From a galaxy far, far away to the darkened streets of Gotham, actor Liam Neeson has developed a reputation as one of the fiercest, most powerful performers in Hollywood. His quiet yet commanding presence on-screen has captivated audiences and helped to make each movie role feel iconic, from his action-packed turn as Bryan Mills in the Taken franchise to his heart-wrenching portrayal of German businessman Oskar Schindler in the award-winning 1993 film Schindler’s List.
Every step of the way, Neeson has delivered a kind of intensity that resonates with critics and viewers alike, yet for this Irish-born actor, professional success has come hand-in-hand with hardship. After losing his beloved wife, actress Natasha Richardson, in 2009 following an incident at a Canadian ski resort, Neeson become a worldwide symbol for triumph over grief and adversity. However, this crushing moment is just one of many difficult setbacks that Neeson has weathered over the years. Here is the tragic real-life story of Liam Neeson.
He grew up during ‘The Troubles’
Born in 1952 in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, Liam Neeson and his three sisters were raised by their parents, Kitty and Barney Neeson. Kitty was a school cook and Barney a school custodian, and according to The New York Times, they raised their kids in a strict and devout home. His upbringing factored heavily in his childhood and influenced his perspectives later in life. « I was brought up Catholic in Ireland, so the church featured quite heavily in our household, » he told CNN. « I was an altar boy as a kid, and had early fantasies of being a priest for several months. »
As the voice of the CNN series Pope, Neeson has reflected on the challenges of his spiritual journey. The town he grew up in was largely Protestant, and the two faiths didn’t play well together during that period in history. Neeson grew up during a violent, decades-long era of sectarian strife that came to be known as « The Troubles. » Thousands were killed. « It wasn’t easy living in Northern Ireland in the Fifties and Sixties, » he told the Times magazine (via the Belfast Telegraph). He said he grew up « cautious. »
His boxing dreams were KO’d
Long before he became a bonafide action star, Liam Neeson dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. At age 9, he joined a local boxing club run by his family’s parish priest. « He had two ropy pairs of ratty, old, ancient boxing gloves and a book on how to box. He started at page one … and then six years later — I say this very, very proudly — he guided our club to become one of the best clubs in Ireland, » Neeson told HuffPostUK.
Neeson started competing at 11 and dreamed of reaching the same levels of success as his hero, Muhammad Ali (who he met in 1981 and in 2011), but his career hit the ropes as a teen. « It was maybe close to my last fight. I must have been 16. I actually won the fight, but I came out of the ring and I had obviously got a concussion because my trainer said to go downstairs and take my clothes off and stuff, and I couldn’t figure out what downstairs meant, » he told ESPN. « …I remember thinking, I’ve got to get out of this. It’s not comfortable anymore. »
Neeson’s soccer ambitions also fizzled. While studying physics and computer science at Queen’s University in Belfast, he caught the eye of the Bohemian Football Club and tried out for the team. That didn’t work out, but Neeson’s loss was clearly our win because he eventually drifted to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and became a repertory actor.
Bloody Sunday was a real wake-up call
Sectarian and political violence and unrest plagued his native land while he was growing up, but Liam Neeson didn’t fully realize the extent of the crisis until « Bloody Sunday » in 1972. He was in college in Belfast at the time. « I went to my lecture on a Monday morning and I thought it was odd that there were no other students about — there were maybe three people in the lecture, » he told Radio Times (via the Belfast Telegraph). « So I came walking out with my wee briefcase and was heading back to the halls of residence and suddenly I was surrounded by maybe 200 students all shouting ‘Scab! Scab! Scab!’ at me! Bloody Sunday had happened, students were boycotting lectures and I knew nothing about it. »
Neeson has since referred to his « terrifying » experience as a « real awakening. » He realized, « I had better start learning about my history. » In a 2011 interview with Esquire, he revealed that his past still informs how he speaks about his native Northern Ireland, even all these years later. « I always forget that I can still make it hard for my family there by saying something stupid in the press. I still have to be careful. I have to make it my job to be careful with my family. »
By the way, Neeson dropped out of Queen’s University but did receive an honorary doctorate from the institution some four decades later.
That time he punched a kid
Neeson might be one of the most celebrated Irish actors of all time, but his big break didn’t happen overnight. After dropping out of college in the early 1970s, he kicked around at a number of odd jobs. « I was a forklift truck driver at a Guinness factory in my home town with this guy who could make a forklift truck speak. He was so brilliant at what he did; I was the apprentice, » the actor told Metro UK.
Neeson also tried to become a teacher, and in what appears to be a clear precursor to the ass-kicking, vigilante characters he’d later play on-screen, he once had to take matters into his own hands – literally – after a student threatened him with a knife. Neeson recalled the incident during an interview with ESPN. He was trying to get the class to calm down and focus. « And this particular kid just didn’t want to settle down, and he wanted to disrupt the whole class, you know? So I went over to him and asked him to leave the classroom and stand outside, and the next thing … he pulled a knife on me. And my immediate reaction was to punch him, which I shouldn’t have done. But I felt threatened, so I punched him. »
Neeson was reprimanded and soon realized that the teaching profession was not well suited to his particular set of skills.
‘I wasn’t supposed to last the night’
Liam Neeson nearly died in 2000 when his ’89 Harley Davidson motorcycle collided with a deer near his home in Upstate New York. According to the New York Post, « The 48-year-old Neeson, who was wearing a helmet, was thrown from the motorcycle and landed in a dirt embankment just before the bike crashed into a tree. » A passerby noticed the actor, who had reportedly « managed to crawl his way » to the roadside. Neeson supposedly asked « for a ride home, » but the witness could see he needed medical help.
« I wasn’t supposed to last the night, » Neeson told GQ in 2014. He recovered from his injuries, only to face a new battle. « …when they took me to the hospital and gave me morphine, ugh, I thought, ‘This is how I want to go, with a big f***in’ jar of this stuff.’ And then when they give you that drip that you give yourself every six minutes … I knew I was hooked, because I was counting those fucking drips, the seconds until I could push that button, and it was instantaneous, that high was. »
Neeson overcame that struggle as well but admits that « f***ing drugs » fuel his fears for his own children. « It’s a virus. A teenager can take it and suddenly they can be hooked, and it changes their life and their family’s forever. That’s my constant worry. »
Natasha Richardson’s heartbreaking death
The single greatest tragedy in Liam Neeson’s life occurred in March 2009 when his wife, Tony-winning actress Natasha Richardson, died from head injuries sustained while vacationing at a Canadian ski resort. Neeson and Richardson wed in 1994 after performing on Broadway in a revival of the play Anna Christie. They were raising their two sons, Micheál and Daniel, when their love story took a tragic turn. According to ABC News, Richardson fell on a beginner’s trail while taking a ski lesson at the Mont Tremblant ski resort in Quebec. She wasn’t wearing a helmet and « initially appeared fine and joked about the fall, but the ski patrol insisted she see a doctor. » She initially declined care, but medical professionals were eventually called to the scene.
« I spoke to her and she said, ‘Oh, darling. I’ve taken a tumble in the snow.’ That’s how she described it, » Neeson told 60 Minutes in 2014. He was shooting the film Chloe in Toronto but rushed to be by her side. By the time he arrived, « I was told she was brain dead. » Neeson made the heartbreaking decision to remove life support, but takes some comfort in the donation of three of her organs. He told 60 Minutes that she’s « keeping three people alive at the moment … I think she would be very thrilled and pleased by that. » Even so, Neeson said he has struggled with his grief and a « profound feeling of instability … like a three-legged table. »
A series of tests
After his wife’s death, Liam Neeson faced a number of tests to his family, his sobriety, and even his faith. According to 60 Minutes, he threw himself back into work immediately, returning to the Toronto set of Chloe within days of Natasha Richardson’s passing. « [Her death] was never real, » he said in 2014. « It still kind of isn’t. » In an interview with GQ that same year, he revealed that he was « drinking too much » after losing his wife, so he chose to give it up in 2013.
For Neeson, who grew up in a devout Catholic home, losing his wife challenged his faith, as well. When asked by GQ if he still felt spiritual, Neeson said he did. « I mean, I don’t practice. But it’s not far from me. And I have faith in the power of theater, which is quite similar—a body of people seeing something being enacted. It’s at least 4,000 years old; I see how that can move people and change attitudes, the power. I believe in that faith, » he said, « Since my wife passed away, do I believe in an afterlife? I don’t know. »
His son’s life went ‘downhill’
Liam Neeson’s eldest son, Micheál Neeson, was just 13 years old when Natasha Richardson died after hitting her head while skiing. Following her untimely passing, he experienced a « delayed reaction » to his mother’s death. « Of course, when it happened it was devastating, » Micheál told the Sunday Times Style magazine (via Hello! magazine). « But in my mind, subconsciously, I either pushed it out or stored it deep inside. And so, within the next week I was like, ‘OK, get on with my life’. »
He reportedly hit the party scene hard, but by the spring of 2014, Micheál saw that « things just started going downhill » and eventually sought treatment at a facility in Utah. He credits his father’s work ethic with helping inspire him to turn his life around. In late 2018, Micheál paid tribute to his mother by changing his surname from Neeson to Richardson, a move of which his Oscar-winning grandmother, Vanessa Redgrave, approved. « He wanted to hold his mother close to him — because she was a remarkable actress. Absolutely remarkable, » she told the Daily Mail.
Yet another tragic fall
A decade after the tragic passing of Natasha Richardson, Liam Neeson was dealt another staggering blow when his nephew, Ronan Sexton, passed away from injuries sustained in a 20-foot fall. The 35-year-old Sexton was reportedly enjoying a night out with friends in June 2014, when he climbed on top of a phone box on Brighton Pier but then lost his balance and fell to the ground, The Belfast Telegraph reported.
Sexton, who is the youngest son of Neeson’s sister, Bernadette, was unable to walk or talk on his own after the fall and was being cared for near his family in Northern Ireland. According to the Daily Mail, Sexton’s mother was putting the finishing touches on a house specially modified to meet her son’s needs, when he succumbed to his injuries and passed away in early January 2019. « The family are very private and they are very upset, as you can imagine, it’s been devastating for them, » a source told the publication.
A major controversy
During a press junket in February 2019 for the revenge film Cold Pursuit, Neeson kicked off a major controversy when he confessed to The Independent that he once actively sought to inflict violence on others after learning one of his close friends was raped. The incident had reportedly occurred some 40 years before the shocking interview: « I asked, did she know who it was? No. What color were they? She said it was a black person. I went up and down areas with a [club], hoping I’d be approached by somebody — I’m ashamed to say that — and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could … kill him. »
The actor’s racially charged comments immediately went viral and were met with widespread criticism. « I’m not a racist, » Neeson subsequently told Good Morning America. The star claimed that his words were taken out of context, but reiterated that he did feel a « primal urge to lash out » after hearing about his friend’s suffering. « I went out deliberately into black areas in the city, looking to be set upon, » he added. « It shocked me and it hurt me … I did seek help, I went to a priest. »
In the wake of the controversy, Lionsgate canceled the red carpet portion of the New York City premiere of Cold Pursuit.