In: Ballymena, Northern Ireland
Standing a burly 6'4", Liam Neeson was once described by a theatre critic as a "towering sequoia of sex." To say that he has undeniable charisma is certainly accurate, but it is a charisma composed as much of impressive talent as of broken-nosed physical appeal. Bearing both versatility and quiet forcefulness, Neeson has been touted as one of the most compelling actors of the late 20th century.
Born June 7, 1952, in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, Neeson had an upbringing partially defined by his involvement in boxing. He became active in the sport as a teenager, earning his distinctive broken nose in the process; he stayed with boxing until he began experiencing black-outs from repeated blows to the head. Initially interested in a career as a teacher, Neeson attended Belfast's Queens College, but he aborted his studies after developing a desire to act. In 1976, he joined Belfast's Lyric Theatre, and two years later he began performing the classics at Dublin's famed Abbey Theatre. While he was with the Abbey, Neeson was discovered by director John Boorman, who cast him as Gawain in 1981's Excalibur. Following his part in that action fantasy, Neeson had supporting roles in such films as The Mission (1986), and he was featured in leads opposite Cher in Suspect (1987) and Diane Keaton in The Good Mother (1988).
He got his first starring vehicle in 1990 with Sam Raimi's Darkman; unfortunately, the film was a relative disappointment. Neeson continued to do starring work in such films as Big Man (1991), which featured him as a boxer, Ethan Frome (1992), and Under Suspicion (1992), but ironically, it was his work on the stage that led to his true screen breakthrough. In 1992, the actor was turning in a Tony-nominated performance in Anna Christie opposite Natasha Richardson (whom he would marry in 1994) on Broadway. His work attracted the notice of Steven Spielberg, who was so impressed with what he saw that he cast Neeson as Oskar Schindler in his landmark Holocaust drama Schindler's List (1993). Neeson received Best Actor Oscar and British Academy Award nominations for his performance, and he subsequently didn't have to worry about finding work in Hollywood, or elsewhere, again.
More high-profile work followed for Neeson, who went on to star in such films as Nell (1994), Rob Roy (1995), and Michael Collins (1996). However acclaimed his previous work had been, none of it received the hype of one of Neeson's 1999 projects, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Although the film, which starred Neeson as a Jedi master, ultimately earned a galaxy's worth of negative reviews, it mined box office millions. Its success further enhanced Neeson's status as one of the world's most visible actors, and it even helped to downplay the disappointment of The Haunting, his other film that year.
Neeson would enter the new millennium with a variety of projects on his to-do list, appearing in the Martin Scorsese period piece Gangs of New York in 2002, and the extremely popular romantic comedy Love Actually in 2003. The following year would find him tackling a meatier role, however, as he singed on to portray pioneering scientist and researcher on human sexuality Alfred Kinsey in the biopic Kinsey. The part would earn Neeson a Golden Globe nomination, and Neeson would follow its success with performances in Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, as well as one in the blockbuster superhero reboot Batman Begins in 2005. He would also sign on to provide the voice of lion king Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia fantasy franchise.
In 2008, Neeson starred in the thriller Taken, portraying a former CIA officer who employs his brutal skills learned on the job to find his kidnapped daughter. Audiences weren't accustomed to seeing the actor hold down the lead in an action film, but Neeson succeeded and the film was a categorical success. Sadly, the following year, Liam's wife actress Natasha Richardson died suddenly after suffering a severe head injury during a skiing accident. Neeson was left in care of their two children, Michael and Daniel, but was later able to resume his career.
Neeson would find himself appearing in many action/adventure films over the coming years. He starred as the cigar-chomping ohn "Hannibal" Smith in the big-screen adaptation of The A-Team in 2010, and a man fleeing for his life and fighting for his identity in 2011's Unknown. The following year, Neeson played an oil driller stranded amid a pack of wolves in The Grey. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi