Over six feet tall, deep voice with a Celtic accent, had a variety of occupations before becoming an actor, and is renowned for playing tough guys. No, not Sean Connery but Liam Neeson. He’s an inch taller than Sir Sean was and is Irish rather than a Scot. His previous career options included driving a forklift truck at the Guinness factory, professional football trials, working in an architect’s office, a truck driver, and he very nearly became a teacher. He was also a prize winning amateur boxer.
His love of drama started in school but had an unusual inspiration. Nobody living in the UK and being aware of the news during the latter half of the 20th century could avoid knowing of The Troubles. To anyone who doesn’t know, The Troubles sounds like a minor dispute between neighbouring tea shops in Cornwall. In actuality, it was an ethno-nationalist conflict that was the culmination of centuries of repression in Ireland and ended up with over fifty thousand dead and wounded.
Without Lancelot, This Table Is Nothing!
The main line drawn was between Protestant Unionists (who wanted to stay part of the UK) and Catholic Republicans (who wanted a united, independent Ireland). One person who was rarely out of the headlines was the Rev Ian Paisley. He was a fire and brimstone preacher in the traditional, bible thumping mould. He also founded the Democratic Unionist Party and was a minister of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.
RunPee favourites Timothy Spall (Ian Paisley) and Colm Meaney (Martin McGuinness) made a film, The Journey, about the peace process which brought an end to the conflict. What made Liam’s introduction to drama and rhetoric so unusual is that he was enthralled by Paisley’s sermons which he sneaked into. Why did he have to sneak in? Because Paisley was Protestant and Neeson was raised a Catholic. Back then, that was an action that could have led to death or injury.
Fortunately though, he got through that alive and with his kneecaps intact. He read Physics and Computer Science at Queen’s University Belfast and went to Newcastle upon Tyne to do his teacher training. But then, in 1976, he joined the Lyric Players’ Theatre in Belfast; he made his professional debut in The Risen People. A few minor film and TV parts came his way but, after a move to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, he was spotted by director John Boorman playing Lenny in Of Mice And Men. Boorman cast in his first high profile film role as Sir Gawain in Excalibur.
Incidentally, there’s a lot going on with Excalibur and I may have to write a few words about it…
Don’t Worry, Johnny’s Like A Trained Seal
Excalibur proved to be quite the calling card and led to him working with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins on The Bounty and with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons in The Mission. He moved out to Hollywood in search of larger roles and was successful in finding them. Well…playing the producer in The Dead Pool at the tail end of the Dirty Harry franchise was a good role. Perhaps the ghost in High Spirits was a little less so.
But then 1990 saw him get the lead role in the Sam Raimi Sci-Fi thriller Darkman. Bruce Campbell was Sam Raimi’s first choice but the producers didn’t agree. Bill Paxton went for it but made the mistake of mentioning it to his friend, Liam. It seems they didn’t speak for months after Liam beat him to the role. Apparently Gary Oldman was also being spoken of for the role in the early days.
But then 1992 rolls around and he auditions for a film being put together by Steven Spielberg. How the audition went I have no idea but our Liam isn’t a particularly arrogant man and he assumed he didn’t get the part. I mean…Spielberg! So he signs up for a play on Broadway alongside the woman he will end up marrying; Natasha Richardson. Incidentally, he lived with Helen Mirren for a few years after appearing with her in Excalibur…nice work if you can get it, say I!
That’s Power, Amon. That Is Power
One night who should come to see Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie but the aforementioned Mr Spielberg along with his wife, Kate Capshaw, and her mother. They were introduced to each other and Liam hugged Spielberg’s mother-in-law. The way he did it stuck with Ms Capshaw who later said to Steven “That’s just what Oskar Schindler would have done.” Whether that swung things one way or another is unknown but, a week later, Liam got the phone call saying he had the part.
That was when Liam Neeson really hit the big time. He was nominated for the best actor Oscar but, sadly, he couldn’t have picked a worse year! He was up against some absolute stinking performances. I’d feel sorrier for Ralph Fiennes losing the supporting actor Oscar to Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. Don’t get me wrong, The Fugitive is very good film and TLJ is very, very good in it, but, come on!
Anyway, for most actors that would be the high spot of their careers. However, Mr Neeson just went from strength to strength. The next five years saw him in Nell with Jodie Foster, Rob Roy with Tim Roth and John Hurt, Before And After with Meryl Streep, Michael Collins with Julia Roberts and Alan Rickman, and a non-musical version of Les Misérables with Uma Thurman. So there’s no fear of working with big names. The end of the millennium was approaching and 1999 saw Liam in two films; The Haunting and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
I Shall Do What I Must, Obi-Wan
First things first…the 1963 Robert Wise version of The Haunting is, probably, my favourite horror film. It scared the poop out of me the first time I saw it in the sixties and can still cause a jump nearly sixty years later. So, when the 1999 version came out I was eager to see what could be done with new special effects. Surely there wouldn’t be a dry seat in the house. I really sold it to the kids and, as a result, we were all equally disappointed.
Apparently it wasn’t a remake of the 1963 masterpiece as the production company couldn’t get the rights. It was, instead, a return and reimagining of the original source novel. Still, Mr Neeson was more than capable as were the rest of the cast. It was, possibly, a quite good film but I had hyped it up so much that I was just bitterly disappointed with the end result. I’ve never seen it since but I’ve re-watched the 1963 version several times.
However, earlier in 1999 we’d seen Liam in another film that had an even bigger build up to the one I gave The Haunting…Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Immediately prior to writing this I gave Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace another re-watch. Alright, hands up, Jar Jar Binks is still deeply irritating and very annoying but, pretty much, the rest of it is fine!
We Need Kate, And We Need Leo
My biggest complaint is, from memory, the woeful mis-selling of the film. Unsurprisingly there was a massive publicity campaign. Given that the film was announced in 1993 there’s no surprise that they had time to whip a large chunk of the world into a frenzy of anticipation. A big part of the campaign was Darth Maul. He was everywhere; newspapers, magazines, bus stops, pencil cases, colouring books, trailers, everywhere.
He was the new big bad guy. Darth Maul was scary, he was fascinating, and he was, seemingly, indestructible. He was played by Ray Park…well, apart from the speaking bit. There were only three lines of speech and they were dubbed by Peter Serafinowicz. But, given the choice, I’d have all of my words dubbed by Peter Serafinowicz. It wasn’t just the lack of lines that was so disappointing, it was the overall lack of screen time for Darth Maul…under seven minutes.
So…Jar Jar Binks was too annoying and Darth Maul was too, well, absent. The film would have been vastly improved if their relative screen times were swapped. Some of the digital backgrounds are starting to show their age but the rest of ILM’s work still looks good. But, on top of all that, the Jedi contingent, led by Liam as Qui-Gon Jinn, was excellent.
Alright You Two, Enough About Pharmaceuticals
Big parts were flooding his way now. He played Captain Polenin in K-19: The Widowmaker and ‘Priest’ Vallon in the multi Oscar nominated Gangs Of New York. These were alongside other film and TV roles. Liam Neeson was in demand. But somehow he managed not to become one of those “oh god, it’s him again” types that you couldn’t avoid
But it was 2003 that saw him make his, possibly, best loved film…Love Actually. In this he plays recently widowed Daniel. A lot has been said about the relationships in Love Actually and how they are not quite as sweet and romantic as we thought back then. One thing that is fairly unanimous, though, is that one of the strongest, happiest relationships is between Daniel and his young step-son, Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster).
Mr Neeson hit his mid fifties and was doing quite nicely with a lot of voice work and a small role in the Christopher Nolan Batman reboot. About this time in my life I was thinking of easier work and a gentle coast down to retirement. I retrained and started working in a pharmacy carrying nothing heavier than a bottle of Lactulose. Liam developed a “special set of skills” and reinvented himself as an action hero.
It’s Albanian. You Mind Translating It?
And so was born the Taken franchise. Liam played Bryan Mills; a former CIA operative who gets all nasty, fighty when you mess with his family. Developed from a story by Luc Besson it was slick, suspenseful, and exciting and Liam was perfect. Well…I assume there’s no problem with Irishmen joining the CIA. Anyway, this led to a new and ongoing career as an action hero: Unknown, The Grey, Non-Stop, Cold Pursuit, two more Taken’s, The Marksman, Blacklight, and this year’s Memory all featured a mean looking Mr Neeson holding a gun.
That doesn’t mean he’s got himself typecast as a tough guy though. He’s done comedy (Ted 2, Daddy’s Home 2), biographies (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House), and documentaries (Save NYC Horse Carriages). Another recent film was Ordinary Love; a story about a couple and how their life changes following a cancer diagnosis. I’ll be honest…I haven’t seen this one and I don’t think I ever will. I’ve lived through that and Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville are too good actors for it not to be too painful.
As if to bookend the start of this article, I’m drawing comparisons between Liam and another Celt. Wind back a bit to 1978…I’d just left college for the first time, got a job, and had a few quid in my pocket. I bought records…lots of records. One of them was Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War Of The Worlds and it became one of those albums that I’ve owned on vinyl, cassette, CD, and download.
I still remember the opening monologue in Richard Burton’s rich voice – “No one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space.” In 2013 a new version was recorded but who could play the journalist? Richard Burton had been dead over thirty years. A hard act to follow, but Liam Neeson pulled it off.
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Former teacher, lecturer, homelessness administrator, pharmacy dispenser now happily retired, happily married, and a very happy granddad. I live next to the Mersey but on the side Daniel Craig and Taron Egerton come from rather than the side the Beatles came from!