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How Ian Paisley's passion put Liam Neeson on the road to stardom

He is the actor who brought Michael Collins so vividly to life on the big screen, but it was a Big Fella from the other side of the political divide who inspired the young Liam Neeson to take up acting -- Ian Paisley.

As a Catholic growing up in the predominantly Protestant town of Ballymena, Co Antrim, the teenage Neeson would often sneak into the local Presbyterian church hall to listen to Reverend Paisley preach his notorious fire-and-brimstone sermons.

"He had a magnificent presence," Neeson remembered, "and it was incredible to watch this six-foot-plus man just bible-thumping away. It was acting but it was also great acting, and stirring too."

The Reverend's oratory skills left a deep impression on him, and Neeson -- whose new movie Unknown open here next month -- later joined the repertory of Belfast's Lyric Theatre after finishing his studies at the city's Queen's University. Now Neeson, who grew up dreaming of being first a professional boxer and then a footballer -- he once had a trial at Bohemians FC in Dublin -- found himself picking up his first paychecks as a jobbing actor in touring productions of plays by Friel, O'Casey and Shakespeare.

Those evenings spent sitting in the pews among the congregation in Ballymena would also stand him in good stead when it came to playing larger-than-life characters like Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List or Michael Collins in Neil Jordan's 1996 biopic.

The irony is that despite starring roles playing such high-profile historical figures, Neeson himself has consistently and successfully avoided the media spotlight.

His private life took centre stage in the worst possible circumstances in March of 2009, when his wife of 15 years, Natasha Richardson, died tragically after a fall at a Canadian ski resort.

Neeson had met Richardson -- the daughter of actress Vanessa Redgrave and film director Tony Richardson -- in 1993 when they starred opposite each other in a Broadway revival of the Eugene O'Neill play Anna Christie. The chemistry between the couple was there for all to see -- in the audience, a watching Steven Spielberg decided he had just found the perfect lead for his next film, Schindler's List -- and they soon married and added another few branches to the legendary Redgrave family tree.

Alas, Neeson is now raising their two sons, Michael (15), and Daniel (14), alone, and one can only imagine what a difficult couple of years the man has had. Last week he told one interviewer that he has yet to bring himself to delve into the piles of letters he received in the months after the tragedy. "I have two barrels of letters I still haven't opened yet," he said.

However, Neeson insists he's coping as best he can with life as a widower. "My kids are good. And as long as they're good, I'm good. It's as simple as that. I have an extraordinary family on both my side and my wife's side."

He also spoke of his heartbreak at seeing Natasha in the hospital."I walked into the emergency -- it's like 70, 80 people, broken arms, black eyes, all that -- and for the first time in years, nobody recognises me. Not the nurses. The patients. No one. And I'vecome all this way, and they won't let me see her. So I went outside. It's freezing cold, and I thought, 'What am I gonnado? How am I going to get past the security'?

"And I see two nurses, ladies, having a cigarette. I walk up, and luckily one of them recognises me. And I'll tell you, I was so f**king grateful -- for the first time in I don't know how long -- to berecognised. And this one, she says, 'Go in that back door there. Make a left. She's in a room there'. So I get there, just in time. And all these young doctors, who look all of 18 years of age, they tell me the worst. The worst."

Perhaps wisely, he has kept working. At 58, Neeson has recently reinvented himself as an action hero in movies like Taken and The A-Team. His latest film, Unknown, which opens here on March 4 and will be screened during the Dublin Film Festival, has been attracting quite a buzz.

Directed by up-and-coming Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet Serra, Unknown stars Neeson as an American doctor who wakes from a serious car crash in Berlin to find that his wife doesn't recognise him and another man has assumed his identity. Ignored by the authorities and pursued by mysterious assassins, he embarks on a desperate search for the truth.

Neeson makes a very believable tough guy. In terms of his overall career, he brings a kind of moral integrity to his acting that allows audiences to identify with him more completely. It's the same kind of square-jawed dependability that made Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck such effective matinee idols.

Those guys looked and seemed so honest that they practically never played baddies, and while Neeson has portrayed the odd villain (for instance in Batman Begins) heroes are his true calling.

It's ironic, then, that it was playing the role of the slow-witted killer, Lenny, in an adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men at the Abbey Theatre that gave Neeson his first big break in the film business. Director John Boorman was so impressed by Neeson that he cast him in his next film, Excalibur.

Neeson played Gawain, one of Arthur's knights who ends up on the wrong side of a joust with Lancelot. It was the beginning of a slow but steady rise to international success.

On the set of Excalibur Neeson met and began a five-year relationship with Helen Mirren, who encouraged his career and introduced him around London. His screen charisma and sheer physical presence soon earned him film roles -- such as Roger Donaldson's seafaring epic, The Bounty, and Roland Joffé's The Mission (1986), a spectacular historical drama. He gave his most accomplished screen performance to date in Colin Gregg's low-budget drama Lamb (1986).

In 1987 he decided to bite the bullet and move to Hollywood. He appeared in character roles at first, as a deaf-mute Vietnam veteran in the schlocky thriller Suspect (1987), and as a sinister horror film director opposite Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry in The Dead Pool (1988).

His first leading role of note was in Sam Raimi's well-received 1990 superhero film Darkman, with Neeson playing the disfigured, vengeful hero. He was very good in Woody Allen's 1992 relationship drama Husbands and Wives (1992).

But next came the film that would take him to the highest level in Hollywood. For some years Steven Spielberg had been planning to adapt Thomas Kenneally's novel Schindler's Ark for the screen. The true story of a flamboyant Sudeten-German businessman who helped more than a thousand Jews to survive the Holocaust needed to be sensitively told, and the casting of Oskar Schindler himself was crucial.

Many better-known actors than Neeson were considered for the part, but he was perfect as the partying womaniser who grows a conscience when he grasps the true horror of the concentration camps. Schindler's List earned Liam Neeson an Oscar nomination and made him a bona fide star, and his career blossomed as the 1990s progressed.

He was less convincing in George Lucas' dire 1999 Star Wars revival The Phantom Menace, Neeson later admitted it made him feel like "a puppet".

His portrayal of pioneering biologist Alfred Kinsey in Bill Condon's Kinsey was widely praised, and since 2005 he's provided the voice of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia films. But it's his energetic performance as a former CIA man in Pierre Morel's stylish 2008 thriller Taken that has raised his profile in the last few years.

He entered into the camp spirit of last year's summer hit The A-Team, and will appear soon in the eagerly awaited comedy sequel Hangover 2. A sequel to Taken is also in the works. At almost 60 Liam Neeson seems set for a whole new Hollywood chapter.

Unknown is released on March 4


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