June 7, 1952
In Los Angeles, it’s like they jog for two hours a day and then they think they’re morally right. That’s when you want to choke people, you know? Liam Neeson IT’S not hard to picture Liam Neeson in a boxing ring. His six-foot-four-inch frame still supports the impressively muscled physique that made him Northern Ireland’s teenage boxing champ. But the image of pugilist toughness is allayed agreeably by Neeson’s face his handsomeness, while undeniably rooted in the ruggedness of his features, is tempered by a distinctly sensitive cast to the eyes and mouth. The overall impression made is one of a man who could throw a solid punch if need be, but who would then likely help the recipient of the blow up off the floor, and probably buy him a pint, to boot.
His Catholic family was a distinct minority in the predominately Protestant town of Ballymena, but Neeson’s recollections of his upbringing in the bucolic burgh paint a picture of a hardworking community that witnessed little of the sectarian prejudice that plagues much of Northern Ireland. At the age of nine, Neeson began taking boxing lessons at the All Saints Youth Club; it wasn’t long before he had sustained a broken nose in the ring, an injury that was handled without benefit of a doctor: his trainer reset the bone himself on the spot. The mishap didn’t deter the young boxer, though, and soon he had bested the lot of challengers All Saints could muster, at which point he began boxing on the amateur competitive level.
By Neeson’s late teens, fisticuffs no longer held the appeal they once had, so he forsook a professional boxing career in favor of attending the University of Belfast to study physics and computer science. As it turned out, his heart just wasn’t in his studies, and he flunked out. For a time, Neeson worked as a forklift driver at the Guinness brewery, but, feeling obliged to get a diploma to please his parents, he again enrolled in school, this time to pursue a teaching degree. Ancillary drama classes he took while following the education track proved too distracting, however, and after two years, he washed out of the program, effectively ending once and for all his academic career.
The worth of those drama classes became readily apparent when he was cast in a production of The Risen People staged at the prestigious Lyric Players’ Theatre. The role launched two years of steady work. When Neeson relocated to Dublin, he began appearing at the no-less-renowned Abbey Theatre. Within a year of the move, he had made his film debut, playing Jesus Christ in an educational film aimed at Irish Bible students.
Neeson was appearing in a theatrical adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel Of Mice and Men when he was spotted by movie director Martin Boorman, who somehow saw in the actor’s lumbering half-wit Lennie a mediaeval knight yearning to be set free. Boorman cast Neeson as Sir Gawain, a secondary character in his eccentric and ambitious 1981 Arthurian feature Excalibur. Decked out in chivalric garb, Neeson caught the eye of fellow castmate Helen Mirren, who portrayed King Arthur’s evil half sister Morgana in the film; the romance the two actors commenced during production lasted until 1985.
Running the risk of becoming typecast as a mediaeval fixture, the young actor filmed his television debut effort, a movie called Merlin and the Sword that featured Malcolm McDowell as King Arthur, Candice Bergen as Morgan Le Fay, Rupert Everett as the stalwart Sir Lancelot, and Dyan Cannon as a twentieth-century ditz who falls through a hole in time into their midst. Neeson was relegated to the role of someone or something named “Grak.” The project collected dust for three years before finally being aired, to the great merriment of viewers, most of whom mined the biggest laughs from the parts that weren’t supposed to be funny.
The remainder of the eighties saw Neeson working steadily in a succession of supporting assignments, and moving just as steadfastly through a series of romantic liaisons. Among the footloose and fancy-free bachelor’s gal pals were such notables as Barbra Streisand, Brooke Shields, and SinTad O’Connor. He and Julia Roberts were an item for a couple of years after they appeared opposite each other in the 1988 feature Satisfaction. Neeson’s reputation as a ladies man at times threatened to overshadow the notice he received for his solid body of work. When asked by one interviewer about the source of his seeming ease with women, he replied that the credit was due his upbringing as the only brother of three sisters: “. . . No woman in this world puts fear in me at all,” he related. “I feel totally relaxed, I don’t care if it’s the Queen of England or a hooker on the street.”
The dawn of the new decade witnessed Neeson’s first move from second-billed to lead status in a feature film, in the title role of 1990’s Darkman. The surprisingly successful movie represented horror auteur Sam Raimi’s homage to cheesy comic book heroes, and though the material may have been deliberately grade-B, Darkman won over both critics and its target audience. The film looked to be a major professional stepping stone for Neeson, but, ironically, it was a return to the stage that would prove to have the biggest impact on his film career, as well as on his personal life.
In 1992, Neeson made his Broadway debut in Anna Christie, a production that brought him to the attention of movie midas Steven Spielberg. Having largely built his career by filming escapist thrill rides, the most successful director in Hollywood was preparing to shoot an adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s nonfiction Holocaust novel Schindler’s List at the time he went to see the play. Spielberg was so struck by Neeson’s galvanizing stage presence that he offered him the role of Oskar Schindler, the corrupt industrialist who ended up saving the lives of more than a thousand Jews by subverting the Nazi slave-labor system. When Schindler’s List was released the following year, it was hailed as an important piece of filmmaking, and the film and its director and star all scored Academy Award nominations. Though the film took Best Picture honors and Spielberg snagged the coveted Best Director prize, Neeson had to content himself with the nomination on awards night, the Best Actor statuette went to Tom Hanks for his portrayal of a lawyer stricken with AIDS in Philadelphia.
On a more personal note, Neeson’s Tony-nominated performance in Anna Christie had him treading the boards opposite flame-maned British actress Natasha (The Handmaid’s Tale) Richardson. True to form, Neeson struck up a romance with his leading lady, one that proved to be more durable than his previous dalliances. The couple married in 1994, and their first child, Michael, was born a year later; son Daniel, a year after that. In the 1994 Jodie Foster starrer Nell, Neeson and Richardson enjoyed their only on-screen pairing, playing rivals in the battle to decide the fate of Foster’s wild-child who eventually surprise! fall in love.
Neeson next tackled the title role of Rob Roy, an historical epic based on the florid Sir Walter Scott novel. Although the film received a fair share of critics’ praise, the majority of moviegoers, when faced with the choice of two big-budgeted movies about kilted Scottish highlanders struggling for self-determination, decided to shower Mel Gibson’s Braveheart with their hard-earned simoleons.
Neeson stuck with the Celtic theme for his next film, playing the title role of Michael Collins, a biopic about the Irish Republican Army leader who invented the horrific tactics of urban guerrilla warfare and used them to win independence for the Irish Free State. In the Neil (The Crying Game) Jordan-directed film, Neeson’s characterization of Collins as a man who felt forced to use violence only as a means to achieve peace generated no small measure of controversy, and though the pic did minimal box-office in the States, it was seen widely in Ireland and the U.K., where every subtle nuance in the storyline was scrutinized and debated. The film required Neeson to play romantic scenes with former flame Julia Roberts, and he has since professed that their personal history only made their professional duty all that much easier.
The narcoleptic 1996 film Before and After paired Neeson with Meryl Streep, but neither actor appeared particularly engaged by the material. After a year’s sabbatical from the screen, Neeson returned in the spring of 1998 to head up the star-studded cast of Bille August’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which, for those who didn’t bother reading the Cliff’s Notes, is Les Mis, minus all the singing and dancing. Neeson’s already august industry profile soared even higher after he tackled the role of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn in director George Lucas’ wildly anticipated Star Wars prequelThe Phantom Menace. Next up was a role in the disappointing Jan De Bont supernatural thriller The Haunting, based on the classic Shirley Jackson novella The Haunting of Hill House.