Monday, January 05, 2009

Male on Monday - Sam Neill

This week, Kate Walker shares her long time (rather longer than she'd realised!) admiration for the brilliant, talented and charismatic Sam Neill.

Before the advent of Russell Crowe, Sam Neill was the only New Zealand film star of worldwide note. And for me - given his extraordinary consistency, his unerring ability to play loveable action heroes, psychotic authoritarians, damaged everymen and even the Antichrist himself - Neill will always be a much bigger draw than The Gladiator himself.

Sam Neill's career has been long, remarkably varied, and marked by a loyalty to the Antipodean film industry that made him. He was born Nigel Neill on the 14th of September, 1947. His dad, Dermot, was a third-generation New Zealander, whose family ran Neill And Co, one of the biggest alcohol wholesalers on the islands. Like many of the Neills, Dermot was a military man and the family were stationed in Northern Ireland, in Omagh, where Nigel was born. In 1954, the family returned to New Zealand, Dermot moving into the family business.

It was in New Zealand that Nigel became Sam. There were a fair few Nigels at school in Dunedin, and it wasn't a good name to have - "a little effete for the rigours of a New Zealand playground", recalls Neill, who also stammered at the time. He got the nickname Sam, and kept it.

Gaining a BA in English, he then joined the New Zealand National Film Unit in Wellington and, for the next six years, grounded himself in film-making, as an editor, a writer, a narrator and eventually the director of documentaries. He covered skiing, windsurfing (his Surf Sail concerning the first crossing of the Cook Strait by windsurfers), his great love architecture, and also the theatre troupe Red Mole. All the while he was acting too, in fringe productions and short films. Landfall concerned a collapsing back-to-the-Earth commune, while Ashes, based on TS Eliot's Ash Wednesday, saw him as a priest tortured by his wavering faith.

1977 saw him star in Sleeping Dogs, the first New Zealand film ever to be released in America. Directed by Roger Donaldson, in it, Neill played a recluse reluctantly drawn into a struggle between a fascistic government and an ultraviolent resistance movement. He was tremendous, his performance being noted by Australian casting director Margaret Fink who had him audition for an upcoming movie called My Brilliant Career.

With Australian cinema enjoying a renaissance, My Brilliant Career was the launch-pad for Neill. Judy Davis stole the show as a bright, sassy young woman battling for her independence in Australia at the turn of the 20th Century, but Neill did well, and decided to pursue acting full-time. He got TV work in long-running series like The Sullivans and Young Ramsay, starred in the news comedy The Journalist and played the poor lover of another feisty female in Lucinda Brayford. But My Brilliant Career was still slowly winning hearts across the globe, and one admirer was lauded Brit thespian James Mason who was knocked out by Neill's efforts. He not only recommended Neill for the part of Damien Thorne in The Final Conflict: Omen III, but also offered him a ticket to London.

In Omen III, his horribly intense and malignant stare made him perhaps the only actor who might have convinced as the grown-up version of the spooky little kid in The Omen. He also managed to charm his co-star, Lisa Harrow, also a New Zealander. The pair would have a son, Tim, but split before the Eighties were out.

Having hit big as Damien, Neill didn’t allow himself to be typecast and played a variety of roles –There was disturbing Possession, then came From A Far Country, Ivanhoe, and Enigma, a spy thriller set behind the Iron Curtain, where Neill played Dimitri Vasilikov - the first of many roles where he'd play a strict Eastern European autocrat.

But his first real taste of fame came when, still living in England, he was Reilly, Ace Of Spies, in a hugely popular TV show that won him a Golden Globe nomination and nearly got him the role of James Bond when Roger Moore finally hung up his Beretta. Neill would be mentioned each time the role became subsequently available. Then came Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer's tale of corporate warfare, Neill playing a rich, aristocratic Wall Street superstar fighting it out with formerly dirt-poor Polish hotel magnate Peter Strauss. It was a big hit, and led to some prime film roles. There was Plenty and A Cry In The Dark (the story of Azaria Chamberlain, the baby taken by a dingo ), both with Meryl Streep and director Fred Schepisi. He Colonel Andrei Denisov in the mini-series Amerika, where the USA has been taken over by the Soviets. And he was Lafayette in The French Revolution.

Next came Dead Calm, with Nicole Kidman. Here Neill played her distressed husband, desperately trying to save the day when crazy Billy Zane kidnaps both Kidman and Neill's boat. It was a superb thriller, boosting its stars big-time, but it brought personal benefits too. Noriko Watanabe had been a make-up artist on A Cry In The Dark, but got to know Neill while working on Dead Calm. Noriko already had a daughter, Maiko, and she would bear another, Elena, for Neill. The couple married in 1989, and are still together today, Noriko having worked on many of Sam's films, as well as such hits as Muriel's Wedding and My Best Friend's Wedding. They have a daughter, Elena, born in 1990.

Neill now entered an extraordinary period. He was yet another stern Russian, Commander Vasili Borodin, chasing sub-thief Sean Connery in Tom Clancy's The Hunt For Red October. He paired up with Judy Davis again, getting another Golden Globe nomination for his part in the French Resistance thriller One Against The Wind . There was Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, where he forged a firm friendship with director John Carpenter. And then came 1993, when he took the part of Dr Alan Grant in Steven Spielberg's original Jurassic Park. He balanced this blockbuster with the role of Holly Hunter's morose, misunderstanding husband Alisdair Stewart the arty, testing and beautiful The Piano, which was also a massive hit. Sam was awarded an OBE for services to acting that same year, four days before his father died of cancer.

Neill now chose some genuinely interesting projects. He did Sirens with Hugh Grant, played a super-sinister bandit going after Willem Dafoe in Joseph Conrad's Victory, and starred as King Charles II, alongside Robert Downey Jr in the period piece Restoration. He joined up with Carpenter again for In The Mouth Of Madness. He was Kristen Scott-Thomas's husband in The Horse Whisperer, Sigourney Weaver's in Snow White: A Tale Of Terror, and starred alongside Helena Bonham Carter in the blackly amusing Revengers' Comedies. He even played Merlin, earning a 37 million rating for NBC, the best miniseries rating in 14 years and the best for a film since Neill's own Jurassic Park. Neill was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Emmy.

After over 30 years in the business, Sam Neill is still turning in great performances as his role as Cardianl Wolsey in the BBC’s The Tudors shows. He may be older, the dark hair now greying , but that amazing blue blue stare still has the intense power that drew and held audiences attention when, as Reilly, he also showed that he had a rare quality of such total stillness that sometimes only his eyes moved, showing brilliantly exactly what he was thinking without a word needing to be said. One of my own Christmas presents to myself was the complete set of DVDs of Reilly Ace of Spies. It was something of a shock to realise that it was over 25 years old, but the impact was just as great the nth time around – and it reminded me of just why any film starring this actor had always been a must-see for me

Six feet tall, with brown hair and those piercing blue eyes, as well as being a great actor, Sam Neill has also made a great success in another entirely different field – returning to the Neill family tradition and establishing his own vineyard in the Gibbston Valley, Otago New Zealand where his Two Paddocks Pinot Noir is produced. The 1997 vintage was so popular that none was left for export. Good looking, talented and an appreciator and producer of good wine – that’s my sort of man! He was the inspiration for Nick Hazard, the hero of my second book and first USA paperback Game Of Hazard. So it's perhaps appropriate that he's my first Male on Monday in this year that marks my 25th anniversary of being published. And after watching the complete set of Reilly back to back again, he may well be the inspiration for my upcoming 56th!

Kate's November release Bedded By The Greek Billionaire is shortlisted for the Romantic Times Best Presents 2008 award. It's still available on Amazon or eHarlequin.

Kate's latest book Cordero's Forced Bride is published in the Harlequin Presents edition in February. It is available as an ebook on eHarlequin now and will be for sale in a print edition from February 1st (or probably earlier, knowing the way the books are available in the shops).
The Mills & Boon Modern edition will be on sale in the UK on March.


  1. Mmmm, I adore Sam Neill, something about that enigmatic but just-for-you look in his eyes makes me melt every time.

    He was absolutely magnificent as Reilly, sort of a debonair James Bond but with more vulnerability, but my favourite role of his was in My Brilliant Career. That scene when he's looking all gorgeous in his dark dinner suit and Judy Davis tells him she's not going to marry him... What was she thinking!!

  2. I love him too, Kate. I've just watched the re-runs of Reilly, Ace of Spies. Apart from the joy of watching the delectable Sam, the pleasure of actually being able to hear every word -- not having it drowned out by an overloud soundtrack -- was such a pleasure.

  3. Good choice. And don't forget how good he was in The Dish. (If you haven't seen that, let me know and I'll lend you our copy.)

  4. Heidi - I totally agree about the look in his eyes. Someone once told me pragmatically that it was a wll known effect as a result of some very short-sighted men appearing on screen without spectacles/contacts etc -but I much prefer the 'only for you' idea! And yes - just what was Judy Davis thinking. Has the woman no taste!

  5. Liz - it seems you and I are on the same wavelength this Christmas, watching Reilly all the way through. Delectable is the word.

    The lack of an overloud soundtrack is so important there because some of those brilliant lines are delievered so perfectly. It was a delight to watch it without the Babe Magnet saying 'what did he say?' and then missing half of the rest of the scene.

  6. Thanks T'Other Kate - but you can hang on to your copy of The Dish. I have seen that. In Australia as it happens. There was something extra special seeing it 'on his home territory' so to speak. (Well, OK, home territory is New Zealand but it was the night before we were flying there!)

  7. Ah, Sam. Wonderful Sam. I'm so glad you did Sam as the first Male on Monday of the year -- and gave such a nice long list of his films, too. Quite a few of them I haven't seen. But I will now that you've done the hard work for me! Thanks, Kate!


    the word verification is stsequel. Is that St. Sequel, I wonder. The patron saint of Hollywood movies perhaps?