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The Untold Truth Of Liam Neeson

You may know him as a man with "a very particular set of skills," but there's so much more to actor Liam Neeson than his intimidating role in Taken. In reality, long before he went from arthouse favorite to action hero, Neeson was always a bit of a jack of all trades rather than a specialist. He once hoped to become a professional boxer, he attended a technical college and considered becoming a computer science major, he had a short-lived teaching career, and he even spent some time working for Guinness.

It took Neeson some time to figure out that he was talented enough to turn acting into a stable career. But how did he go from working odd jobs in Belfast to landing major roles in Hollywood blockbusters? How did his upbringing in Northern Ireland influence his choice of roles later in life? And which career goals does he still want to fulfill? It's time to learn a little more about the man behind some of your favorite action movies. This is the untold truth of Liam Neeson.

Liam Neeson grew up during The Troubles in Northern Ireland

Liam Neeson was born in 1952 in Ballymeena, a town in Northern Ireland. He was raised in a Catholic family, and as he grew up, he became aware of the tensions between Catholics and his Protestant neighbors. By the 1960s, the historical conflict between these two groups in Ireland heightened, a time period that's often referred to as "The Troubles." As a Catholic, Neeson often felt like he had to be cautious, and he sometimes felt like a second-class citizen. In 1972, Neeson had a wake-up call when 13 unarmed civilians were murdered by British paratroopers in a nearby city, an event which is known as Bloody Sunday. 

"I never stop thinking about it," Neeson told Irish Central. "I've known guys and girls who have been perpetrators of violence and victims. Protestants and Catholics. It's part of my DNA." Neeson has appeared in several films that explore these events, including the movie Five Minutes in Heaven, in which he plays a Protestant man responsible for the death a Catholic teenager.

He wanted to study physics and computer science

In 1971, Liam Neeson enrolled at Queen's University in Belfast, intending to study physics and computer science. However, he eventually dropped out to take a job with Guinness. He never returned to school, and after working many odd jobs in the following years, he followed his calling and became an actor.

Although he was a gifted math student, the teacher from his technical college who wrote his academic reference for his university application had a feeling that Neeson would go down a different path. In his recommendation, he noted, "Liam's chief interest would appear to be amateur dramatics, in which he has played the leading role in the last two productions of the College play." Neeson may have felt like a jack of all trades when he was young, but his acting talents always stood out.

In 2009, Neeson was awarded an honorary Doctorate from Queen's. Understandably, he was excited that he was finally able to tell his mother that he had graduated from college.

He was a skilled boxer

When Liam Neeson was nine, his priest announced that he was starting a boxing club. Eventually, their scrappy group became one of the best amateur boxing clubs in Ireland, and he's still friends with some of the other members today. Between the age 11 and 17, Neeson competed regularly, and he even considered possibly pursuing a career in boxing. But when he was 16, he sustained a concussion during a fight, which discouraged him. He was also having trouble balancing school, boxing, and acting, so he decided that one would have to go.

Neeson has many fond memories of his time as a young boxer. "Those years of boxing and training, sometimes three or four times a week, gave me a work ethic. If you want something you have to fight for it and work towards it," he told Huffington Post. "There is no discipline greater [than boxing] and when you are in the ring you are in there with all your strengths and all your weaknesses. You can't act being a boxer in the ring, you really can't."

He was fired from teaching

Before making a full-time living as an actor, Liam Neeson bounced around from job to job. For a short time, he worked as a teacher. But he struggled when it came to disciplining students — he found that his students had trouble settling down and being quiet before the lesson began, and one day, the chaos in his classroom spiraled out of control.

"This particular kid did not want to settle down, he wanted to disrupt the whole class. So I went over to him and asked him to leave the classroom and stand outside. The next thing he pulled a knife on me," Neeson explained to the Irish Post. "My reaction was to punch him, which I shouldn't have done but I felt threatened." After this altercation, Neeson was promptly fired from his position. Shortly after the incident, he decided that he was ready to seriously pursue acting as a career. He joined the Belfast Lyric Players' Theatre, and the rest is history.

A local minister inspired his acting career

Although Liam Neeson was raised Catholic, it was a Protestant minister who inspired him to become an actor. As a teenager, he found himself captivated by the fiery sermons of Ian Paisley, a religious leader and political figure who was staunchly against Catholicism and a united Ireland. And while Neeson didn't agree with Paisley's perspective, he found the entire spectacle fascinating — in fact, he felt like he was watching an actor put on a dramatic performance. He knew that he was out of place in the midst of Paisley's Protestant congregation, so Neeson kept his visits to Paisley's services a secret.

"I used to creep into his church hall in Ballymena when I was about 13 or 14 just to hear him preach," Neeson told BBC News. "He had a magnificent presence 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."

He played Jesus in his first film

In 1977, Liam Neeson landed his first film role. An evangelical Christian group came to the theater he was working at in Belfast seeking actors for their film, Pilgrim's Progress. Neeson decided to audition, and he was cast as an evangelist. Later in the film, he also portrayed Jesus Christ during his crucifixion. Although it was a valuable experience for Neeson, he wasn't paid much for his work, and he remembered that he usually couldn't wait for each day of shooting to be over. And because the film crew was devoutly religious, they spent a lot of time praying on set. 

When Neeson reflected on his experience making Pilgrim's Progress years later, he said that it taught him an important lesson about being patient on set. "You're ready to do your thing, and then, 'You have to wait ten minutes. That cloud has to pass,'" Neeson said in an interview with GQ. "Henry Fonda's definition of screen acting is learning how to wait. Absolutely right."

He almost died in a motorcycle accident

In 2000, Liam Neeson had a brush with death. He was riding his motorcycle when he hit a deer, spun out of control and went off the road, falling down a 12-foot slope to the ground below. His bike snapped in half, and a gravely injured Neeson had to climb out of a ditch and get back to the roadside in the hopes that someone would find him. A motorist thankfully stopped and called 911, and Neeson was taken to the hospital, where he learned that he had broken his pelvis in two places. The doctors didn't think he would survive the night, but he managed to pull through.

Understandably, Neeson has refused to get on a motorcycle ever since — and he sticks with this rule when it comes to film roles, too. "I've read a couple of scripts where the character's on a motorbike, and I'm like, 'Is this important to the script?' 'Yeah, it is.' 'OK, I'm not in,'" he admitted in an interview with Men's Journal.

He was surprised by the success of Taken

In 2009, Liam Neeson starred in the thriller Taken as former CIA operative Bryan Mills, who has to track down his daughter and a friend after they're kidnapped by human traffickers while traveling in Paris. The film became an international hit, and Neeson's fame rose to new heights. However, when he signed on to play Mills, he didn't think that the project would be so successful. In fact, he assumed that hardly anyone would see it. But he was so excited to work on an action film that he wasn't too concerned with ticket sales.

"I thought, 'Well, this is going to go straight-to-video. A short little European thriller, it might play okay for a couple weeks in France and then it will go straight-to-video,'" Neeson told Entertainment Weekly. But his expectations were wildly exceeded upon the film's release — it drew in large audiences in France, and then ticket sales began skyrocketing in other countries, too. It even spawned two sequels and a television series.

Muhammad Ali is his hero

As a young boxer, Liam Neeson looked up to Muhammad Ali. His father was also a big fan of Ali, and the two bonded over their shared admiration.

Upon Ali's passing in 2016, Neeson shared stories about the two times that he'd had the privilege of meeting him. "He was my hero from when I was a young amateur boxer, and schoolboy, back in Ireland," Neeson said in an interview with Irish Central. "I got to meet him before he had his last fight in 1981," he continued. "Not knowing what to say and with my knees shaking, I said 'Muhammad, I love you.' He gave me a hug and then signed an autograph for my father... He was a giant of humanity."

Later in Ali's life, Neeson briefly met with him again. At this point, Ali had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and his condition had progressed to the point where he was no longer able to speak. Once again, Neeson told him that he loved him.

He loves fly fishing

While Liam Neeson was working on the film Nell, the cast and crew spent time by the lake where they were shooting. The prop master, Ellen Freund, got him hooked on what was to become his favorite hobby: fly fishing. He needed something to do while the cameras weren't rolling, so Freund taught him how to cast. Her instincts were correct — Neeson instantly fell in love with fly fishing, and it was tough to pull him away from practicing when they needed him for a scene.

Neeson will be the first to admit that he rarely catches any fish. But he simply loves the challenge. "The thrill for me is being on a river with my pouch and rod, and I know there's a fish over there, or at least I think there is, so I'll do five or six casts. That fly's not working, take it off, put on another one, try again. Before you know it, three hours will have gone past," Neeson told Men's Journal. "You're working all the time — but it's a different kind of work." Fly fishing has also given him plenty of excuses to travel, and New Zealand has become his favorite destination for fishing trips.

The sequel he would come back for

Liam Neeson has appeared in plenty of films, and a few of them have even been given sequels. For example, while he expected little fanfare upon the release of Taken, he went on to appear in two follow-ups to the film. But there's still one movie that Neeson would love to give a sequel — even though he highly doubts he could still make it happen.

"I'm too old for it now but I would have loved to have done a sequel to Michael Collins about the weeks of negotiation in London with the British cabinet to try to get an Irish Republic," Neeson told Collider. "All he could get was a free state, which eventually lead to Collins' death." In the period drama Michael Collins, Neeson played the title character, an Irish revolutionary who was one of the key political figures in the country's struggle for independence. He was killed in 1922, but the movement continued after his death.

He misses working in theater

Liam Neeson's career really got started in theater back in Belfast, but today, the vast majority of people know him as a film actor. Despite Neeson's overwhelming success in Hollywood, he still misses the thrill of acting on stage in front of live audiences. From his early days as a promising young drama student to his time with his Belfast theater troupe, he spent years performing in plays — and he actually regrets that he's stayed away from it for so long. 

"If I had one regret, it's that I haven't been onstage for 12 years, and I just feel I should, at some point, go back again," Neeson said in a 2020 interview with Parade. "I'm looking for, hopefully, a new piece of writing, a new play that I could do. Preferably not on Broadway, just off-Broadway somewhere so you don't have that commercial pressure." Although it's been quite a while since Liam Neeson performed onstage, it sounds like we might see him return to the theater in the not-too-distant future.