The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Sam Neill
By Mother Brain
I was recently watching the movie Escape Plan on DVD for the fun of seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone teaming up. Like the Expendables movies, the cast was full of familiar faces from film and television. Yet, I was most surprised to see Sam Neill appear in the film as a sympathetic prison doctor treating Stallone’s character. He’s a face I’ve rarely seen in recent memory and one who deserves to be highlighted in the Underrated Actors Special.
The future star best known for the Jurassic Park movies was born Nigel John Dermot Neill in 1947 in Northern Ireland to a a New Zealander father who served with the British Army and a British mother. Not only was Neill’s father stationed in Ireland at the time of his birth but he also owned the Neill and Co. liquor business which was the largest in all of New Zealand. When the family returned to New Zealand in 1954, Neill helped around the family business while attending Christ’s College in Christchurch. Times were rough in school due to his bad stuttering and the embarrassment of his name which caused him to go by the nickname “Sam.”
When he attended the University of Canterbury to study English literature, Neill began to act in school drama productions without taking a single acting class. His interest in acting was only fueled by Dame Ngaio Marsh and director Mervyn Thomson who were producing Shakespearian plays that he took part in. After graduating with his B.A. in literature, Neill toured with the Players Drama Quartet as well as having a second career as a documentary filmmaker for the New Zealand National Film Unit. This went on for six years until he got his big break playing a recluse caught in a political struggle in Roger Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs, the first New Zealand movie to get distribution in America. His next career move would be even more dramatic when Neill and his family moved to Australia as he landed the lead role in the romantic drama, My Brilliant Career. Overnight, Neill became a major film and television star in Australia.
While working on the television series, Lucinda Brayford, Neill caught the attention of legendary actor James Mason who also took him on as his apprentice. Mason pushed for the producers of The Omen series to cast Neill as the adult Damien Thorn in the last official entry of the series, The Final Conflict. Now playing Satan’s favorite child as a ruthless corporate tycoon, Neill played up Damien as a young adult ready to embrace his destiny. Its moderate success at the box office caused Neill to move to London where he continued to capitalize on his early success in movies such as Possession, Enigma, Attack Force Z, and countless others.
Perhaps Neill’s biggest success at the time was the role of Sidney Reilly in the television series, Reilly: Ace of Spies. For the mini-series, Neill won critical acclaim as the Russian Jew who became the first and arguably the greatest spy to work for the British in the early 20th century. It gave Neill a newfound confidence as an actor, not only winning a Golden Globe for his performance but also an American fan base thanks to the show’s broadcast on PBS. Reilly would make Neill an early front runner to replace Roger Moore as James Bond in 1986. He got as far as a screen test for 007 before the eventual Bond film, The Living Daylights, was made with Timothy Dalton.
Neill worked nonstop in the 1980s and early 1990s when he moved back to Australia. In 1988, he played opposite Meryl Streep in A Cry in the Dark, the controversial story about Lindy Chamberlain who was charged with murdering her infant daughter after claiming she was caught by a dingo. Neill caught America’s attention yet again in 1989 as Nicole Kidman’s Navy spouse in Phillip Noyce’s breakthrough thriller, Dead Calm. He followed this with another Navy role, this time Sean Connery’s first officer in The Hunt for Red October which showed another interesting side to Neill as a loyal second-in-command with doomed dreams while defecting the USSR. Another offbeat role during the era was a corrupt CIA agent out to capture Chevy Chase’s stock analyst character who turns invisible in Memoirs of an Invisible Man. While the film flopped in theaters, Neill became good friends with director John Carpenter.
1993 would be Neill’s most prolific year as an actor. First he played a frontier settler in New Zealand who buys his marriage to a mute Scotswoman played by Holly Hunter in the award winning Jane Campion film, The Piano. The summer of that year would bring his biggest hit to date, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Neill was the most unusual choice for the lead character, Dr. Alan Grant, after the likes of Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, and William Hurt turned it down. Actors of that caliber were be afraid to tackle a movie where the groundbreaking special effects of the dinosaurs were the bigger stars. Neill fit perfectly in the role as a brilliant paleontologist who becomes the reluctant hero of the story, specifically when faced with the task of protecting John Hammond’s grandkids from the dinosaurs despite his negative attitude towards children. He was also believable in his childlike amazement when witnessing the dinosaurs in the flesh for the first time. The massive success of Jurassic Park ironically made Neill popular with kids who saw it and play as his character the plethora of video game adaptations. That same year when he guest voiced a master criminal on The Simpsons was what Neill notes as the moment he realized he had made it as an actor.
The high profile roles kept coming and Neill remained as versatile as possible. He played an English captain in the live action Jungle Book movie. Then in 1995, Neill reunited with John Carpenter as an insurance investigator hired to find a writer dabbling with Satanic forces in the cult horror film, In the Mouth of Madness. Later, he played King Charles II opposite Robert Downey Jr. in Restoration and a ship designer possessed by an outer-worldly presence in the sci-fi thriller, Event Horizon. These films among other projects during the era did not do Jurassic Park-sized business but kept Neill visible.
After some fans complained about his absence from The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Neill was brought back to play Dr. Grant in Jurassic Park III under the direction of Joe Johnston. The part had not changed much from the first film except for the fact that he gets tricked into going back to the area where the dinosaurs would breed. Although he continued to act overseas, JP3 was Neill’s last high profile project for a few years and more recently he’s play supporting roles in Wimbledon, Daybreakers, The Vow, and voiced Allomere in Legend of the Guardians.
On the other hand, television was more kind to Neill. In 1998, he played the title role in NBC’s successful Merlin mini-series and later reprised the part in 2006’s Merlin’s Apprentice. He earned a Golden Globe nomination for the role. In 2007, Neill guest starred for 10 episodes as Cardinal Wolsey on Showtime’s The Tudors and later headlined the short lived J.J. Abrams series, Alcatraz, where he played the head of a task force seeking inmates gone missing. Most recently, Neill made headlines when he announced that he would not reprise Dr. Grant in the latest Jurassic Park film. Even without his most famous role, Neill still remains a popular character actor with a resume that spans the globe.