Just over sixty years ago, Northern Ireland provided the world with William John Neeson. Just shy of his thirtieth birthday, William had worked a number of jobs proving that he was a jack of all trades: He operated a forklift for Guinness, worked as an assistant architect and a truck driver, and even experimented in the world of underground boxing. He also pursued a career in teaching, having attended St. Mary’s Teaching College before settling into the Belfast Lyric Player’s Club and easing his way into the art of acting. His diligence with the Player’s Club carried over to his work with the Dublin Abbey Theater, and it was here the William that Northern Ireland knew became the Liam that Hollywood and the entirety of the movie-going public have now come to know.
Spotted by director John Boorman (Deliverance), Liam Neeson was cast in his first high-profile film role, Sir Gawain, in Excalibur. This would be a role that showcased Neeson’s grand voice and towering physical presence and made him ideal for future roles like The Mission, Rob Roy, and both Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans. With over eighty credited screen roles, Liam Neeson has remained one of the most recognizable and sought after film stars working in Hollywood today. Through career lulls and even personal tragedy, the UK born A-lister has consistently resurged, unafraid of taking numerous supporting roles amidst sporadic leading ones. With Taken 2 being released nationwide this weekend (marking his fifth film of 2012), it seems appropriate to reflect on how we all came to respect and admire the actor that is Liam Neeson.
Boorman’s casting of Neeson as Sir Gawain solidified him as a dependable supporting actor, and Neeson would go on to nab roles in the star-studded The Bounty, Duet For One, Suspect (for which he garnered high marks for playing a mute homeless man), and The Dead Pool, the final chapter in the Dirty Harry saga alongside Clint Eastwood. Though supporting roles poured in for the blossoming actor, it was not until Sam Raimi’s adaptation of Darkman in 1990 that Neeson’s true prevalence began. The film suffered a troublesome pre and postproduction but scored high at the box office and has since entered a realm of cultdom, yet it’s mostly known as the source for Sam Raimi’s break into studio work and Liam Neeson’s progression into stardom. Raimi has stated that he chose Neeson over other competitors, like Bill Paxton and Gary Oldman, because of his Gary Cooper-like charisma, a characteristic of Neeson’s that has permeated through all of his roles from Darkman’s Peyton Westlake to Taken’s Bryan Mills.
Follow-up films Under Suspicion and the powerhouse Husbands and Wives, directed by Woody Allen, is what made Neeson Steven Spielberg’s definitive choice for the role of his lifetime, a crowning achievement of acting that should be hailed as one of the finest leading performances in one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time: Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List. Nominated for a whopping twelve Oscars (including Neeson for Best Actor) and a winner of seven, Schindler’s List thrives on Neeson’s central performance which is both highly compelling and heart-wrenching as he embodies a savior who made it his mission to save as many Jews as possible during World War II. Spielberg’s epic made Neeson one of the most desired leading men in Hollywood expectedly attracting more period piece biopics and adaptations like Michael Collins, Les Misérables and Rob Roy, the latter making him a sex symbol (though he denies this label himself). Ultimately, it was his 1993 Broadway debut in Anna Christie and 1994’s Nell, opposite Jodie Foster, where romance entered Liam Neeson’s life in the form of co-star Natasha Richardson.
Neeson and Richardson were married in July of 1994 and remained in a loving marriage until early 2009, a stretch of time that consisted of strong film roles that made him notably distinct for the 90s generation including his magnificent turn in the otherwise disappointing Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. The highly anticipated intro to George Lucas’ prequel trilogy starred Neeson as Qui-Gon Jin, the master to Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi and a tragic character with dramatic depth that marked Neeson’s foray into contemporary action flicks. His filmography continued with regular work in various capacities under the direction of Academy Award winning directors like Kathryn Bigelow (K-19: The Widowmaker with Star Wars alum, Harrison Ford), Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York), and Ridley Scott (Kingdom of Heaven), and he dipped into comedic territory with Richard Curtis’ fantastic British holiday flick, Love Actually. In the independent department, director Bill Condon tapped Neeson to play the infamous sexologist Alfred Kinsey in the biographical Kinsey; the role was a risky one that Neeson perfected and one that won him warm acclaim, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor.
Family life led to an inevitable lull in Neeson’s career, with his last memorable role in the early 2000s being Henri Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul in Christopher Nolan’s great, though uneven, Batman Begins. Ghul was a meaty character that made a wonderful, albeit brief, cameo in Nolan’s trilogy closer, The Dark Knight Rises, this past summer. Other than providing his powerful God-like voice to the mythical Aslan in Andrew Adamson’s lackluster take on C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Naria: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Neeson waited until 2009 to make a big return to American cinemas. In the internationally produced Taken, Neeson played Bryan Mills, a divorced former CIA operative who utilizes the skills of his violent past to track down his kidnapped daughter who has been fed into an underground prostitution ring. Released during the expectant cinefodder of January, Taken was a surprise hit that reignited the public’s love for Liam Neeson. Unfortunately, while relishing in the returning recognition, tragedy struck the Neeson household.
Only a couple of months after the U.S. release of Taken, Neeson’s marriage to Natasha Richardson ended under horribly unexpected circumstances. In what appeared to be an inconsequential fall on a bunny hill during a beginner ski lesson, Richardson passed away the following day from “epidural hematoma due to blunt impact to the head,” the tragedy was a ruled as an accident. In the wake of becoming a widower, Neeson has not remarried but has continued his busy acting career. His comeback in Taken culminated in a number of roles in action films, and currently, Neeson is considered one of the premiere action stars in Hollywood. Performances in The A-Team, The Next Three Days, Battleship, Unknown, and this weekend’s Taken 2 have managed to fuel his persona as an “old man action star,” an image upheld by Michael Caine and Clint Eastwood.
However, earlier this year, again in January, Liam Neeson partnered with struggling director Joe Carnahan to make The Grey, an icy tale about a group of Alaskan oil drillers whose plane crashes in the middle of the wintery wilderness. Neeson portrayed Ottway, the self-proclaimed leader of this frightened group who bands them together in an attempt to survive the blistering cold and the hungry wolves that inhabit the dangerous region. The Grey proved to be another surprise hit and could very well be considered Neeson’s High Noon. To further the Gary Cooper comparison, Cooper made a comeback in 1952 (the year Neeson was born) at age fifty-one in Fred Zinnemann’s entrancing High Noon as a sheriff forced into facing his old nemesis on his own without any help from the townspeople he’s helped protect. Months before his sixtieth birthday (the age Cooper died), Neeson delivered one of his greatest performances to date in The Grey; there were even rumors during the time of the film’s release that it would get a re-release during Oscar season to push Neeson for a Best Actor nomination. Though it seems highly unlikely that he will get one and while we still have a few more months of awards season to go before the nominations can be evaluated, Neeson’s Ottway is still one of my favorite performances of the year. In the slim chance that he does get nominated, I can happily say I was one of the few people that supported him from the very beginning.
There would probably be a good amount of people, like my dad for instance, who would be wary to classify Liam Neeson as this generation’s Gary Cooper, but I find it to be a sound comparison. Their rugged appearances and defining presences on the big screen have managed to bring numerous iconic characters to life as their careers expanded and fluctuated as time went on. Ultimately, Cooper passed on too early, so let’s hope that Neeson continues to make great films and deliver fine performances for many years to come. From heavy dramas to comedies, actioners, musicals, and romances, Liam Neeson has done it all over his illustrious and still prospering career; in many ways, Neeson is a Renaissance Man of cinematic genres. Whatever your opinion of the current Neeson may be, he is here to stay and remember, he has a special set of skills that will allow him to find you. I’d keep my negative comments to myself if I were you.
May the force be with you, Liam, and with all of your future projects.
Article by Mike Murphy