”When I first went to California in ’86,” says Liam Neeson, doffing his titanic trench coat, ”one movie executive asked what experience I had. I said, ‘John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.’ And he says, ‘What? You played a mouse?”’
In L.A., if you’re not huge, you’re beneath notice. But Neeson has gradually gotten bigger since he set foot on West Coast soil. Even before his stunning performance as the mysterious hero of Schindler’s List, Neeson won raves for his erotic magnetism in Woody Allen’s 1992 Husbands and Wives and for his flashy, trashy lead role in 1990’s Darkman, an overlooked comic-book movie that put Dick Tracy to shame. And with the release of Schindler’s List, coming a year after he’d just about given up on Hollywood, Neeson has finally attained a professional stature to match his imposing 6-foot-4-inch frame.
Neeson, 41, was first drawn to acting as a laddie in Northern Ireland’s remote County Antrim, approximately 25 miles from a town called Holywood. Unlike Hollywood, County Antrim expected its thespians to get their education from Shakespeare, not Seagal. Encouraged by his parents to pursue an academic career, Neeson was lured away by the theater at 17 and at 23 landed the part of Irish revolutionary Big Jim Larkin at Belfast’s prestigious Lyric Players Theatre. ”Every town in Ireland has their own troupe,” he says in a brogue thick as Guinness, puffing Marlboro Lights in his favorite Central Park South cappuccino nook. ”The weather’s so fookin’ awful, people are indoors all the time resortin’ to tellin’ yarns.”
Neeson was snatched off the Dublin stage in 1980, when director John Boorman cast him as Sir Gawain in Excalibur. During filming, he was swept up by castmate Helen Mirren (Prime Suspect), who became his drinking buddy at the stage-door Dirty Duck Tavern and the first of a long line of eminent actress inamoratas. ”He’s a gracious person, a great soul with great self-discipline,” says Mirren, who eagerly introduced Neeson to her contemporaries and helped spur his career. A bit part on Miami Vice got him a U.S. work visa, which he put to energetic use: He’s done 22 films, 10 in the last five years.
People with what he terms ”a wee bit o’ clout” were abuzz about Neeson’s talent for years before the public caught on. His screen test for Dead Poets Society landed him the lead. ”The director, Jeff Kanew, told me, ‘You’re my guy,”’ Neeson recalls. Kanew was replaced by Peter Weir and the lead went to Robin Williams, but a videotape of Neeson’s brilliant reading of the classroom ”carpe diem” speech circulated throughout Hollywood and caught the eye of Dustin Hoffman. Neeson later auditioned for a role in Billy Bathgate. He didn’t get that job either, but Hoffman gave him the highest possible praise: ”I couldn’t be better than you in (the carpe diem) scene.”
Stars who did work with Neeson liked him even better: Diane Keaton, his leading lady in 1988’s The Good Mother, reportedly convinced her old beau to hire him for Husbands and Wives as the relationship-starved Michael. ”Woody Allen is not the kind of director who interprets your character’s motives for you,” Neeson says, ”so I just decided to play it the way I would if I were in that situation (a love triangle) in real life. Just to be a bit of calm in the midst of the situation whirling around me.”
But what might have been Neeson’s breakout performance was overshadowed by headlines about Allen’s personal travails, and Neeson’s two other 1992 shots at the big time, Leap of Faith and Shining Through, misfired, partly because of dim scripts. ”Melanie Griffith and I had a scene cut from Shining Through where we very, very tentatively fall in love—I play a Nazi officer. I don’t think it went down very well with the test screening audiences. Which is a shame, because it was one of the best scenes in the movie.”
Neeson was clearly feeling thwarted; in fact, he claims to have thought seriously about just chucking the movie biz entirely as recently as last year, when he left Hollywood for Broadway. Ironically, his low public profile was probably what got him the role of Oskar Schindler. Spielberg didn’t have to worry about a colossal persona coloring his astringent black-and-white historical portrait.