Steve Daly
October 18, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

At first, Liam Neeson blamed it on the bellinis. En route to the Venice Film Festival in August, the 44-year-old actor knocked back two of the champagne-and-peach-juice cocktails — just the right sort of fizzy Italian specialty drink to celebrate his arrival in La Serenissima. He would be there to attend the world premiere of Michael Collins, an epic biopic about the Irish revolutionary, in which Neeson plays the title role.

If the star needed a bit of liquid relaxation, no one could blame him. Director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) had already taken a beating in the excitable British press for brewing up a presumably inflammatory account of Collins and the early days of the Irish Republican Army. And just three days before Neeson had left for Venice, his wife, Natasha Richardson, endured a long, hard labor, delivering their second child, Daniel. The circumstances were enough to make any new father anxious, and Neeson was evidently uneasy about leaving Richardson behind in New York. ”I thought, F— it,” he says in a slow, quiet, north-of-Ireland lilt. ”I’ll have these bellinis.”

But within a half hour of imbibing that Friday afternoon, it was Neeson who felt he’d gone to hell as waves of pain coursed through his 6-foot-4-inch frame. Attributing his discomfort to the mix of bellinis and nerves, the star fulfilled his duties by showing up the next day at a press conference, where audience members noted that he appeared hunched and sallow. He then struggled through the premiere that evening with Jordan and costars Aidan Quinn and Stephen Rea.

The audience’s thunderous applause foreshadowed the film’s ultimate victory — Collins and Neeson would walk away with the festival’s top honors a week later — but the opening night was one Neeson would rather forget. ”Y’know that movie Paul Newman made about a racing car driver?” he says. (It’s called Winning.) ”There’s a fantastic sequence at a party and as he’s bumping into people, there’s the sound of cars hitting each other. That’s what this felt like….Thanks be to God, nobody asked me diddly-squeak.”

”He could hardly stand up for the applause that night,” says Collins producer Stephen Woolley. ”Ten minutes [into the ovation] he had to sit down. If he’d stayed up, they’d probably have gone on another 10 minutes.”

It wasn’t until Sunday evening that it became painfully clear Neeson was suffering from a freak buildup of scar tissue in his intestines — the souvenir of surgery he had a decade ago for a colon that perforated as a result of diverticulitis. Ironically, his weakened state may have been exacerbated by a high-protein diet he had been using to prepare himself for Venice photo ops. Once diagnosed, Neeson had only a few hours to find a surgeon to avoid grave complications. ”I said, ‘Jeez, Liam, I’m coming with,”’ recalls Quinn. With Neeson’s publicist and agent in tow, they set out on a frantic journey to a Padua hospital about 20 miles away. But the trip quickly degenerated into what Quinn calls ”a comedy of errors.”

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