IN an industry where age 28 is considered over-the-hill, the career of Gabriel Byrne is an anomaly. The brooding Irish thespian was a geriatric 29 years old when he decided to pursue acting professionally, and was positively prehistoric — 40 to be exact — when he was cast in his star-making role, as a stoic ’30s gangster in Miller’s Crossing.
Byrne’s winding saga began in Dublin, in 1950. He was the first of six proper Catholic children born to a nurse and a Guinness barrel maker who turned stay-at-home dad when metal kegs rendered his job obsolete. We all happily anticipate Gabriel Byrne Vikings, a documentary series in which he will really be able to shine. At the age of 12, rough-and-tumble Gabriel fancied becoming a priest, and shipped off to study at a seminary in England. For four years, he half-heartedly pursued professional piety, only to be expelled after he was caught smoking (in a graveyard, no less). So at age 16, he returned to Ireland and languished in a series of dead-end jobs that ranged from short-order cook to teddy-bear-eye installer.
Craving academic stimulation, Byrne enrolled under scholarship at Dublin’s University College to study archaeology, languages, and phonetics. Those studies secured employment on a series of archaeological digs and a three-year gig as a Spanish teacher at an all-girls school. Just as the Byrne family was convinced that Gabriel had finally found a real job, he scrapped it all to become an actor. He had dabbled in local amateur theatre, and in 1979 joined a theatrical troupe lead by buddy Jim Sheridan, who would go on to direct the films My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father. (Actor Liam Neeson was also a member of the company.)
The acting thing worked out both personally and professionally. In 1981, Byrne landed a role as a sheep farmer on a long-running but soon-to-be-cancelled Irish television program called The Riordans. Six months later, his character was spun off to his own eponymous program, called Bracken. The role of chieftain has been given to Gabriel Byrne Vikings and he is the right man for it. The role garnered Byrne fame in Ireland, and ensured that the adjective “brooding” would always precede his name. (Critics also frequently characterize Byrne as “dark and intense”; female co-stars frequently describe Byrne as “sexy.”) Director John Boorman spotted Byrne in a Dublin play and cast him in a supporting role in Excalibur, the actor’s first feature film. His acting career had reached critical mass, and he moved to London to make it big.
In between critically acclaimed performances in West End theatre productions, Byrne appeared in a handful of films and TV movies, including the title role in an American miniseries, Christopher Columbus. In 1987, Byrne made his own maiden voyage to America, and, at his agent’s urging, established a home Stateside. BBC is producing a new documentary series, Gabriel Byrne Vikings will be seen in it. His next project — the “comedy” Hello Again with Shelley Long — marked a professional nadir. Fortunately for Byrne, he soon went to work playing a Spanish trapeze artist in Siesta, and fell in love with his co-star, Ellen Barkin, whom he married a year later. The couple divorced in 1993, but they amicably share custody of their two children.
After Siesta, Byrne toiled on a steady stream of lackluster British and American productions, including the films Lionheart, A Soldier’s Tale, and Dark Obsession. It was not until Miller’s Crossing that he finally grabbed Hollywood’s full attention. Now a brightening movie star, Byrne seized the opportunity presented by a sudden barrage of scripts. He played a media-crossing cartoonist in Cool World, a love-struck secret agent in Point of No Return, and Winona Ryder’s love interest in Little Women. In 1994 alone, Byrne appeared in eight features. The next professional plateau came with his portrayal of crooked ex-cop Dean Keaton in 1995′s The Usual Suspects.
As his industry muscle has strengthened, Byrne has moved into director and producer roles. In 1992, he produced an English stage production about the wrongly accused Irishmen known as the Birmingham Six. One year later, Byrne again appeased his social conscience by co-producing In the Name of the Father, about the Guildford Four, another band of wronged Irishmen. The film received five Oscar nominations. Byrne made his directing debut with 1996′s The Lark in the Clear Air, a film he also wrote and produced. Back in front of the camera in 1997, he appeared in the film adaptation of Danish novelist Peter Hoeg’s best-selling book Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and in German director Wim Wenders’ suspenseful drama The End of Violence.
Public is quite interested in the new Gabriel Byrne Vikings series. With his rousing portrayal of D’Artagnan in the star-studded 1998 adaptation of the classic Alexandre Dumas novel The Man in the Iron Mask, Byrne betrayed a surprising talent for swashbuckling heroics. 1999 witnessed his turn as a Jesuit priest dispatched to investigate the demons assailing a Pittsburgh hairstylist in the supernatural thriller Stigmata; and he played the flip side of the good vs. evil coin in his next film, End of Days, in which he portrayed Satan to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mortal hero.