Liam Neeson: Beloved big man

Actor's abilities make him a filmmaker's hero in every genre

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Liam Neeson is a big man in every way. From Oskar Schindler to Michael Collins, from barefist boxer Danny Scoular in “The Big Man” itself to Hannibal Smith in “The A-Team,” from Qui-Gon Jinn to Zeus, the tall, broad-shouldered Irishman has cornered the market in soulful leaders or father figures who can handle themselves in a fight, but only if it’s strictly necessary.

In more than 50 films stretching back to his bigscreen debut “Excalibur” in 1981, Neeson has played many heroes and remarkably few villains. Audiences root for him. They know he’s one of the good guys. He brings warmth and complexity to roles that in other hands might be coldly authoritarian.

This charisma and sheer likability is a gift to producers. It elevates the best projects, such as “Schindler’s List” or “Michael Collins,” but also puts a gloss of credibility on more generic material. If his daughter is stolen, as in “Taken,” audiences will accept any extremes of plotting in their wish for him get her back.

The global success of “Taken” confirmed Neeson’s stature as not just a great actor but a genuine star who can get a film financed in the international marketplace. That’s something he’s happy to exploit.

“I always want to find out from the producer and the director, ‘Why me?’ ” he says. “I like to put them on the spot. If the answer is simply, ‘Because you’ve got a good name internationally, and you’re going to get finance,’ that’s fine. But if it’s ‘because you’ve got this quality we want,’ then that’s interesting.”

Neeson has come a long way from his modest origins in Northern Ireland and his early experience as a truck driver, amateur boxer and trainee teacher. Yet acting was his passion from his teenage years, and he always had his eyes on a wider horizon.

“My ambition was to leave Belfast and hopefully be in the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theater,” he recalls.

He failed his teacher training, having spent too much time in the college’s drama studio. His acting career began in rep at Belfast’s Lyric Theater, at a time when Northern Ireland was gripped by the worst of the Troubles. He recently spearheaded a funding drive that raised $29 million to rebuild the Lyric.

“It was euphoric, getting paid to be a professional actor in a very distressful, troubled Belfast,” he says. “The act of leaving my apartment, in quite a dangerous Protestant area, to go to the theater felt like an act of defiance. There were several times when the play had to be stopped and the audiences and we had to go and stand in the street while the soldiers came in and searched for bombs.”

Nonetheless, he remembers it as a vibrant creative period, both in Belfast and in Dublin, where he joined the Project Arts Center under Jim Sheridan, and then the legendary Abbey Theater.

John Boorman saw him in “Of Mice and Men” and cast him in “Excalibur.” Screen acting didn’t come easy, he says, but he fell in love with the process.

“John was such a wonderful teacher, always bringing us behind the camera to show us what he could see, what acting should be. But if you want to see really bad acting, you’ll see it in my performance. It was grossly over the top, but at least there was an energy there,” he laughs.

Even 30 years later, Neeson still loves the community of film sets. Asked which of his films felt most special to make, he answers simply, “All of them. I love movie crews. I’ve worked with some great actors and actresses, but for me it’s the crews that make it special. I just love spending time with the grips, the sparks, the hair and makeup people.”

“Excalibur” propelled him to London, where he came to the attention of fellow Irishman Neil Jordan. Jordan saw Neeson as the perfect fit to play Irish Republican leader Michael Collins, but neither of them yet had the clout to get such an ambitious project made.

Meanwhile, Neeson helped Steven Spielberg screen-test a parade of boys for the lead in “Empire of the Sun.” Spielberg encouraged him to move to Los Angeles, where he got his breakthrough part opposite Diane Keaton in “The Good Mother.”

When he auditioned for the part of Schindler, Spielberg remembered the big, gentle Irishman from those London casting sessions. “Schindler’s List” and the Oscar nomination that followed established Neeson as a Hollywood player. It also finally made him bankable in “Michael Collins,” just at the moment when Jordan was also hot enough after “Interview With a Vampire” to get the film financed.

“Michael Collins” won Neeson best actor at Venice and remains his personal favorite. “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” brought him to a younger audience, leading to other fantasy roles such as the voice of Aslan in the ‘Narnia’ franchise and Zeus in “Clash of the Titans.”

The success of “Taken” has made him a bona-fide action star in his late 50s. “I’m always being offered these friggin’ action movies where I’m beating people up and killing them,” he laughs.

He still tries to fit in smaller independent passion projects, such as Brad Silberling’s upcoming “An Ordinary Man.” But he admits that the sudden death of his wife Natasha Richardson in a skiing accident last year has affected his choices.

“I’m a single parent now. I’ve got bills to pay,” he says. “Since my wife died, I’ve certainly worked more and concentrated on bigger-budget films for paydays, so I can put my money in the bank and stay at home with the kids. And the closer a production is to my home in New York, the better.”