When it comes to Hollywood's track record of adapting real-life stories for the big screen, stretching the truth of the actual subject matter is a common practice for cinematic or sensationalistic purposes. With regard to Zac Efron's new movie The Greatest Beer Run Ever, however, the actual story on which it's based seems too impossible to be true.
In 1967, John "Chickie" Donohue decided, basically on a whim, to travel from New York to Vietnam to bring beers to his friends and neighbors serving on the front lines in the war. Five months (and many close calls) later, Donohue returned to New York with an incredible story to tell — one that was first detailed in his 2020 memoir The Greatest Beer Run Ever: A Memoir of Friendship, Loyalty, and War, co-written by J.T. Molloy.
"It's one of those unbelievable real-life scenarios you can't believe a guy got himself into," says Efron, 34, who plays Donohue in the film. "It's a beautiful story about human nature, love and a really difficult war and time in history."
Adds director Peter Farrelly (Green Book, Dumb and Dumber): "It's so hard to believe this actually happened," he says. "But [Chickie's] a character, and it's his story. He's the person I wanted to please the most."
Courtesy of Apple
Read on for the real story behind the new film (now playing in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+).
On that fateful night 55 years ago, during a time of anti-war protests and political disconnect, Chickie Donohue was hanging out at a neighborhood bar in Inwood, New York, when conversation turned toward the Vietnam War and all the friends and neighbors who were currently serving in it. In talking about ways to show more support for the men serving in it overseas, bartender George Lynch (who is played by Bill Murray in the movie) suggested: "Somebody ought to go over to 'Nam, track down the boys from the neighborhood and bring them each a beer!"
Then-26-year-old Donohue, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who was working as a merchant mariner, decided he was the man for the job. Shortly thereafter, he found work on a cargo ship, packed a duffel bag full of beers, and set out on one of the most improbable goodwill missions ever conceived.
The trip took about eight weeks. Once they docked in the Qui Nhon Harbor, Donohue got to work finding his friends, using the letters and photos families passed on to him as a guide.
"The first three days in Vietnam, I got to see three different guys, and I only had six guys on my list," recalls Donohue. "I found out while I was there one of them had been shipped home and another one was killed while I was there. And so that left four Inwood guys."
Courtesy of John ‘Chick’ Donohue
The four guys — Tommy Collins, Kevin McLoone, Sgt. Rick Duggan and Bobby Pappas — were stunned to see Donohue when he found them.
"The fact that Chickie was able to find me is nothing short of a miracle, I thought I was being punked," Duggan, 74, told PEOPLE in 2020. "Having him there gave us a much better feeling about being in Vietnam, that people at home actually cared about it and would go to that extreme to show us that."
Naturally the trip was not without its challenges — and incredible dangers. During his journey, Donohue says he witnessed corruption among government and international officials, hitchhiked his way onto military helicopters and faced firefights.
Courtesy of Bobby Pappas
For much more on Zac Efron and Chickie Donohue, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands now.
When he returned home five months later, Donohue had a different outlook on the war.
"There was a lot of death and a lot of hurt," he recalled in 2020. "While I was there, I came to the conclusion that this was a bad, wrong war … it changed my mind about sending troops anywhere."
His first order of business when he got back to his neighborhood in Inwood? Head to his favorite bar to share his incredible tale with his friends there.
Courtesy of Celia Oliver Rick Duggan, Tommy Collins, Donohue, Kevin McLoone and Bobby Pappas reunited about 50 years after the beer run in Inwood NY.
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"I stepped out of the cab as someone was coming out of the bar across the street, Chambers, and he said, 'Hey, Chickie!' And he turned back into the doorway and yelled to the crowd, 'It's Chickie, he's back!' " he said. "It was a blur after that, just a lot of back slaps and laughing."
Donohue went on to work in construction and became a union official but is now retired in Florida living with his wife of 52 years, Theresa, and is the proud grandpa of seven. He maintains that he was simply doing the right thing.
"I had no mission to teach anybody anything," he says. "My mission was simply to let the guys over there know that we truly, truly supported them. Just like our fathers who saw action in World War II, they did their duty for their country, and it had nothing to do with politics. People often ask me: 'Why did you do it?' I'd say to myself, 'Why can't they just accept that it was the right thing to do?' That's all it really was. I didn't know what was going to happen exactly."
The Greatest Beer Run Ever is now playing in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+