Liam John Neeson, OBE (born 7 June 1952) is an actor from Northern Ireland. In 1976, he joined the Lyric Players’ Theatre in Belfast for two years. He then acted in the Arthurian film, Excalibur (1981). Between 1982 and 1987, Neeson starred in five films; most notably alongside Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins in The Bounty (1984) and Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons in The Mission (1986). He landed a leading role alongside Patrick Swayze in Next of Kin (1989).
He rose to prominence when he starred in the title role in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Oscar winner Schindler’s List. He has since starred in other successful films, including the title role in the historical biopic Michael Collins (1996), the film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables (1998), Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace as Qui-Gon Jinn (1999), the biographical drama Kinsey (2004), the superhero film Batman Begins as Ra’s al Ghul (2005), the action thriller series Taken (2008-15), the fantasy adventure film Clash of the Titans (2010) as Zeus, the fantasy films in the The Chronicles of Narnia series (2005-10), and the thriller-survival film The Grey (2011).
He has been nominated for a number of awards, including an Academy Award for Best Actor, a BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role and three Golden Globe Awards for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama. Empire magazine ranked Neeson among both the “100 Sexiest Stars in Film History” and “The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time”.
© Image credit
Neeson was born in Ballymena, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, the son of Katherine “Kitty” Neeson (née Brown), a cook, and Bernard “Barney” Neeson, a caretaker at the Ballymena Boys All Saints Primary School. He was raised as a Roman Catholic and was named Liam after the local priest. The third of four siblings, he has three sisters: Elizabeth, Bernadette, and Rosaleen. At age nine, Neeson began boxing lessons at the All Saints Youth Club and later became Ulster’s amateur senior boxing champion.
Neeson first stepped on stage at age 11 after his English teacher offered him the lead role in a school play, which he accepted because the girl he was attracted to was starring in it. From then on, he kept acting in school productions for the following years.
His interest in acting and decision to become an actor was also influenced by minister Ian Paisley, into whose Free Presbyterian church Neeson would sneak. Neeson has said of Paisley: “He had a magnificent presence and it was incredible to watch him just Bible-thumping away… it was acting, but it was also great acting and stirring too”. In 1971, Neeson was enrolled as a physics and computer science student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, before leaving to work for the Guinness Brewery. At Queen’s, he discovered a talent for football and was spotted by Seán Thomas at Bohemian F.C. There was a club trial in Dublin and Neeson played one game as a substitute against Shamrock Rovers, but he was not offered a contract.
After leaving the university, Neeson returned to Ballymena where he worked in a variety of casual jobs, from a fork-lift operator at Guinness to a truck driver. He also attended teacher training college for two years in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, before again returning to his hometown. In 1976, Neeson joined the Lyric Players’ Theatre in Belfast where he performed for two years. He got his first film experience in 1977, playing Jesus Christ and Evangelist in the religious film Pilgrim’s Progress. Neeson moved to Dublin in 1978 after he was offered a part in Ron Hutchinson’s Says I, Says He, a drama about The Troubles, at the Project Arts Centre. He acted in several other Project productions and joined the Abbey Theatre (the National Theatre of Ireland).
In 1980, filmmaker John Boorman saw him on stage as Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men and offered him the role of Sir Gawain in the Arthurian film, Excalibur. After Excalibur, Neeson moved to London, where he continued working on stage, in small budget films and in television. He lived with the actress Helen Mirren at this time, whom he met working on Excalibur. Between 1982 and 1987, Neeson starred in five films; most notably alongside Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins in 1984’s The Bounty and Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons in 1986’s The Mission. Neeson guest-starred in the third season of the television series Miami Vice in 1986 and moved to Hollywood to star in more high-profile roles in the next year. That year, he starred alongside Cher and Dennis Quaid in Suspect in a role that brought him critical acclaim. In 1988 he starred alongside Clint Eastwood in the fifth Dirty Harry film “The Dead Pool” in the role of Peter Swan, a horror film director. In 1990, he followed this with a starring role in Sam Raimi’s Darkman. Although the film was successful, Neeson’s subsequent years would not bring him the same recognition. In 1993, he joined Ellis Island co-star and future wife Natasha Richardson in the Broadway play Anna Christie. They also worked together in Nell, released the following year.
Director Steven Spielberg offered Neeson the role of Oskar Schindler in the film about the Holocaust, Schindler’s List, after seeing him in Anna Christie on Broadway. Even with Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson and Warren Beatty all expressing interest in portraying Schindler, (the last auditioning), Neeson was cast in December 1992 after formally auditioning for the role. Neeson read the Keneally book and concluded that his character “enjoyed fookin’ [sic] with the Nazis. In Keneally’s book, it says he was regarded as a kind of a buffoon by them… if the Nazis were New Yorkers, he was from Arkansas. They don’t quite take him seriously, and he used that to full effect.” His critically acclaimed performance earned him a nomination for a Best Actor Oscar, and helped the film earn Best Picture of 1993. However, the best actor award went to Tom Hanks for his performance in Philadelphia. Neeson also garnered BAFTA and Golden Globes nominations for his work as Oskar Schindler. Soon after these accolades, Neeson became an in-demand leading actor. He starred in the subsequent period pieces Rob Roy (1995) and Michael Collins (1996), the latter earning him a win for Best Starring Role at the Venice Film Festival and another Golden Globe nomination. He went on to star as Jean Valjean in the 1998 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and in The Haunting (1999) as Dr. David Marrow.
In 1999, Neeson starred as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Director George Lucas cast Neeson in the role because he considered the actor to have great skills and presence, describing him as a “master actor, who the other actors will look up to, who has got the qualities of strength that the character demands.” As the first Star Wars film to be released in sixteen years, it was surrounded by a large amount of media anticipation. Neeson’s connection to Star Wars started in the Crown Bar, Belfast. Neeson stated to Ricki Lake, “I probably wouldn’t have taken the role if it wasn’t for the advice of Peter King in the Crown during a Lyric reunion.” Despite mixed reviews from critics and fans, The Phantom Menace was an enormous box-office success and remained the most financially successful Star Wars film unadjusted for inflation, until Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). Neeson’s performance as Qui-Gon received several positive reviews, and a Saturn Award nomination. A stock recording of Neeson’s voice from The Phantom Menace can be heard during a scene in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002). Neeson was later reported to be making an appearance in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) portraying Qui-Gon again, but ultimately did not. In the animated television series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008-14), Neeson reprised the role of Qui-Gon once again by voicing the character in two episodes of the third season and one episode of the sixth season.
© Image credit
Neeson narrated the 2001 documentaries Journey into Amazing Caves, a short film about two scientists who travel around the world to search for material for potential cures, and The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Adventure. The latter won awards at a number of film festivals including Best Documentary from both the Chicago Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review. After being nominated for a Tony Award for his role opposite Laura Linney in The Crucible, Neeson appeared with Harrison Ford in Kathryn Bigelow’s 2002 submarine thriller K-19: The Widowmaker as Captain Mikhail Polenin. He was also on the cast of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York with Leonardo DiCaprio, Brendan Gleeson, Cameron Diaz and Daniel Day-Lewis, and played a recently widowed writer in Richard Curtis’ ensemble comedy Love Actually (2003). His role as Alfred Kinsey in Kinsey again put the actor up for nomination for a Golden Globe Award but he lost to Leonardo DiCaprio for The Aviator.
In 2004, Neeson hosted an episode of the NBC sketch show Saturday Night Live. He starred as a redneck trucker, Marlon Weaver, in an “Appalachian Emergency Room” sketch and a hippie in a one-off sketch about two stoners (the other played by Amy Poehler) who attempt to borrow a police dog to find their lost stash of marijuana. Despite vowing not to play any Irish stereotypes, Neeson did play a stereotypically Irish man named Lorcan McArdle in the home makeover show parody “You Call This A House, Do Ya?”
In 2005, Neeson played Godfrey of Ibelin in Ridley Scott’s epic adventure Kingdom of Heaven, Ra’s al Ghul, one of the main villains in Batman Begins, and Father Bernard in Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s novel, Breakfast on Pluto. In The Simpsons episode “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star” (2005), he voiced the kindly priest who (briefly) converts Bart and Homer to Catholicism. That same year, he gave his voice to the lion Aslan in the blockbuster fantasy film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In 2007, he starred in the American Civil War epic Seraphim Falls.
He also voiced the main character’s father, James in the video game, Fallout 3. Executive producer Todd Howard said, “This role was written with Liam in mind, and provides the dramatic tone for the entire game”. Fallout 3, the third game in the Fallout series, was extremely well received by critics and shipped 4.7 million copies by the end of 2008, the year it was released.
In the director’s commentary of the 2007 Transformers DVD, Michael Bay said that he had told the animators to seek inspiration from Neeson in creating Optimus Prime’s body language. Neeson appeared as Alistair Little in the BBC Northern Ireland/Big Fish Films television drama Five Minutes of Heaven, which tells the true story of a young Protestant man convicted of murdering a Catholic boy during The Troubles.
He starred in the action film Taken in 2008, a French-produced film also starring Famke Janssen and Maggie Grace. Based on a script by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen and directed by Pierre Morel, the film stars Neeson as a retired CIA operative from their elite Special Activities Division who sets about tracking down his teenage daughter after she is kidnapped. Taken was a worldwide box office hit, grossing $223.9 million worldwide, making almost $200 million more than its production budget. Neeson has stated in interviews that he believed that Taken had put some people off the idea of actually travelling to Europe.
Taken brought Neeson back into the center of the public eye and resulted in his being cast in many more big-budget Hollywood movies. That year he also narrated the documentary Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity and again lent his voice to Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008). He also provided a voice for Hayao Miyazaki’s anime film Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, which received an August 2009 release.
In 2010, Neeson played Zeus in the remake of the 1981 film, Clash of the Titans. The film went on becoming a huge box office hit, grossing $475 million worldwide. Neeson also starred in Atom Egoyan’s erotic thriller Chloe, theatrically released by Sony Pictures Classics on 26 March 2010. Chloe had enjoyed commercial success and became the Canadian director’s biggest money maker ever. Later the same year, he played John “Hannibal” Smith in the spin-off movie from the television series The A-Team.
In 2010, Neeson voiced the character Aslan again in the sequel The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In 2011, Neeson starred in Unknown, a German-British-American co-production of a French book, it was filmed in Berlin in early 2010. It has been compared to Taken, which was set in Paris.
Neeson reunited with director Steven Spielberg with plans to star as Abraham Lincoln in the 2012 film Lincoln, based on the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. In preparation for the role, Neeson visited the District of Columbia and Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln lived prior to being elected, and read Lincoln’s personal letters. Neeson eventually declined the role, claiming he was “past his sell date” and had grown too old to play Lincoln. He was later replaced in the role by Daniel Day-Lewis.
It was announced in July 2010 that Neeson would guest-star on the new Showtime series The Big C. In 2011, he played himself, in BBC2’s series Life’s Too Short. In late 2011, Neeson was cast to play the lead character, a journalist, in a new album recording and arena production of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. He replaced Richard Burton, who had posthumously appeared in the arena production through CGI animation. Neeson did not physically appear on the stage, instead playing the role through the use of 3D holography. In 2012, Neeson starred as John Ottway in Joe Carnahan’s The Grey. The film received mostly positive reviews and Neeson’s performance as Ottway received critical acclaim. He also starred in Taken 2, a successful sequel to his 2008 blockbuster. That year, he once again played Ra’s al Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final film in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. He narrated the first trailer for the film.
On 31 January 2014, it was reported that Neeson would work with director Martin Scorsese again in an adaptation of the novel Silence. Neeson had a supporting role as the henchman Bad Cop/Good Cop in the animated film The Lego Movie, which was a critical and commercial success. He later played Bill Marks in the action film Non-Stop. The film was released on 28 February 2014. He also appeared, uncredited, as God in the BBC2 series Rev.. Neeson stars in the 2014 film A Walk Among the Tombstones, an adaption of the best-selling novel of the same name, in which he plays former cop Matthew Scudder, a detective hired to hunt the killers of a drug dealer’s wife.
During Super Bowl XLIX, Supercell did a Clash of Clans commercial with him playing the game as “AngryNeeson52” and vowing revenge on his opponent “BigBuffetBoy85” while waiting for his scone at a bakery. The appearance was a parody of his role in Taken.
In 2016 Neeson narrated the RTÉ One three part documentary on the Easter Rising, 1916.
Neeson opposes the unrestricted right to own firearms in the US and has made calls for gun control. In January 2015, he repeated his views, calling US gun laws a “disgrace” in an interview with Dubai newspaper Gulf News when replying to a question about the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris earlier that month. In response, US gun manufacturer Para USA, which provided the weapons used by Neeson in the Taken film series, expressed regret at working with him, saying: “We will no longer provide firearms for use in films starring Liam Neeson and ask that our friends and partners in Hollywood refrain from associating our brand and products with his projects.”
In 2014 he protested the anti-carriage horse campaign of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said he would outlaw horse-drawn carriages in Central Park once he took office. Neeson wrote an opinion page published in The New York Times citing the carriage trade as a safe one for employees, horses and tourists and noted it was a livelihood for many immigrants.
Neeson narrated a video for Amnesty International in favour of the legalization of abortion in Ireland, which was attacked for being “creepy” and “anti-Catholic.”
Neeson lived with actress Helen Mirren during the early 1980s. They had met while working on Excalibur (1981). Interviewed by James Lipton for Inside the Actors Studio, Neeson said Mirren was instrumental in him getting an agent.
Neeson met his future wife, actress Natasha Richardson, while performing in a revival of the play Anna Christie on Broadway in 1993. They married on 3 July 1994.
In August 2004, Neeson and his wife purchased an estate in Millbrook, New York.
On 18 March 2009, Richardson died when she suffered a severe head injury in a skiing accident at the Mont Tremblant Resort, northwest of Montreal. Neeson donated her organs following her death. She and Neeson had two sons together, Micheál Richard Antonio (born 22 June 1995, in Dublin) and Daniel Jack (born 27 August 1996, in New York City).
A heavy smoker earlier in his career, Neeson quit smoking in 2003, while working on Love Actually. When he took the role of Hannibal for the 2010 film adaptation of The A-Team, Neeson had reservations about smoking cigars (which is a signature trait of the character) in the film due to being an ex-smoker, but agreed to keep that personality trait of Hannibal intact for the film. In August 2009, Neeson said that he had been naturalised as a United States citizen. In March 2011, he was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. Neeson is a patron of Belfast based charity and film festival CineMagic, which encourages and helps young people to get involved in the movie industry.
In June 2012, Neeson’s publicist denied reports that Neeson was converting to Islam. However, the actor has expressed an affection for the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, that he grew accustomed to while filming Taken 2 in Istanbul: “By the third week, it was like I couldn’t live without it. It really became hypnotic and very moving for me in a very special way. Very beautiful.” He also expressed admiration for the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
Honours and awards
In the year 2000, Neeson was offered the “Freedom of the Town of Ballymena” by the Ballymena Borough Council, but because of objections made by members of the Democratic Unionist Party regarding his comments that he had felt like a “second-class citizen” growing up as a Catholic in the town, he declined the award, citing tensions. Following the controversy, Neeson wrote a letter to the council, stating; “I will always remain very proud of my upbringing in, and association with, the town and my country of birth, which I will continue to promote at every opportunity. Indeed I regard the enduring support over the years from all sections of the community in Ballymena as being more than sufficient recognition for any success which I may have achieved as an actor.” Subsequently, on 28 January 2013, Neeson received the Freedom of the Borough from Ballymena Borough Council at a ceremony in the town.
Neeson was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in her 2000 New Year Honours. The American Ireland Fund honoured Neeson with their Performing Arts Award for the great distinction he has brought to Ireland at their 2008 Dinner Gala in New York. In 2009, at a ceremony in New York, Neeson was awarded an honorary doctorate by Queen’s University, Belfast. On 9 April 2016, Neeson was honoured with the Outstanding Contribution to Cinema award by the Irish Film and Television Academy (IFTA) at the Mansion House in Dublin. Uachtarán na hÉireann (Irish President) Michael D. Higgins presented Neeson with the award.