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Neeson, Liam (1952-)


Main image of Neeson, Liam (1952-)

Liam Neeson's acting career took off relatively late. But well into middle-age, his commanding physical presence means he is still credible in action roles, and he is able to emanate a complex, enigmatic interior quality that fits both heroes and villains.

He was born William John Neeson on 7 June 1952 into a working-class Catholic family in the predominantly Protestant region of County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Aged nine, he began boxing lessons and later became a heavyweight youth champion, acquiring a broken nose in the process.

He briefly studied maths, physics and geology at university, then took teacher training. But he maintained an interest in amateur dramatics which had began at school. In 1976 he joined the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, moving to Dublin's prestigious Abbey Theatre in 1978. Here he was spotted by John Boorman, who gave him his first significant film role, as King Arthur's knight Sir Gawain in Excalibur (1981).

Moving to London, he played supporting characters in films and television mini-series, notably two action-adventures, Krull (d. Peter Yates, 1983) and The Bounty (US/UK, d. Roger Donaldson, 1984), as well as the three-part adaptation of Barbara Taylor Bradford's A Woman of Substance (Channel 4, 1985) and its two-part sequel, Hold the Dream (1986).

Larger and varied roles followed. He played clerics, in Lamb (d. Colin Gregg, 1985), as a priest who loses his vocation and in The Mission (d. Roland Joffé, 1986), as a Jesuit in South America; virile lovers in The Innocent (d. John Mackenzie, 1985), Duet For One (US, 1986) and the controversial custody drama The Good Mother (US, 1988); and murder suspects in Suspect (US, d. Peter Yates, 1987) and Dead Pool (US, 1988). Darkman (US, 1990) cast Neeson in the lead, as a disfigured scientist, and provided him with his biggest hit so far.

Continuing to work in both Britain and America, he drew on his boxing experience to play a bare-knuckle fighter in The Big Man (d. David Leland, 1990) and was a disgraced policeman turned private detective in Under Suspicion (d. Simon Moore, 1991). 1992 was a landmark year. He appeared in Woody Allen's acclaimed Husbands and Wives (US) and starred on Broadway in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, winning both a Tony award, and the heart of his co-star, Natasha Richardson. They married two years later, producing two sons (Richardson died in 2009 in a skiing accident).

Impressed by seeing Neeson in Anna Christie, Steven Spielberg offered him the most important role of his career to date: the playboy industrialist who saves thousands of Jewish lives during the Second World War in Schindler's List (US, 1994). Neeson was Oscar-nominated for a subtle performance which captured Schindler's extraordinary, puzzling mix of charisma, courage and venality.

He starred opposite Jodie Foster in Nell (US, d. Michael Apted, 1994), a drama about a 'wild child'; was the voice of Hitler in the three-part documentary 1914-1918 (BBC, 1996); and played a sculptor whose son is accused of murder in Before and After (US, 1996).

Neeson also established himself as a romantic rebel-hero in three films with different historical backdrops: 18th century Scotland in Rob Roy (US, d. Michael Caton-Jones, 1995), early 20th century Ireland in Michael Collins (US/UK, d. Neil Jordan, 1996) and revolutionary France in Les Misérables (US, 1998).

George Lucas cast him as a Jedi Knight in The Phantom Menace (US, 1999), ushering in a long series of action-adventure films, including K-19: The Widowmaker (US/Germany/UK, d. Kathryn Bigelow, 2002), Kingdom of Heaven (US/UK, d. Ridley Scott, 2005), as the hero's mentor-turned-nemesis in Batman Begins (UK/US, d. Christopher Nolan, 2005), Taken (France, 2008), The A-Team (US/UK, d. Joe Carnahan, 2010), The Grey (d. Carnahan, 2012), Wrath of the Titans (US, 2012) and Battleship (US, 2012).

But he continued to take on more complex dramatic roles too: a creepy mortician in After.Life (US, 2009), an equally sinister psychologist in The Haunting (US, 1999), and a more benign one in the critically lauded Kinsey (Germany/US/UK, d. Bill Condon, 2004), about the American sex researcher; an errant priest in Breakfast on Pluto (UK/Eire, d. Neil Jordan, 2005); a cuckolded husband in The Other Man (UK/US, d. Richard Eyre, 2008) and an adulterous one in Chloe (France/UK/Canada, d. Atom Egoyan, 2009). In Five Minutes of Heaven (BBC, tx. 5/4/2009), based on a true story, Neeson's Protestant hit-man confronts the brother of a man he killed over 30 years ago.

In between there were ensemble pieces such as Gangs of New York (US, 2002) and Love Actually (UK/US, d. Richard Curtis, 2003), and some more voice-over work, notably as Aslan in three films of CS Lewis's The Narnia Chronicles (US, , 2005 and 2008, and d. Michael Apted, 2010) and in the English-language version of Ponyo (Japan/US, 2008).

Sheila Johnston

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Excalibur (1981)Excalibur (1981)

John Boorman's visually stunning, ambitious Arthurian epic

Thumbnail image of Woman of Substance, A (1984)Woman of Substance, A (1984)

Glossy TV blockbuster about a woman's rise to business success

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Richardson, Natasha (1963-2009)Richardson, Natasha (1963-2009)