Ballymena’s Liam Neeson turns 70
By Aubrey Malone
Liam Neeson will be seventy this month. It’s hard to believe he’s still jumping off planes, trains and automobiles. Most people of that age are happy just to be able to go to work.
He was a loner as a child. Growing up in the primarily Protestant Ballymena (home of that quintessential Protestant, Ian Paisley) made him feel something of an outsider. “People keep asking you which foot you kick with,” he said. He meant what religion you were.
The son of a cook and a Primary School caretaker, he had three sisters. He was christened William but they found that too hard to get their tongues around. It was soon shortened to Liam.
He gorged himself on films in his young years, sometimes seeing up to a dozen a week. He didn’t go pubbing or clubbing when he got into his teens. Asked once how he spent the sixties, he said, “The decade passed me by. All that free love – forget it. I was locked away in my bedroom reading Hamlet.”
Not all of the time. He joined a boxing club during these years. Even then he seemed to have an intuition his future lay in the public eye. He says he spent a lot of his time back-pedalling in the ring. It was like, “Watch my face. I’m going to be an actor.”
He was never the type of person to cry into his Guinness or sing rebel songs but he became politicised after Bloody Sunday in 1972.
He was studying Physics in Queen’s University at the time. After he graduated he drove a forklift for some months before joining the Lyric Plays in Belfast.
His six foot four height was ideal for him to play “big” Jim Larkin in The Risen.
He came to Dublin afterwards, appearing in Ron Hutchinson’s play about the Troubles, Says He, Says I in the Project Theatre on Essex Street. That was the first and only time I saw him live. I was in the front row. He was close enough to touch. I was blown away by his energy. You felt you could almost taste his spit as he roared at his co-stars.
He went from there to the Abbey. His first film break came in 1978 when he was cast as Jesus in the film Pilgrim’s Progress. Two years later he was offered a part in Excalibur by John Boorman. He met Helen Mirren on the set. She was considerably older than him but they clicked. They ended up spending four years together. When their relationship broke up he dated two Hollywood A-listers: Julia Roberts and Barbra Streisand. Everyone, it seemed, fell in love with that Northern twang. Listening to it was like falling into a pool of honey.
In 1986 he appeared in an episode of the third series of Miami Vice on TV. He was so tall, nobody could find a suit long enough for his legs. He had to do the programme being shot from the waist up…in polkadot underpants.
By now he was firmly on the Hollywood ladder, appearing in films like The Bounty with Anthony Hopkins. Asked by Hopkins how he was faring out, he said, “I haven’t been found out yet, boyo.” An appearance opposite Hollywood’s special Method actor Robert De Niro followed in The Mission.
He met Natasha Richardson, the woman who would become his wife, when they were playing opposite one another in Anna Christie on Broadway in 1992. They co-starred in Nell with Jodie Foster the following year. Foster watched them falling in love on the set.
His career was now about to go into the stratosphere. He was Oscar-nominated for playing the “good” Nazi, Oskar Schindler, in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. He took his failure to win the award philosophically: “It’s not a cure for cancer, is it?”
Other biographical roles followed like Rob Roy in 1995. He played Michael Collins in the film of that name the following year.
In 1998 he was awarded £50,000 in a libel action he brought against a publication that suggested his marriage to Richardson was in trouble. He donated it to the victims of that year’s Omagh bombing.
He appeared in a Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace, in 1999. It proved highly lucrative and also advanced his profile no end. Another instalment of the franchise followed in 2000.
Neeson was offered the Freedom of the Town of Ballymena that year by the Town Council. The Unionist Party objected because of his comments about feeling like a second class citizen growing up. He ended up declining the award.
He appeared opposite another Method guru, Daniel Day-Lewis, in Gangs of New York in 2002. Afterwards came Richard Curtis’ feelgood caper, Love Actually. Then it was yet another biographical role, Alfred Kinsey in Kinsey.
His career took a different turn with the French heist caper Taken in 2008. It was an outstanding financial success.
But tragedy was about to strike. Neeson’s wife died in 2009 after a brain injury sustained when she hit her head off a rock while she was skiing in Montana. He was devastated.
For a time he couldn’t think of anything but her. He dragged himself out of the pit he was in to do humanitarian work. In 2011 he became a Goodwill Ambassador for Unicef. Work also became therapy. He appeared in Taken 2 in 2012 and Taken 3 in 2014.
By now he’d become a spokesman on many issues. One of them was gun control. He thought it was a joke in the U.S. because of all the violence in that country. His sentiments were fine but his Taken films could have been seen as glorifying that very violence. A gun manufacturer, Para USA, actually provided the prop guns for the series. They promptly withdrew them now.
Neeson was guilty of another “foot in mouth” incident in 2018 when he branded the #MeToo movement a “witchhunt. An even worse one occurred the following year when he passed an insensitive comment in an interview. He’d been asked how he got his inspiration to play a vengeful character in his forthcoming film Cold Pursuit. He said it came from the hatred he felt towards a black person forty years before after a woman friend of his told him she was raped by a man of colour.
He said he wanted to kill him, using expletives. The world was enraged. He was pilloried for racism and “toxic masculinity.” All of a sudden it seemed as if he’d committed career suicide. Nobody knew if he’d ever act again. A red carpet event for Cold Pursuit was cancelled. The film wasn’t released.
But he rallied. He apologised profusely, saying he didn’t mean the comment as it came out. In time he was forgiven. The film eventually reached the screen. Today Neeson is once again at the top of the Hollywood tree. He’s been the recipient of many awards both for his acting and his humanitarian work for Amnesty and other organisations.
He still hasn’t become carried away with his success. There are mornings, he says, in which he wakes up and thinks “Gee, I look handsome.” Other days he thinks, “What am I doing in the movies. I should be back home in Ballymena driving a forklift.”
Along with that warmth goes a stubbornness. If I was kidnapped, there’s nobody I’d prefer to have as a father looking for me than this man. Who can forget the way he said to the kidnapper down a phone in Taken after his daughter was kidnapped: “I will find you. I will come for you. And I will kill you.” This is not, repeat not, a man to be messed with.
Taken is lowbrow entertainment which he doesn’t say no to. One imagines he’d prefer to be playing Hamlet or Schindler than vengeful assassins with Uzis.
He’d also prefer to have people talking about his acting rather than slips of the tongue.
He abjures the way gossip rules today in every aspect of the film business. In his view it’s been “Kardashianized.” He doesn’t want it on his tombstone, he assures us, that he once dated Julia Roberts and Barbra Streisand.
He likes to keep changing. “My psychological baggage,” he says, is “half packed.” It’s hard to hit a moving target.
He also continues to play down his success, saying things like, “If you’ve got a ponytail, a nice Armani suit and the gift of the gab, you can make it in Hollywood.”
His latest involvement is with Catherine Corless, the woman who exposed the horror of the Tuam babies. He’s set to make a film about it.
Will we see him rescuing members of his family in Taken 16 in 2027? Who else can be “taken” after all the sequels thus far? His granny? His step-cousin’s gardener?
“If things ever get bad,” he says, “I like to think I could go back to the Abbey, where I got my start, and learn to become a real actor again.”
– Quotes used in this piece are attributed to Ingrid Millar’s biography on Liam Neeson.