The Legend: Sam Neill
Filmophilia’s first Legend article revolved around a man whose work most have seen and loved, but almost nobody knew by name, the great poster designer Drew Struzan. Our second Legend article features another man who has made his mark on cinema history but perhaps hasn’t received the praise he’s due. Well, here Sam Neill gets our official Legend Certificate, if that counts for anything.
Sam, born Nigel Neill in Northern Ireland to a New Zealander father and English mother on September 14, 1947, is so famous for the Jurassic Park franchise that his celebrity is at the point where people who are not sure as to who he is go “oh, yeah, Dr. Alan Grant! The dinosaur guy!” Whole factions of people will not acknowledge a fourth JP film if Sam won’t be involved in it (well, me and a couple of other people I’ve talked to, but I’m sure more people agree on this point. Right?).
But the 64-year-old Neill, a proud Kiwi, is much more than “the dinosaur guy,” as he has enjoyed a non-stop film career for 37 years, after graduating from university with a degree in English literature and traveling New Zealand and Australia with theater groups. Interestingly, his career in films started as a director of documentaries for the New Zealand Film Unit, on topics such as surfing, skiing, architecture and telephones. Two very minor films aside, 1975′s Landfall and Ashes, his first notable film performance was in Sleeping Dogs, a socially loaded action drama about a man who is drawn into a fight between guerillas and right-wing extremists in New Zealand.
Around the same time, he caught the attention of the late, great James Mason, who became something of a mentor to Sam over the next few years, and provided a way for him to get roles in more internationally recognized films. After impressing in the Oscar-nominated My Brilliant Career in 1979, Sam got his big breakthrough, and that in a type of role which would become his strongest suit for decades to come.
In 1981, he played protagonist/villain Damien in horror thriller Omen III: The Final Conflict, instantly showing a great talent for playing quietly menacing, emotionally troubled, dual-sided, strong characters with a very, very dark side. That talent has brought him some of his most memorable roles.
A few of his highlights: His John Trent in John Carpenter’s last good film, 1994′s In the Mouth of Madness, is laden with psychological conflict, teetering on the verge of, well, madness, while staying coherent and strong enough to lead the film through its fantastical twists and turns. In The Piano, he plays antagonist Alisdair Stewart, the main character’s (Holly Hunter’s Ada McGraw) violently possessive and socially misinformed husband, to an unnerving perfection. In Little Fish (2005), Rowan Woods‘ gritty social drama, Sam puts a perverse spin on his villainous gang leader, known only as The Jockey. In it, Hugo Weaving and Sam both have one of their best performances ever. And in 2009′s purely heterotopic action thriller Daybreakers, he gets to go all-out evil as greedy corporate vampire Charles Bromley, who will stop at nothing to ensure his iron grip over the world’s blood supply. And then there is Event Horizon.
Event Horizon splits people in two clearly separated groups. One loves the film – intensely -, while the other revels in its loathing of it. The quality of Event Horizon’s dark, gory, gothic aesthetic and unrelenting violence in a Haunted-House-in-Space storyline has been fiercely debated since its premiere in 1997. However, most everyone can agree on one point: Sam Neill as troubled protagonist Dr. William Weir, the Event Horizon’s proud designer, widowed by suicide, is the anchor that holds this film firmly on its keel. Balancing themes of loss, grief, pride, growing desperation and finally a menacing transformation into what the ship demands of him with the sensory assault of his and other’s physical actions is no small feat. And then, not many can do the “evil-knowing-smirk-while-backing-away-into-darkness” move as effectively as Sam Neill does. He has, in fact, proven his status as one of the best horror/thriller actors alive, again and again and again.
Sam almost became an action star on several occasions. He was almost the fourth James Bond in the late eighties, having gone through preliminary negotiations and final screen-tests, on set, in costume, before Albert Broccoli trumped the other producers to get Timothy Dalton on board for The Living Daylights. He was almost the fifth James Bond in the mid-nineties before Pierce Brosnan suddenly became available for GoldenEye, and he was offered the role of Lord of the Rings’ Elrond in 2000, but bowed out to do Jurassic Park III.
What his legacy would be if he had taken only one of these roles nobody knows, but what he has done already is not exactly shabby, either. And then J.J. Abrams and co. have a knack for making actors most people think have their biggest roles behind them shine brighter than ever before (John Noble and Terry O’Quinn, anyone?). So with that in mind, and persistent rumours of a Jurassic Park reappearence, maybe we’ll see Sam Neill’s star shoot into the stratosphere again in the next year or so. Here’s hoping.
Oh yeah, and he also has a meme video to his fame.
What is your favorite Sam Neill film, performance or moment? Tell us.