This is not a Liam Neeson obituary. It just reads like one

Liam Neeson. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty

This is not an obituary. Though it may read like one. A year ago, in quieter, gentler times, when Liam Neeson was just a famous actor, I interviewed him in Dublin.

We began by discussing his habit of unexpectedly saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time. The word “unexpectedly” is worth noting. Neeson does not sparkle in interviews. He cannot be easily confused with his pal Colin Farrell, a happy chatterer who fills every minute with anecdote and self-deprecation. Liam Neeson conversations take place in a low rumble. Then something bizarre slips out.

He got into a scuffle with the burghers of Ballymena, his hometown, after pointing out that Catholics felt like “second-class citizens” when he was growing up. A few hours after our conversation, he went on The Late Late Show and called the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal a witch hunt. “I am always saying something...” he told me.

Journalists have tended to splice one sentence together with another for effect. Especially in respect to me coming from the north of Ireland, it was often done malevolently, and that makes me very angry

He has been drifting in and out of indiscretion forever. A full 16 years earlier I asked him about those comments about Ballymena, and he politely, but firmly, pulled down the blinds. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said with a pained expression. “If I open my mouth about any of that shit, it just gets me in trouble.”

He really got going when I asked him to ponder the experience of being part of the Redgrave clan. His wife, Natasha Richardson, who tragically died in 2009, was the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave.

“I’ve decided to just leave that stuff alone,” he said. “In the past 10 to 12 years, journalists have tended to splice one sentence together with another for effect, and that used to bug the shit out of me. Especially in respect to me coming from the north of Ireland, it was often done with a certain malevolence – hoping to create a tension – and that makes me very angry.”

Throughout his career Neeson has, by his own admission, warred with a tendency to blurt out inconvenient truths and dangerous opinions. Way back in 2002 he seemed resolved to err on the side of caution. He would focus on the work. He would deflect questions about his personal life. He would avoid politics. He recalled contemporaneous reports that he was pondering retirement with another weary sigh.

Liam Neeson with his late wife, Natasha Richardson, on stage in 1993. Photograph: NYT
Liam Neeson with his late wife, Natasha Richardson, on stage in 1993. Photograph: NYT

“I’d just done two pictures back to back. I was so missing my wife and kids. It was one of these chirpy little journalists.” He adopted an annoying American accent. “‘So, Liam, what’s next?’ Something about the timbre of her voice got to me. So I just said, ‘Well, I’m giving up this business for a start.’” 

All that was over. From then on, Neeson would mind his every word.

A career in peril

This really is not an obituary. There is every chance that Neeson, now 67, will continue to bash hoodlums and glower at female leads for many years to come. His recent, dramatic return to saying the unsayable has, however, unquestionably put his career in peril. 

Here is a precis for those who have been in a coma since Sunday. Chatting to the London Independent about his new thriller, Cold Pursuit, Neeson volunteered the information that some years earlier, following the rape of a friend, he had, upon discovering that the attacker was black, taken a cosh and gone out in search of indiscriminate revenge.

“I did it for maybe a week, hoping some ‘black b*st*rd’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could kill him,” he said.

Later, on Good Morning America, he explained that the incident happened 40 years ago and denied that he was any sort of racist. 

Even those who offered support were puzzled by Neeson’s decision to be so conspicuously indiscreet. The novelist John Banville, who hopes to still see the actor play Philip Marlowe in an upcoming adaptation of his book The Black-Eyed Blonde, told The Irish Times that he couldn’t “see what the fuss is about” but still questioned the wisdom of the interview. “He was foolish. He should have known better. He is a public man. He shouldn’t be using language like that,” Banville said.

His big break

This is almost certainly not an obituary. But it’s worth remembering the extraordinary journey that brought Neeson to this crux.

He was born in 1952 to a working-class family in Co Antrim. Mum was a cook and dad was a school caretaker. He has talked about the challenges of growing up Catholic in a Protestant town during the Troubles and of having a sneaking admiration for the oratory of his fellow Ballymena man Ian Paisley.

“He was very intimidating but extraordinary,” he told the BBC. “I remember a couple of times creeping into his gospel hall to hear him. He was a big, big man. I’m 6ft 4in, and he was my height but twice as broad.”

Boxing was his first love, and he won a few titles before entering Queen’s University Belfast to study computer science. He didn’t finish college and seems to have tried every imaginable trade before drifting towards the city’s Lyric Theatre in the mid-1970s.

His good looks and dominating frame secured further work in all the theatres that mattered: the Abbey and Project Arts Centre, in Dublin, and the Guildhall in Derry.

The big break in movies came when John Boorman cast him as Sir Gawain in his durable 1980 epic Excalibur. Neeson had a class of charisma that convinced the viewer on first sight that he’d been around forever. He could be a hard man, but there was a tenderness in the downturned eyes that served romantic roles nicely.

It’s easy to forget how few properly famous Irish actors there were in those days. Indeed, there weren’t that many famous Irish people.

Schindler’s List won him an Oscar nomination in 1994, but he lost to Tom Hanks, for Philadelphia. The consensus declared that (despite being born a long way from Cork) he was the only man who could play Michael Collins for Neil Jordan.

Liam Neeson as Michael Collins in Neil Jordan’s film
Liam Neeson as Michael Collins in Neil Jordan’s film

In 1999 he starred as Qui-Gon Jinn in the ill-reviewed but enormously successful Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

“When I saw the first Star Wars I was still acting at the Belfast Lyric,” he told me a few years later. “I remember so clearly going up to see it in the Ormeau Road. As we sat there we could hear the distant sound of bombs going off.”

From then on Neeson was set. He was in relatively few smash hits, but his distinguished, now middle-aged gravitas brought class to films by Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese and Bill Condon. He managed to maintain his dignity in what might (no small claim) be the gooiest segment in Love, Actually.

The year 2009 proved a pivotal one for two different reasons. Natasha Richardson, his wife since 1994, died that March after a freak skiing accident. Shortly after that the French thriller Taken, which he’d shot a year earlier, became an unexpected smash. Approaching his seventh decade, he found a new career as a star of violent revenge movies.

In 2016 President Michael D Higgins, presenting Neeson with a lifetime-achievement gong at the Irish Film and Televisions Awards, delivered a version of the film’s famous “particular set of skills” speech. A new version of Brand Neeson had been validated.

Liam Neeson in Taken 2
Liam Neeson in Taken 2

Turning point

A decade later Neeson has talked himself towards another unwanted turning point. As you read this, marketing people at major studios are pondering their approach to films he has already in the can.

The red-carpet screening for Cold Pursuit was cancelled, but that thriller will still advance into Irish cinemas on February 22nd. Hans Petter Moland’s film, a remake of his Norwegian romp In Order of Disappearance, has received strong reviews, but the awkward stench around this conversation is unlikely to do it any favours.

Sony Pictures will be more nervous still about the fate of Men in Black: International (not least because the title has unfortunate connotations). Granted third billing behind Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, Neeson stands tall and proud on the poster for the megabudgeted reboot of the science-fiction franchise. Thompson, an African-American, is sure to get asked questions about the current scandal during the press junket. That film opens in June.

If Neeson can be bothered to stick at it – and relearns his own message of minding his tongue – Hollywood, for good or ill, will probably let him back into the fold

It’s hard to find an appropriate comparison in Hollywood history. Fatty Arbuckle, “cancelled” in the silent era, was accused of a serious violent crime. Neeson does not have that hanging over him.

Kevin Spacey is alleged to have sexually molested young people and – this probably matters a bit – he was never regarded as a likable personality. Neeson has always got on with his colleagues.

The temptation is to look towards Mel Gibson. Though there was, 40 years ago, potential for the worst sort of offence, Neeson does a better job of seeming reformed than Gibson managed after drunkenly screaming anti-Semitic abuse at a police officer in 2006.

There was more where that came from, but in 2017 Gibson received an Oscar nomination for his hit war film Hacksaw Ridge.

If he can be bothered to stick at it – and relearns his own message of minding his tongue – Hollywood, for good or ill, will probably let him back into the fold. This is not an obituary.