Liam Neeson

Also Credited As:

William John Neeson
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Biography

From real life legends like Oskar Schindler and Michael Collins to classic literature's Jean Valjean, actor Liam Neeson's masterful characterizations of flawed men capable of extraordinary things established him as a performer of great note, while managing to bring an uncommon humble grace to his profession. Though he started performing in the mid-1970s as part of an Irish acting company, Neeson earned international prominence years later when …
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Job Title

Actor, Producer, Other

Born

William John Neeson on June 7, 1952 in United Kingdom

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From real life legends like Oskar Schindler and Michael Collins to classic literature's Jean Valjean, actor Liam Neeson's masterful characterizations of flawed men capable of extraordinary things established him as a performer of great note, while managing to bring an uncommon humble grace to his profession. Though he started performing in the mid-1970s as part of an Irish acting company, Neeson earned international prominence years later when he played the flawed, but ultimately redemptive German industrialist in "Schindler's List" (1993), which earned him his first Academy Award nomination. Neeson would sink his teeth into "Michael Collins" (1996), playing an Irish hero revered by multiple generations, then settled into a series of lesser known, but no less accomplished performances in features, including a compelling performance in the title role of "Kinsey" (2004). But it was turns as Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn in "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace" (1999), Zeus in the remake of "Clash of the Titans" (2010) and John "Hannibal" Smith in "The A-Team" (2010) that gave Neeson his widest appeal to moviegoers. Shockingly widowed in 2009 after his wife, actress Natasha Richardson, passed away after a ski-related concussion, a shell shocked Neeson continued to work steadily, becoming admired as much for the strength of character he exhibited in the wake of the family tragedy as he was for his acting talent. Whether appearing in big-budget blockbusters like "Battleship" (2012) and "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012) or smaller, artier fare like "Chloe" (2009), Liam Neeson consistently delivered quality work in both leading and supporting roles.

Born on June 7, 1952 in Ballymena, North Ireland, Neeson was raised in a working class family headed by his father, Barney, a custodian at a Catholic school, and his mother, Kitty, a cook in the public school system. When he was nine, Neeson began his amateur boxing career, though he was not allowed to compete until he was 11. He became Northern Ireland champion for three years, spending six years as the champion of his diocese. When he was about 15, Neeson entered the ring for three rounds against a British boy who proceeded to beat him senseless. Regardless, Neeson made it through the fight and even believed he had won. But when he climbed out of the ring, he suffered a blackout walking up a flight of stairs, which led him to quit the sport for good. By the time he reached Queen's University, Neeson had his sights set on becoming a teacher and began taking courses in physics. Because he lacked the structure and guidance he had enjoyed in his previous schooling, Neeson immediately became depressed and failed to return after completing his first year.

Neeson made an equally failed attempt to attend a teacher's college, which led to jobs as a forklift operator for the Guinness brewery and as an architect's apprentice. In 1976, he ventured into acting on a lark when he auditioned for Belfast's Lyric Players' Theatre Company. As luck would have it, the company was looking for someone to play the role of Irish Labor leader Big Jim Larkin in "The Risen People" (1976). Neeson was given the job thanks in part to his uncommon height (6'4"). Though only on stage for three minutes, Neeson nonetheless impressed the company enough to earn a spot with the Players, with whom he acted for two more years. After a move to Dublin, Neeson joined that city's famed Abbey Theatre, where a starring role as Lenny in a production of "Of Mice and Men" (1980) won the attention of director John Boorman, who cast the imposing actor as sword-wielding Sir Gawain in "Excalibur" (1981), a sweeping fantasy adventure about the famed Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail. Though "Excalibur" marked his official feature film debut, Neeson previously appeared on celluloid when he played the role of Jesus in an educational film adaptation of "The Pilgrim's Progress" (1979).

Neeson continued to work in British films, including a featured role in "The Bounty" (1984), then made his U.S. television debut in the three-part miniseries, "Ellis Island" (CBS, 1984). Following a co-starring role as Shane "Blackie" O'Neill in the miniseries based on Barbara Taylor Bradford's bestseller, "A Woman of Substance" (Syndicated, 1984), he offered compelling starring turns in the British-made features "The Innocent" (1984) and "Lamb" (1985). Neeson reprised Blackie O'Neill in the sequel, "Hold That Dream" (Syndicated, 1986), then had a supporting role in the historical drama, "The Mission" (1986), starring Robert De Niro. After a turn as an IRA operative in an episode of "Miami Vice" (NBC, 1984-89), Neeson made the big move to America, where he took up residence in Los Angeles and began his Hollywood career in earnest. One of his first big feature roles was playing a deaf mute charged with murder in the Cher vehicle, "Suspect" (1987), which led to other films like "The Good Mother" (1988), "Sweet as You Are"(1988) and "Satisfaction" (1988). Though the misfire "High Spirits" (1988) was a disappointment, the film did have its upside, bringing Neeson together with director Neil Jordan, who considered the actor to be the perfect choice for his dream project - a biopic of Irish revolutionary, Michael Collins. But that project was still years in the making.

Meanwhile, Neeson starred as "Darkman" (1990), a scientist savagely attacked and disfigured by a corrupt city developer's henchmen. Sam Raimi's direction - hearkening back to classic science fiction and horror thrillers - and Neeson's genuine and heartfelt portrayal helped to elevate the film above its comic book trappings and marked his debut as an American feature star. He later won romantic lead roles in the World War II drama "Shining Through" (1992) and Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives" (1992), before starring as the title character in John Madden's adaptation of "Ethan Frome" (1993), Edith Wharton's classic tale of a doomed love. After a bit of coaxing by actress Natasha Richardson, whom the roving ladies' man dated and eventually married in 1994, Neeson was drawn back to the stage to star opposite her on Broadway in "Anna Christie" (1992). The role proved to be a boon for Neeson, who attracted the attention of director and audience member Steven Spielberg. The director auditioned and eventually cast Neeson to play Oskar Schindler for the brutal, but moving look at the Holocaust, "Schindler's List" (1993). Neeson's soft-spoken masculinity and serene power made him a perfect choice to play the Austrian businessman who - while far from perfect - rescued over 1,000 Jews marked for death by the Nazis. His charismatic and nuanced performance won rave reviews and brought him a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.

After dozens of film appearances, Neeson had finally arrived following his performance in "Schindler's List." In 1994, Neeson co-starred as a small town doctor with Richardson in "Nell," starring Jodie Foster as a woman raised apart form civilization who has created her own language and way of life. His subsequent role as 18th Century Scottish legend "Rob Roy" (1995) may have unfortunately been released too close to "Braveheart" (1995), which many people felt were too similar, despite the fact the historical eras depicted in both were hundreds of years apart. He next starred opposite Meryl Streep as a father whose teenaged son (Edward Furlong) is charged with murder in "Before and After" (1996). Neeson's portrayal of the morally torn and irrational father was one of the few highlights of Barbet Schroeder's pedestrian film. Then after a decade of planning, Neil Jordan finally made his dream project, "Michael Collins" (1996), a compelling look at the famed Irish revolutionary who rose from the ashes of the Easter Uprising in 1916 to create a peaceful and free Ireland, though his management of the peace accords that led to civil war cost him his life at 31 years old. Neeson's strong performance earned plenty of critical kudos, but unfortunately very little award recognition.

In 1998, Neeson made a return to the Broadway stage as Oscar Wilde in David Hare's "The Judas Kiss," the story of the breaking of the beloved author and wit, chronicling his two year prison sentence, his decision to serve it out rather than flee the country, and his subsequent release as a different man. Critics were divided on Neeson's performance, with many considering him an unlikely physical type - despite the fact that Wilde was 6'3" and lumbering - while others strangely objected to Neeson's heterosexuality. Some critics did label his performance stiff and boring, while others praised the actor's magnetic and emotional portrayal. That same year, he took on another legend of literature, this time portraying Victor Hugo's timeless and noble victim of injustice Jean Valjean in Bille August's feature adaptation of "Les Miserables" (1998). Again his gentle, but intense presence and air of experience made him a natural choice for the role.

Neeson landed his highest profile role to date, playing Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn in the much-anticipated prequel "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" (1999). In terms of the world's chronology, Neeson had the distinct honor of being the first person ever to utter the words "May the force be with you." Neeson eagerly pursued the role, having been interested in being a part of the "Star Wars" universe for many years. While acting against several computer-generated characters added in editing - and given some uninspired dialogue - Neeson brought a quiet grace to his role and managed to keep the film from becoming a soulless special effects vehicle alongside castmates Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, Samuel L Jackson and newcomer Jake Lloyd. Later that summer, he undertook a more sinister role, playing the professor who conducts psychological studies on a diverse trio of individuals in the remake of the "The Haunting" (1999), a modern adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House. Neeson also starred as a retiring DEA agent faced with one last exasperating case in the dark romantic comedy "Gun Shy" (2000), co-starring and produced by Sandra Bullock.

While Neeson did not appear in the subsequent "Star Wars" installments - save for a brief voice-over cameo in "Episode II - Attack of the Clones" (2002) - he did co-star with Harrison Ford in "K-19: The Widowmaker" (2002), adroitly playing a noble, sensitive Russian submarine captain who clashes with his stern taskmaster and superior (Ford) when their vessel becomes the subject of a nuclear accident with international repercussions. Neeson also more than held his own with Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz in Martin Scorsese's epic crime saga, "Gangs of New York" (2002). The actor played DiCaprio's father and the leader of the Dead Rabbits gang in the opening of the film, which portrayed the violent gang warfare between the natives of New York and ethnic immigrants in the middle of the 19th century. Dialing down to a more sensitive mode, Neeson appeared in the large ensemble of writer-director Richard Curtis' multi-arc romantic comedy "Love Actually" (2003), effectively playing a recently widowed stepfather who struggles to forge a deeper relationship with his late wife's son (Thomas Sangster).

Neeson gave a bravura performance as the noted sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in writer-director Bill Condon's biopic "Kinsey" (2004) opposite Laura Linney, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor, though he was snubbed for a nomination at the Oscars. The following year, he appeared in the epic historical drama, "Kingdom of Heaven" (2005), which took place in the relative calm between the 2nd and 3rd Crusades of the 12th century. Neeson played Godfrey of Ibelin, a Crusader knight who calls upon his long-lost son (Orlando Bloom) to help him defend Jerusalem from Muslim invaders. Directed by Ridley Scott, the film provoked little outrage for its subject matter despite a post-9/11 world and treated Muslims - usually easy bad guy fodder for Hollywood - with fairness. Meanwhile, Neeson was appropriately ambiguous in the role of the malevolent Henri Ducard, a mysterious member of the League of Shadows and a key figure in Bruce Wayne's early transformation into the Dark Knight (Christian Bale), in the excellent franchise reboot, "Batman Begins" (2005).

In "Breakfast on Pluto" (2005), Neil Jordan's romp through the cultural dustbin of 1970s London as seen through the eyes of Patrick "Kitten" Braden, a transvestite and suspected IRA bomber (Cillian Murphy), Neeson played Father Bernard, the parish priest in the Irish village where Braden was born and reared. Neeson next provided the voice of Aslan the Lion in the much-anticipated fantasy adventure, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (2005), adapted from the Christian-themed novel by C.S. Lewis. Following a turn as a Civil War colonel hell-bent on taking revenge in "Seraphim Falls" (2006), Neeson was one of several celebrities taking turns to narrate "Trumbo" (2008), a documentary look at screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted in the late 1940s by the House Un-American Activities Committee and who later posthumously earned an Academy Award for "Roman Holiday" (1953). Neeson then played a former government operative hunting down his daughter's kidnappers across Europe in the suspense thriller "Taken" (2009).

It was while filming Atom Egoyan's "Chloe" in March 2009 that Neeson learned his wife had taken a fall on a beginner's ski slope at Mont Tremblant in Quebec, Canada. He rushed to her side from his Toronto set, eventually flying back with her to New York, where Richardson was checked into Lenox Hill Hospital, amidst a flurry of rumors as to the exact nature of her injury. Keeping vigil with Neeson at the hospital were their two sons, Richardson's mother, Vanessa Redgrave, and her sister, Joely Richardson. On March 18, 2009, two days after the accident, Richardson was taken off life support following confirmation that she was officially brain dead.

As sympathy for Neeson and Richardson's family poured in, the grieving actor focused on his work while raising their children as a now single father. The erotic character study "Chloe" (2009) opened to tepid reviews, but Hayao Miyazaki's animated "Ponyo" (2009), for which Neeson provided the voice of the titular fish-girl's father, won raves. A bizarre and colorful take on Hans Christian Anderson's "Little Mermaid" fairy tale, "Ponyo" enjoyed the warm reception afforded Miyazaki's films and gave Neeson a successful project seen around the world. The actor had less luck with the weakly received psychological thriller "After.Life" (2009), where he played a mysterious funeral director helping Christina Ricci navigate the aftermath of her death, but he notched a worldwide blockbuster with "Clash of the Titans" (2010). An amped-up remake of the campy 1981 fan favorite, "Titans saw Neeson ruling Mt. Olympus as Zeus and bellowing "Release the Kraken!" Fans of 1980s pop culture also enjoyed Neeson breathing life back into another of the decade's hits, playing John "Hannibal" Smith in the big-budget 2010 take on the 1980s TV series, "The A-Team." Chomping a cigar with a twinkle in his eye much like his TV counterpart, the late George Peppard, Neeson led the newest incarnations of the famous foursome through a big-budget, action-packed adventure highly anticipated by fanboys. The deep-voiced actor closed out the year by reprising his role as the lion king Aslan in "The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader" (2010).