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The Good Fortune of Liam Neeson

John Clark is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Most stars look smaller in real life. Liam Neeson, the robust Oskar Schindler of “Schindler’s List” and fiery Rob Roy of “Rob Roy,” is no exception. Seated stiffly in a director’s chair in his office on the West Side of Manhattan--he’s just driven in from the country, having dropped off his two kids in another part of the building--he looks neither robust nor fiery. He looks thin.

The irony is that his on-screen appearance is closer to what he normally looks like. Neeson has been very sick.

“I had a minor operation on my colon to remove a small blockage,” he explains. “It required me to be lying on my back for a week. It happened in Italy when I went over to publicize ‘Michael Collins.’ ”

This was big news, of course, almost as big as the movie itself, which stars Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea and Julia Roberts. “Collins,” which opens here Friday, is a potentially incendiary biopic of one of the founding fathers of modern Ireland. The premiere in Italy, at the Venice Film Festival, was a testing of the waters after months of sniping in the British press. It was there that Neeson got sick. At first he thought he might have food poisoning (bad caviar). He says he struggled to stay conscious through the press conference that followed the screening, barely making it back to his room, where he was seen by a doctor. He then played a deathbed scene.

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“I was to go to a hospital in Padua,” Neeson says. “And then lightning hit Venice and a building caught fire, and a lot of people were hurt. The river ambulances were busy at this scene of horror, and I was left in this tiny hospital up the road from where I was staying. There was this one little crucifix on the wall. And I looked behind me, and the number on the bed was 52, which was the year I was born. I was convinced that was it. Having made the film that I’d spent the past 13 years thinking about, I thought, ‘It’s perfect.’ I kind of did feel a sense of peace. Ed Limato, my agent, was with me, and I told him, and he started laughing.”

This makes a good story, and Neeson, being Irish and an actor, appreciates a good story, especially if it has a little poetry, a little vulnerability, maybe even a little vulgarity. In other words, if it’s like Neeson himself. And as it turns out, many of the things that have happened to him in his career share these qualities.

The production history of “Michael Collins,” for example, neatly spans his entire cinematic career. It was conceived by director Neil Jordan after the two of them met on Neeson’s first film, “Excalibur,” and 13 years later Neeson almost died promoting it.

A lot has happened in those 13 years. Neeson was on the verge of breaking through a number of times--with “Suspect,” “The Good Mother,” “Darkman,” “Husbands and Wives"--but it never quite happened. Even when it finally did, with “Schindler’s List,” he followed that with a series of films that failed to capitalize on his success--"Nell,” “Before and After,” even “Rob Roy.” The industry has never quite known what to make of him.

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“I think he deserved better parts than the ones he was getting,” says Peter Yates, who directed him in “Krull” and “Suspect.” “The ones he was getting were obviously [opposite] all the CAA leading ladies. He was thought to be a good person for them. I think that Liam demands something a little bit stronger than that.”

Some of Neeson’s frustrations, of course, are the natural way of things in Hollywood, where an actor or actress can languish for years in semi-obscurity before being recognized. Another problem may be that Neeson defies easy categorization--the poetry, the vulnerability, etc. He might be describing himself when he says of Jordan, “He’s incredibly Irish--if you were to describe the Irish as you can laugh and cry, two sides of the same coin. He’s a typical Irishman, full of contradictions and paradoxes and terribly sweet.”

There is evidence of this everywhere--in Neeson’s manner, in his surroundings, in the choices he’s made. Help yourself to this cheese platter, he says. Will that tape recorder pick up my voice? Here, I’ll walk you down.

“He’s one of the politest people I’ve ever met,” says Yates. “He is one of the few generous actors I know.”

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Alongside these manners and this generosity is what producer Jim Jacks (who worked with him on “Darkman”) calls “a tough guy.” He was a boxing champion as a kid, and he’s got the broken nose to prove it. (He’s also got the certifications, which hang on his office wall opposite a pair of old boxing gloves.) He swears like a stevedore. He’s tall (6 feet 4) and has a handshake just this side of crushing. He’s done his share of romancing, having dated some of the most high-profile women around (Julia Roberts, Sinead O’Connor, Barbra Streisand, Brooke Shields).

The list of contradictions goes on. He’s made his reputation as an actor--he performed at Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre, he earned raves for his performance as a coal stoker in a Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie,” he won best actor at Venice for “Collins"--but he’d love to make action movies. He speaks enthusiastically about Sean Connery (whom he tried to get into “Rob Roy”) and . . . Steven Seagal. (“I think he’s such a fine actor,” Neeson says. “I really do.”)

“I think he’d be a terrific action star,” says Jacks, who has plied Neeson with action projects over the years. He nearly got Neeson into the John Woo movie “Hard Target” (the part went to Jean-Claude Van Damme). He talked to Neeson about playing Wyatt Earp in “Tombstone” (it went to Kurt Russell). They discussed a couple of roles in the coming remake of “The Day of the Jackal” (they went to Richard Gere and Bruce Willis).

It’s safe to say that Jordan recognized all of these contradictory qualities in Neeson when he cast him as Collins, who waged a vicious guerrilla campaign against the British occupation of Ireland and then was murdered after negotiating a treaty opposed by many of his own countrymen, including Irish leader Eamon De Valera. As leader of the Irish Volunteers, Collins was both tremendously ruthless and almost operatically sentimental, banging his head against a wall after sending his men out to execute somebody.

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“That was why I thought he was born for the role,” says Jordan. “Liam is from a quasi-rural background. He’s got that peasant earthiness, which he’s carried through the years and has defined him as an actor. Country people, if you’ve ever seen them with animals, can have a kind of mystery and yet be horribly matter-of-fact. They know that life is brutal and short and unforgiving, but they have a gentleness too.”

And what is this man of the earth working on now? A biopic of Oscar Wilde.

“He’s had two parts that he’s always wanted to play,” Yates says. “One was Michael Collins, and the other one was Oscar Wilde.”

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The Collins idea was introduced to Neeson by Jordan, whom he knew in a nodding way in Dublin while he was working in the theater. Before that, Neeson, who was born in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, had tried his hand at a number of things. At first he wanted to be a teacher and went to Queens College in Belfast, where he majored in physics and math. Failing that, he drove a forklift for Guinness and worked as an architect’s assistant.

He got into professional acting on a dare, calling up the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in 1976 and being cast because of his height. From there he went to Dublin and the Abbey Theatre, where director John Boorman saw him in “Of Mice and Men” and cast him in the small role of Sir Gawain in “Excalibur.” It was here that Neeson ran into Jordan.

“Neil told me he was doing this documentary on the making of ‘Excalibur,’ ” Neeson says. “I was rehearsing a sword fight scene with Lancelot, and he wanted to use it for his film. I remember waxing lyrical about how wonderful it was to make a film like ‘Excalibur,’ telling this story of Western man, telling this story in Wicklow, which is steeped in the blood of generations. Pub talk, you know? B.S. Neil said, ‘Will you say that on camera after this rehearsal?’ ‘Yeah, Neil, I’d love to.’ So that’s kind of how we met.”

Neeson moved on to London, where he did a few TV miniseries and feature films. By this time, Jordan was in London too, filming “The Company of Wolves.” He called up Neeson and asked if they could meet. Jordan said he had a project he wanted Neeson to star in, about “this fellah Michael Collins, who I knew of, but I didn’t know a great deal about him,” Neeson says.

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“As we talked, he kept saying, ‘He is one of the unsung heroes of Ireland, isn’t he?’ ” Neeson continues. “There are times you have to be careful, even to this day, in Ireland. Did your family support Collins or did they support De Valera? And he would say things like, ‘Yeah, he was that, but he was a big thug, a bully.’ I remember thinking, ‘Is he casting me because I look like a big thug?’ ”

So every few years, they would meet up and talk about the script. Meanwhile, Neeson had a career to pursue, and for a while he pursued it in London, landing roles in such films as 1984’s “The Bounty” and 1986’s “The Mission.” Then he got a call one day from a casting director who wanted to know if the actor would like to work with Steven Spielberg. Spielberg, who was in London, needed someone to read with the boys he was considering for the lead in “Empire of the Sun.” Neeson went down and read all day long with these kids and Spielberg.

“At the end of the day,” Neeson says, “he said to me, ‘We’ll do something special someday.’ ”

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That someday looked like never in London. Work was drying up, so Neeson decided to try his hand at Hollywood. His first American feature was Yates’ “Suspect,” in which he played a homeless mute.

“What we were looking for was someone with a very strong personality to play not that big a part,” Yates says. “Of course, if you get to that age with a presence, you’ve either made it or you’re a lousy actor. And so I wanted to bring someone over from England. I had worked with Liam before on ‘Krull.’ ”

“They had wanted a star,” Neeson says. “Peter, God bless his socks, held out for me. It was a huge break.”

Neeson settled in town permanently and pursued his career with a vengeance. He had four releases in 1988 alone, including a flop called “High Spirits” that he made with Jordan. Typical of Neeson’s work schedule at that time was when he was starring in Sam Raimi’s “Darkman” (a part he got over Bill Paxton), which required several hours of makeup every day. At the same time, he was preparing for a film called “The Big Man” (released here as “Crossing the Line”), in which he was to play a bare-knuckled fighter. He would get up at 2 in the morning, work out and then be in a makeup chair at 5.

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“I was a monk, just ‘Darkman’ and doing these solitary workouts,” Neeson says. “It was a fairly solitary existence, but I liked it for that, because I tend to be fairly solitary. I was there on a quest, to be in the center of English-speaking cinema and to get a chance to work, which I did.”

Well, maybe he wasn’t a monk. To his irritation, he was better known for the women he was dating than the roles he was playing. Like a lot of actors, he was frustrated not only by the parts he did get but by the ones he didn’t. Chief among these was the teacher in “Dead Poets Society,” which Neeson describes as “one of the huge disappointments of my life.”

Originally the director was Jeff Kanew. Neeson was smitten with the script, read for the part and won Kanew over. He did several screen tests for the studio, but they wanted a bigger star, although Kanew continued to lobby for him. Dustin Hoffman then entered the picture, but he wanted to direct as well as star. Kanew was fired, and Neeson, of course, followed him out the door. Hoffman eventually abandoned the project, to be replaced by Robin Williams and Peter Weir, who made a hugely successful movie.

There is, however, a silver lining to this cloud, and ironically it came from Hoffman. Several years later, Neeson found himself discussing roles in “Billy Bathgate” with Hoffman and director Robert Benton.

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“Hoffman was looking at me very strangely,” Neeson says. “Obviously it bugged him [like], ‘I know that guy’s face from somewhere.’ The meeting was over, and he went, ‘ “Dead Poets Society.” I saw your screen test. I could not have done it better than you.’ It was such a gracious thing for someone like Hoffman to say to me, a nobody. It was a lovely closure.”

Another in the long line of what-might-have-beens (although this one didn’t hurt nearly as much) was Raimi’s “The Quick and the Dead.”

“It was the reverse position of what an actor usually finds himself in,” Neeson says. “Sam wanted me, the writer wanted me, the producers wanted me, Universal wanted me. Sharon Stone apparently didn’t want me.” Here, he laughs. “The annoying thing was that I was having a holiday with my wife in Thailand and we were flying out from London, and I was asked if I could fly to Thailand via L.A. to meet with Sharon. It was a very pleasant meeting. Obviously the decision had been made. I think Sharon was just going through the motions. [A representaive of Stone says: “It wasn’t Sharon. It was the production that decided a different way.”]

“I was kind of mad--not that I didn’t get the part but because of Natasha and this fruitless mission.”

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“Natasha,” of course, is Neeson’s wife, Natasha Richardson--the mother of his two kids and the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson. They met while working together on stage in “Anna Christie,” which she talked him into doing (over his initial misgivings). She and the play couldn’t have come along at a better time. Hollywood was seeming more and more like a fruitless mission, and the show offered him a chance to get in touch with what he really loved while earning him the respect and attention that had eluded him on screen. He abandoned Hollywood and moved to New York.

One of the mythologies surrounding “Schindler’s List” is that Spielberg cast Neeson in part because of something he did backstage after a performance of “Anna Christie.” Spielberg was there with his wife, Kate Capshaw, and her mother, who was crying over the performance. Neeson took her in his arms, something that, Capshaw said, “Oskar Schindler would have done.” Neeson insists that it was his screen test that got him the part, the implication being that it is an insult to him as an actor to suggest he got it any other way. After Spielberg told him he had it, he experienced one of those moments of actorly generosity that so stir him.

“The next day I got a telegram from [Australian actor] Jack Thompson, who was somewhere inthe middle of Africa,” Neeson says. “And he said something about ‘Thrilled to hear you got cast.’ He said something like it was kind of between the two of us. I was floored by it. It’s times like that that I’m proud to be an actor.”

Inevitably, the project, so long in the making (some 10 years), featured yet another closure.

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“When we finished the last scene, we all got a bit teary,” Neeson says. “Steven said, ‘Remember that day you read for me with all those boys?’ I said, ‘I sure do, Steven.’ He said, ‘Remember I said someday we’ll work together on something special?’ ”

In some ways, “Michael Collins” is Neeson and Jordan’s “something special.” Like Spielberg, they just kept after it. Unlike him, though, they had competition. Kevin Costner had a Collins project in the pipeline at Warner Bros. In fact, years earlier, Michael Cimino had commissioned a Collins script and talked to Neeson about appearing as De Valera.

Now, with Costner breathing down their necks but both men having achieved a measure of clout (Neeson was an Oscar nominee for “Schindler’s List,” and Jordan had hits with “The Crying Game” and “Interview With the Vampire”), they began to press their case. Jordan enlisted the aid of “Interview” producer David Geffen. And Neeson called Warner Bros. co-head Terry Semel:

“I said, ‘Terry, I know you guys are holding Jordan’s script,’ ” Neeson says. “ ‘I know you have a relationship with Kevin Costner and Kevin is very keen to do this. Can you give us any hope at all? We’re just a bunch of Paddies, and we want to make a film of our guy.’ And Terry listened. He kept saying, ‘I hear you, I hear you.’ ”

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He heard them (or he heard Geffen, anyway) and gave them $28 million to do it. The irony was that now that they finally got the green light, Neeson got cold feet. He was afraid that at 42 he was too old to play Collins, who died when he was 31.

“Liam rang me up and said, ‘Look, are you only saying you want me to play this role?’ ” Jordan says. “ ‘Am I too old? Are you just saying this because you said it a long time ago?’ I said, ‘Look, we’ve just got to put our heads down and do it.’ ”

Now, of course, “Michael Collins” is done. L.A. (though not Hollywood) is behind him, as are his days of A-list bachelorhood. Neeson is finally free to think of other things. One of them, of course, is his new family, which by all accounts he takes very seriously. And yet at the same time, he still wants to work, and to do that he’s going to have to leave his kids (Michael and Daniel, both under 3).

“It hasn’t happened yet,” he says. “I haven’t gotten into that yet of Natasha being somewhere and me being somewhere. Home life is incredibly important to us, but at the same time there’s the gypsy in both of us. I’m not looking forward to it.”

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So he continues to field projects. He was briefly attached to an Oliver Stone movie based on the book “Young Men and Fire,” about smoke jumpers. And there’s still Oscar Wilde. Neeson is hoping to get that film off the ground next year, with Mike Nichols producing, David Hare scripting and Richard Eyre of England’s National Theatre directing.

Asked why he wants to play Wilde, Neeson says:

“I just admire these men who go out on a limb, you know? He was a man of contradictions. A great father to his kids. He’d always disappear at night to go out on his jaunts, but he’d always be at his kids’ bedside reading them stories. I’d love the chance to present all that.”


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