horrific. But a new chapter opened in my career then: Pantomime.

"While I was resting a guy who was promoting panto asked me to play Buttons in Cinderella.

"So I ended up on stage on crutches. After that first performance I realised that panto was my forte. It still is although I haven't done one in 10 years.

"I introduced the character of Bottler into the pantos and the character then became synonymous with the shows. After that I appeared in the Maxol advertisements as Bottler and that was better than 20 number one records.

"I became a household name. Everyone knew me. Maxol said that advertisement was the most successful one they'd in 10 years.

"There were obviously times in between when things weren't working out. When I had the bad accident I thought my career was over.

"My two daughters were very young and I know Eileen was worried about the future. But I knew that in the worst case scenario we had the insurance money from the accident.

"I thought I'd be out of work for a long time and then people would forget me. But then I got another lucky break and the panto came along.

"After that the next big boost for me was the introduction of videos in the early 80s. I realised that they were actually better than television shows and I've made five different tapes.

"I also appeared on television on a regular basis on different entertainment shows.

"But things really picked up after the television ad. RTE started giving me my own show and I presented Sunday Night at the Olympia for a few years.

"The priest I played in Father Ted was totally obnoxious. If Dermot Morgan had not died so tragically then my character Fr Fintan Stack would have been in a few more episodes.

"I created the character of Fr Fintan with the hairy hands and ghettoblaster and young people loved him.

"At the moment I spend the summer months in Ireland and come back to do the Christmas season for a few weeks. I used to tour in Australia but I stopped a few years ago because it was exhausting.

"I want to spend as much time off as possible when I'm in America. There's no point working hard all the time and not being able to enjoy the benefits of it.

"My act has become more defined over the years - there are very few people doing what I do. At the moment comedy comes under different headings.

"It's done in a way that appeals to younger people - I'm just lucky enough that there are enough older people around who still enjoy my act.

"I'm getting more satisfaction from my work now than ever. I'm on top of the world and my life couldn't be better.

"I've been extremely lucky all my life. I have a great family and I've never had a bad moment in my career. No matter what happens now, my career can't get any better than it is."
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Doherty, Amanda
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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