The Role : Gawain
Why It’s The Best : A young Liam Neeson landed his first major film role in this opulent re-telling of the Arthur legend. The film’s director, John Boorman, cast Neeson after seeing him in a play at the Abbey Theatre.
In fact, Neeson landed two roles – that of knight Sir Gawain, and that of an uncredited extra in the film’s dancing scene, in which his hulking six foot figure towers over the other dancers.
Iconic Moment: Having accused Lancelot and Guenevere of adultery, Gawain must duel with the former as he fights for his honour…
Liam Says: “I’ve done a few cowboys-in-armour movies where I’ve had to ride, starting with Excalibur , so I can do it. When the camera’s turning, I’ll do it.
“But I respect horses enough that once the camera stops I get off and hand the reins to the horse-master, because they can be unpredictable. The wranglers we had were just real old cowboys, they were fantastic.”
The Mission (1986)
The Role : Fielding
Why It’s The Best : Having appeared opposite the intimidating likes of Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson in 1984’s The Bounty , Neeson proves he can hold his own against other Hollywood heavyweights.
Here, he stars alongside Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, playing a Jesuit priest who moves to the South American jungle to convert the inhabitants there to Christianity.
Iconic Moment : When the colonists attack their ‘educators’, it falls to Fielding and two of his comrades to defend their keep against the military forces…
Liam Says: “I found out in the jungles of South America that Stanislavsky had based his [acting] technique on the Spiritual Exercises.
“It was a real revelation to me, and it brought two big parts of my life together. The Irish Catholic side was married to the life of an actor and I found out acting could be a form of prayer. It helped me knowing that. It was like a little godsend message.
“I offer my performance as prayer for someone I've worked with as an actor or someone who has died. The image that comes into my head as I walk to the stage, I offer that performance up for that person.”
The Role: Carl Wayne Anderson
Why It’s The Best : Much critical acclaim heralded Neeson’s next role, in which he appeared alongside Cher and Dennis Quaid as a homeless Vietnam vet accused of murder.
Suspect works best as a courtroom thriller and an absorbing mystery, benefitting from Neeson’s exceptional performance as the suspect whom few believe is innocent.
Iconic Moment: Public Defender Kathleen Riley attempts to communicate with Anderson, only to discover that he’s actually a deaf-mute…
A Prayer For The Dying (1987)
The Role : Liam Docherty
Why It’s The Bes t: Another fine turn for Neeson in 1987, this film from director Mike Hodges following an IRA bomber (Mickey Rourke) who targets a troop truck, but accidentally blows up a school bus instead.
Both Hodges and star Rourke disowned it after release, but it still contains a great performance from Liam Neeson (in an early action role) as a fellow IRA worker.
Iconic Moment: Liam confronts Rourke’s Martin in the park, and pulls a gun on him…
The Good Mother (1988)
The Role : Leo
Why It’s The Best : Neeson heads up an exploration of relationships gone awry, and the damage the behaviour of parents can inflict on their children.
He plays sculptor Leo, who brings passion and love into the life of young mother Anna (Diane Keaton). But when Anna’s ex gets jealous of her relationship Leo.
Iconic Moment : Ex-husband Brian (James Naughton) accuses Leo of molesting Anna’s young daughter…
The Role: Peyton Westlake / Darkman
Why It’s The Best: The film that put Neeson’s name on the map, and brought him to the attention of the movie-going public. Sam Raimi's homage to the Universal horrors of the ‘30s follows a scientist (Neeson) who is attacked by a mobster, only to comes back as Darkman, a vengeance-driven anti-hero.
Neeson researched the role heavily (something he’d become known for), meeting people with disfigurements as he attempted to emote the inner turmoil of his character. Even with his face in bandages, Neeson still manages to exude charisma as the troubled hero.
Iconic Momen t: “They took my hands.” The full extent of the damage done to Westlake’s body dawns on him .
Husbands And Wives (1992)
The Role: Michael Gates
Why It’s The Best: Neeson appears in one of Woody Allen’s most acclaimed relationship dramedies, playing a man unable to make up his mind between two women.
Iconic Moment: Judy and Michael argue about their feelings. When she storms off into the rain, he follows her and begs her to stay with him. Definitely iconic.
Liam Says : “I sat in the room with Woody Allen for six minutes, and I felt so proud because I was told he might just look at me, shake my hand and then leave. But we sat down and he talked about Ireland.
“I kept thinking: ‘Wow! Five minutes has passed and he’s still here.’ So he said: ‘I’d love to make a movie in Ireland and you should come over.’ And again I went back to my hotel and I had the job. He’s famous for it.”
Leap Of Faith (1992)
The Role: Sheriff Will Braverman
Why It’s The Best : Neeson imbues a typical villain with layers and reason, as he plays Sheriff Will Braverman, a cynic in a town of believers.
When fake healer Jonas Nightengale (Steve Martin) pitches up in his town, Sheriff Will doesn’t like him one bit, and attempts to stop his townspeople from falling under the fraudulent magician’s spell.
Iconic Moment: Sheriff Will looks on as Jonas somehow manages to ‘cure’ young boy Boyd…
Liam Says: “I question more now. I don't mean that it's all hokum, but I've lost a simple faith. I do still believe, but I like to encompass all religions now. I believe we're all paying homage to God.
“I always drop in a church when passing to say my Catholic prayers, and I make sure my children say them.”
Schindlers List (1993)
The Role: Oskar Schindler
Why It’s The Best: Neeson bagged award nominations across the board for his devastating portrayal in Spielberg’s defining work. Not only did he earn himself a nom at the Oscars, but also at the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes. Sadly, he didn’t get to take any of the prizes home.
He plays Oskar, a German businessman who attempts to make money as a war profiteer and opens a Nazi-funded factory. But he hires Jewish workers, eventually saving 1,100 of them through his employment.
Iconic Moment: Schindler flees the Red Army, but receives a letter from his workers that instils in him feelings of shame that he didn’t help other Jews…
Liam Says: “I did a lot of research, but I found it was best not to do too much because I was playing a guy who lived in 1942. If I'd read all the Holocaust literature, it would have played into my performance.
“Ignorance was bliss, certainly for Schindler. It was one of the first times where Steven didn't use a storyboard. And I loved the fear he brought on set every morning. Because there were days where he didn't know where to put the camera.”
Rob Roy (1995)
The Role: Robert Roy MacGregor
Why It’s The Best: Neeson takes on another historical figure, this time the leader of a clan in 18th century Scotland.
The historical accuracy has been questioned, as well as the portrayal of Englishmen as snooty baddies, but Neeson delivers a fine heroic turn - avec face fuzz for added value.
Iconic Moment: Rob Roy faces Cunningham in a sword duel to the death…
Liam Says: “Oh yeah! That was a good fight. That was Bill Hobbs, the famous Bill Hobbs did that. It’s terrific. My first film was Excalibur and Bill Hobbs was on that, too, so we’ve done a lot of fights together.
“I learnt the basics with Bill. With my subsequent films I always fall back on what Bill told me. It was the same with Star Wars and the lightsabre, exactly. There are basic defence positions you take and basic thrusts.”
Michael Collins (1996)
The Role: Michael Collins
Why It’s The Best: Neeson gets back to his Irish roots playing the Irish patriot and revolutionary who gave his life during the Irish Civil War.
The film won the Golden Lion at Cannes (not least thanks to Neeson’s stellar turn), while Neeson received another Golden Globe nomination.
Iconic Moment: "Tell him that he was always my Chief," Collins tells his intermediary with De Valera, having just lost his friend Harry. "I would have followed him to Hell if he asked me, and maybe I did."
Liam Says: “I love working with Neil Jordan, especially on Michael Collins, which was my particular favourite film.
“But we know each other well enough that if we were having a bite to eat I could say: ‘Neil, what are you doing next? Is there something in it for me?’ And he’ll say: ‘I think so!’
“We’re very open in that way. He’s so eclectic and he’s an unbelievable writer, and a wonderful jazz pianist.”
Les Miserables (1998)
The Role : Valjean
Why It’s The Best: Filmed in Prague, this lush movie version of the 1862 novel (and later stage musical) follows Jean Valjean’s ex-con, who’s being chased by Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush).
Despite the necessary condensing of Victor Hugo’s novel for the screen, Bille August’s adap retains the tome’s emotional punch, and features a fine turn by Neeson.
Iconic Moment: That closing smile of joy…
Gangs Of New York (2002)
The Role: Priest Vallon
Why It’s The Best: More period fare pits Neeson against Daniel Day-Lewis as the leader of Irish immigrants known as ‘Dead Rabbits’. His Priest Vallon leads a fight against rival gang William ‘Bill Butcher’ Cutting.
Though his screen time is brief, Neeson suitably sets up the grandiose scale of Scorsese’s historical drama with a sucker punch opening.
Iconic Moment: Vallon strides out into the snowy, derelict town square, faces down his enemy, then engages in war …
The Role: Alfred Kinsey
Why It’s The Best: Neeson gets raunchy, sharing an on-screen kiss with Peter Sarsgaard in this portrait of the pioneering sexological researcher Alfred Kinsey.
Iconic Moment: Kinsey turns to a little self-mutilation for solace. Men everywhere cross their legs in imagined agony…
Liam Says: “Kinsey elicited the same response from bricklayers, pimps, drug addicts, judges, the whole realm of American society seem to have had that same response to and from Kinsey.
“A lot of them left the hotel room where he met them elated, that something had been taken off their shoulders or that their lives had changed in some way, forever, for the better. Something magical happened.”
Breakfast On Pluto (2004)
The Role: Father Liam
Why It’s The Best: Neeson re-teams with director Neil Jordan, playing a priest who discovers a baby on his doorstep. That baby grows up to be Cillian Murphy, who boasts a fanciful imagination and makes it his quest to find his mother.
The movie belongs to Murphy, but Neeson provides able support as the straight-laced priest.
Iconic Moment: Father Liam comes running through a house that now resembles the building in The Towering Inferno …
Batman Begins (2005)
The Role: Henri Ducard
Why It’s The Best: Neeson returns to bad-ass action roles. The actor's involvement in Batman Begins signals a new chapter in his career, with the actor now favouring action over historical figures.
Here, he’s Ra’s al Ghul, training Bruce Wayne in ninjutsu while pretending to be an ally. In fact, he’s the film’s main villain, which is precisely why Neeson was cast (against type) in the part.
Iconic Moment: Ducard turns up at Wayne Manor and reveals that he is Ra’s al Ghul. He and Wayne fight as Ra’s men burn down the manor...
The Role: Bryan Mills
Why It’s The Best: Neeson evolves into a full-blown action hero, and fully convinces as CIA officer Bryan Mills, whose teen daughter is kidnapped. Mills makes it his mission to track her down and punish her kidnappers.
Iconic Moment: Captured by baddie Patrice Saint-Clair, Bryan is ordered to be killed – but manages to get the better of Patrice’s henchmen...
Liam Says: "It's a very simple thriller, but I just love the physicality of it. I had to get together with a couple of guys in Paris and learn these different fight techniques that required actual contact with the opponent.
“Every time I saw my wife she thought I'd been beaten up, and of course I had. But Pierre, the stunt co-ordinator, wanted me to do as much of the action myself as I could. He didn't make me jump in front of a bus or off a bridge – but I think he thought about it.
“At the time I shot it, I was 54, and I thought, ‘I'm not going to be asked to do this sort of stuff in the next few years, so I may as well jump at it.’”
Five Minutes Of Heaven (2009)
The Role: Alistair Little
Why It’s The Best: Neeson heads up another Irish tale, this one centred on the true-life murder of 19-year-old Jim Griffin by 17-year-old Alistair Little.
The film debuted at Sundance, where director Oliver Hirschbiegel picked up an award. Neeson plays the adult Alistair, and gives a characteristically layered performance.
Iconic Moment: Alistair meets the brother of the boy he killed, but said brother has an ulterior motive...
Liam Says: “This film isn't about truth and reconciliation. But to understand the universal, you have to go into the private and personal.
“It's an extraordinary thing, this tiny little province of Northern Ireland, where carnage happened. And I was part of it. I grew up in it. So it's great as an actor to get a chance to get into that in a meaningful way.”
The A-Team (2010)
The Role: Colonel Hannibal Smith
Why It’s The Best: Neeson tags the iconic role of Hannibal from George Peppard, and makes it his own. With greyed up hair and a cigar, he exudes bad, and convinces as a leader of men.
Iconic Moment: That killer opening, in which Hannibal escapes corrupt Mexican police officers with spades of style...
Liam Says: “It was just great to be in it with these boys. We got along with each other and I think obviously there’s a lot of that hoping that it will work when the camera starts rolling and it did.
“It was just an ease and a generosity between us and something clicked. We all liked each other and liked being with each other and looked forward to going to work every day.”
The Next Three Days (2010)
The Role: Damon Pennington
Why It’s The Best: He appears in just one scene, but Neeson’s character sets the entire plot of Next Three Days in motion. As Damon Pennington, he’s an ex-con who’s broken out of jail seven times.
Cracked and world weary, Neeson’s portrayal of Damon is a blistering piece of character work. Who cares about screen time stats when somebody’s this damned good?
Iconic Moment: In his one scene with Russell Crowe, Neeson reigns it in for a measured, kill-you-in-half-a-second performance.
Liam Says: “My character has successfully broken out of prison, so Russell seeks my advice. I’m very shady, very shady! I get motivated by good material; I don’t care what the genre is. Since Taken I’ve been offered a lot of action films.
“ The Next Three Days is a beautiful, beautiful script. It was a chance to work with Russell Crowe, who I’ve never worked with before, so it was a no brainer for me, it was a terrific experience.”