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Sam Neill

Sam Neill

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Also Known As: John Dermot,Nigel John Dermot Neill Died:
Born: September 14, 1947 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Profession: Cast ... actor documentarian
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BIOGRAPHY

Few stars could boast a track record of turning in solid performances ranging from understated intensity to completely unhinged with such consistency as actor Sam Neill. Beginning with his work as a member of the New Zealand National Film Unit, Neill began to make a name for himself in his homeland with small films like "Sleeping Dogs" (1977). After moving to Australia for various film and television work, he received international exposure with the third entry in the popular "Omen" horror series as Damian Thorn in "The Final Conflict" (1981). From there it was on to a nearly uninterrupted run of impressive performances alongside some of film's biggest stars in projects such as the underrated "Dead Calm" (1989), co-starring Nicole Kidman, and the Academy Award-winning "The Piano" (1993), featuring Harvey Keitel and Holly Hunter. Neill then headlined one of the biggest blockbuster films of all time as the levelheaded Dr. Alan Grant in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" (1993). Almost effortlessly, he would continue to move from genres ranging from horror (1995's "In the Mouth of Madness"), to comedy (2000's "The Dish"), to historical drama (the 2007 season of Showtime's "The Tudors"), and back again with apparent ease. Over the years, the once supposedly camera shy Neill had steadily become one of the most welcome international presences on screen - be it film or television - of his generation.

Born Nigel John Dermot Neill on Sept. 14, 1947 in Omagh, Ireland (County Tyrone in British-occupied Northern Ireland), "Sam" moved with his family to Dunedin, New Zealand when he was three. After attending boarding school at Christ's College in Christchurch, Neill studied English literature at the University of Canterbury. Emerging from university, he became a member of the New Zealand National Film Unit and began directing documentaries, making only occasional forays in front of the camera - at the time he was crippled by stage fright - in fringe productions and short films. Finally, after six years with the film unit, Neill took to acting with a passion, landing the lead role in Roger Donaldson's "Sleeping Dogs" (1977), New Zealand's first feature to receive a theatrical release in the United States. Soon after, the actor relocated to Australia where he first gained acclaim for his performance as a turn-of-the-century rancher in Gillian Armstrong's "My Brilliant Career" (1979), opposite Judy Davis as a headstrong young girl determined to maintain her independence. Neill's performance made an impact, in particular on film icon James Mason, who contacted Neill and encouraged him to come to London and take on an agent. Neill took the venerable actor's advice, and as a consequence won the lead in "The Final Conflict" (1981), the third entry in the "Omen" franchise. Neill's portrayal of the adult anti-Christ marked his U.S. debut, and while the film was the least successful of the series, it undeniably gained him international recognition. In another, even darker tale of terror, Neill played the suspicious husband of Isabelle Anjani in Andrzej Zulawski's cult psychological horror film, "Possession" (1981). Back in Australia, Neill next worked alongside future megastar Mel Gibson in "Attack Force Z" (1982), a World War II action adventure also starring B-movie veteran John Philip Law.

For much of the 1980s, Neill added to his steadily growing résumé with a mixture of feature films and television projects. In the U.S., he took part in an adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's medieval classic "Ivanhoe" (CBS, 1982), co-starring friend and mentor James Mason. Across the pond, Neill turned in a highly regarded performance as Sydney Reilly, Britain's first super-spy, in the fact-based, 12-part series "Reilly: Ace of Spies" (PBS, 1984). The following year, Neill was cast alongside rising star Meryl Streep for the first time, in the post-WWII romantic drama "Plenty" (1985) - one of Streep's few early missteps. Back in the States, Neill made more television appearances with a pair of miniseries among them; first, chewing the scenery with Peter Strauss in a tale of rivalry and greed, "Kane & Abel" (CBS, 1985), and later in the dismal "Amerika" (ABC, 1987), a cautionary tale about a Soviet takeover of the United States. Reunited with Streep in the gripping "A Cry in the Dark" (1988), Neill played the husband of a woman (Streep) who claimed that her child had been attacked by a wild animal, only to later be accused of the death herself. In the tear-jerking "Leap of Faith" (CBS, 1988), Neill played the husband of Anne Archer, a woman diagnosed with cancer who begins looking for answers not provided by modern medicine. Continuing with his string of stalwart husband roles, Neill delivered an understated, yet intense performance in the nautical thriller "Dead Calm" (1989). Based on the novel by pulp writer Charles Williams, "Dead Calm" starred the then barely known Nicole Kidman as Neill's resourceful wife, a woman who finds herself kidnapped by an insane murderer, who then commandeers their boat, leaving Neill to die, trapped on a sinking vessel. As the crazed Hughie, Billy Zane's over-the-top portrayal may have stolen the scenes he appeared in, but it was Neill who the audience rooted for every step of the way.

Neill began the next decade with a supporting role in his first truly big budget U.S. feature, "The Hunt for Red October" (1990), starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin. Adapted from the Tom Clancy military thriller, the film was a blockbuster hit and upped his profile substantially. After contributing to Wim Wenders' muddled, near-future science fiction road movie "Until the End of the World" (1991), Neill did time on director John Carpenter's utterly forgettable "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" (1992). During this busy time, Neill managed another stint on the small screen with "Family Pictures" (ABC, 1993), a family drama co-starring Angelica Huston. Allowing him to film again in New Zealand for the first time in 14 years was the spellbinding romantic drama "The Piano" (1993), in which Neill played a decidedly unsupportive husband this time around. Co-starring Harvey Keitel and directed by Jane Campion, "The Piano" was a favorite with critics, earning Oscars for both young actress Anna Paquin and its star, Holly Hunter, as a mute woman sent to 19th Century New Zealand with her daughter, due to an arranged marriage. Neill's profile was on the rise, but it was in the role of a skeptical paleontologist trapped on an island with blood-thirsty, bio-engineered dinosaurs that he entered the pop-culture zeitgeist in a big way. Adapted from the best-selling novel by Michael Crichton, "Jurassic Park" (1993) marked Steven Spielberg's rip-roaring return to the action adventure genre he had mastered in the 1980s with the Indiana Jones films. Neill was perfectly cast as the work-obsessed man of science who suddenly finds himself the protector of two very frightened children. Just as with "Dead Calm," he provided a sense of measured rationality in an otherwise frighteningly chaotic narrative. The attention that followed the massive success of "Jurassic Park" resulted in Neill landing one role which proved he had truly arrived - a voice cameo on "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ) in 1994.

Going against type, Neill next played a wild bohemian artist in the Australian-made "Sirens" (1994), co-starring Hugh Grant doing his usual flustered best as a sexually repressed minister, and supermodel Elle MacPherson as one of Neill's playful muses. Reteaming with horror-meister John Carpenter, Neill played an insurance investigator sent to look into the disappearance of the popular Stephen King-esque horror writer Sutter Kane (Jürgen Prochnow) in "In the Mouth of Madness" (1995). Although not a box office triumph, it marked a return to horror form for Carpenter, and provided Neill with another chance to illustrate his impressive range as an actor. That same year, Neill turned in an over-the-top performance as the rogue King Charles II, the benefactor - and later, bête noir - of Robert Downey Jr., in "Restoration" (1995). Neill returned to documentary filmmaking with "Cinema of Unease: A Personal Journey by Sam Neill" (1995), commissioned by the British Film Institute as part of its "The Century of Cinema" series. He reunited with Judy Davis in the Australian black comedy "Children of the Revolution" (1996), and made another entry into horror as a possessed space scientist in the visually stunning, but surprisingly tedious, "Event Horizon" (1997). Neill then delivered an all-out performance as the title character of "Merlin" (NBC, 1998), a $30 million special effects-laden miniseries, for which he earned critical kudos and an Emmy nomination. The actor also turned in a solid, albeit thankless, performance as Kristin Scott Thomas' understanding husband in "The Horse Whisperer" (1998), starring and directed by Robert Redford.

Neill continued to undertake challenging roles in a wide variety of projects. He was well cast as the wealthy man who brings home a robot to aid around the house in the Robin Williams futuristic dramedy, "Bicentennial Man" (1999). Neill also earned critical praise for a pair of Australian-produced films - "My Mother Frank" (1999), in which he essayed a chauvinistic, conservative college professor who butts heads with a fifty-something co-ed (Sinead Cusack), and "The Dish" (2000), as the cardigan-wearing scientist in charge of the telescope that was to relay signals of the American moon landing in 1969. And although he skipped the second installment of the juggernaut franchise, Neill revisited his role as paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant in "Jurassic Park III" (2001). Neill continued to keep busy with a variety of low-profile Aussie and European productions, playing Victor Komarovsky in the English miniseries adaptation of "Dr. Zhivago" (PBS, 2003) opposite Hans Matheson and Keira Knightley. However, Neill continued to resurface in Hollywood productions, like the romantic comedy "Wimbledon" (2004), in which he played tennis ace Kirsten Dunst's ambitious, overly protective father. In British filmmaker Sally Potter's sexually and politically charged romantic drama "Yes" (2005), Neill played the English politician husband of Joan Allen's character, who enters into an affair with a Lebanese exile. A daring and provocative endeavor, its use of iambic pentameter alienated audiences. Continually attracted to Australian features, Neill gave a standout performance as the heavy in "Little Fish" (2005), playing a bisexual crime lord putting the screws to a former heroin addict (Cate Blanchett). Neill put the wizards cap back on for "Merlin's Apprentice" (Hallmark Channel, 2006), in addition to playing the rugged and freethinking Mr. Pettiman in "To the Ends of the Earth" (PBS, 2006), a "Masterpiece Theater" miniseries about the doomed voyage of a British warship traveling from England to Australia.

Always convincing in period pieces, Neill stole the show as the scheming Cardinal Wolsey, top advisor to King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), in the first season of "The Tudors" (Showtime, 2007-2010), a lavish historical melodrama depicting the conflicted monarch prior to his split from the Catholic Church. The veteran film actor then took a chance as a recurring cast member on a pair of network television series. "Crusoe" (NBC, 2008-09) revisited Daniel Defoe's classic shipwreck tale, and "Happy Town" (ABC, 2009-2010) was a mystery series that aspired to be "Twin Peaks" as channeled through Stephen King. Tellingly, both series were canceled almost as soon as they premiered. Neill was soon back in theaters playing a cold-blooded bureaucrat in the apocalyptic sci-fi horror effort, "Daybreakers" (2010), depicting a future in which humans are raised as cattle to feed the ruling vampire class. Neill followed up by voicing the role of Allomere in director Zack Snyder's animated fantasy adventure, "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" (2010).

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