ONE OF history's beer-drinking icons is visiting Philadelphia over the next couple of weeks. You may have seen his bulbous red nose and glorious mustache on bus-stop ads announcing his arrival:

Sir John Falstaff.

He's the star of his own 114-year-old opera, "Falstaff," which opens Wednesday at the Academy of Music. Of course, he's much older than that, having first appeared in Shakespeare's "Henry IV" about 400 years ago.

True, Falstaff is a fictional character, but his image is the cultural archetype for the fat and happy drunk, and I don't mean that in any negative context. Think of W.C. Fields, Orson Welles, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, John Belushi - larger-than-life wags with a taste for grape or grain, whose turn of a phrase improved life for us all.

My pal and classical-music consigliere Tom Di Nardo will write more elegantly next week in the People Paper about the Opera Company of Philadelphia's production of "Falstaff." But to get a handle on the big guy's drinking rep, I bummed Tom's DVD of the opera, a 1979 film version starring Gabriel Bacquier in the title role. What becomes clear in watching it is just how much our esteem for the witty hedonist has dwindled.

In today's tight-butted world of self-denial, the notion of a guy who likes to drink, and drink a lot, is almost taboo. We've got government nannies and mad mothers wagging fingers, shaming us for our enjoyment.

Just the other day, I read that CBS-TV had banned a golf ball commercial because it shows pro golfer John Daly - a Falstaffian figure if there ever was one - with a beer on the fairway. A TV flack blathered how the ad did not meet network standards because it depicted an individual drinking while "performing an activity that requires a level of alertness."

Folks, we're talking about golf, a sport that encourages you to drive a motorized vehicle so you don't have to lug your own sixpack.

For Shakespeare, Falstaff was the Everyman, the link between heroic kings and princes and the lower classes.

His drunkenness was symbolic of his commonality.

Though the Bard's plays were performed in beer-drinking, 16th-century England, Falstaff evidently preferred wine to ale. In "Henry IV," he says a sack of sherry "ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery and delectable shapes, which delivered o'er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit."

In Verdi's composition, Falstaff is still drinking flagons of wine, boasting about his mammoth belly.

"If Falstaff got thin," he bellows in Act I, "he wouldn't be himself. Nobody would love him! With this great belly, a thousand tongues proclaim his name."

Even when he is soundly humiliated by townspeople as a "filthy, damned, evil Epicurean," he retorts, "Without me, these proud people wouldn't have a morsel of wit!"

In 1903, 10 years after Verdi's opera debuted, the figure of Falstaff was so well-liked, Lemp Brewing in St. Louis registered it as a trademark. The company says Falstaff was chosen because he represented "positive social aspects of drinking, rather than the destructive consequences of over-consumption emphasized by prohibitionists."

Sir John, the company says, was "a 'man's man' and his sense of good fun was tempered by an exceptional intellect."

Over the next 80 years, Falstaff was one of the top-selling brands in America.

Today? The brand is gone, put out of its misery by Pabst in 2005.

And Falstaff the great man is disappearing, too.

Take a look at the sculpted pretty boys and skinny models in ads, drinking diet beer and boasting that theirs is "less filling."

Oh, if Falstaff could see them, he'd proudly lift his great belly, as he did in "Henry IV" and swear, "If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations."

It's great to see you back in town, Fat Jack.

Just a coupla more notes:

_ An excellent resource on the history of Falstaff Beer

can be found at www.falstaff

brewing.com, which provided me with some background for this column.

_ For show times and tickets to the Opera Company of Philadelphia's "Falstaff," go to www.operaphilly.com or call 215-893-3600.

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.JoeSixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.