Liam Neeson's success and sorrow

One of the highest paid movie stars in Hollywood speaks about his wife’s untimely death, his childhood and how his age is beginning to conflict with his action star roles

The following script is from "Liam Neeson" which originally aired on Feb. 23, 2014, and was rebroadcast on May 25, 2014. Anderson Cooper is the correspondent. Ruth Streeter, producer.

Liam Neeson at 61 years old has become one of the highest paid movie stars in Hollywood. His latest film "A Million Ways to Die in The West" opens Friday. You may remember him as Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg's movie "Schindler's list" -- or in dozens of other classical dramatic roles. But today he's best known as one of the most sought after action stars in the movie business.

Neeson's success is bittersweet. Five years ago his wife, the actress Natasha Richardson, fell while skiing and died from a traumatic brain injury. He had said very little about her death until he talked with us last winter. We started our story about Neeson where he was born, in Ballymena, a blue collar town just outside Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Liam Neeson: There's my house down there. Our house, I should say.

Anderson Cooper: Which one? That one right there?

Liam Neeson: Yeah, it's funny, they look so quaint now, these houses.

Anderson Cooper: So when you were growing up here, was it working class?

Liam Neeson: Very working class. Yeah. Hard working people. Protestant and Catholic. Doesn't suffer fools gladly. Could see right through you.

Anderson Cooper: And you're still the same way.

Liam Neeson: I hope so.

Not many Ballymena boys dreamed of becoming an actor, but Liam Neeson was drawn to the stage in grammar school.

Liam Neeson: This is the stage where I first performed. I think I was 11 or 12 years of age.

Liam Neeson: And I joined it because there was a gorgeous-- there's always a gorgeous girl.

Anderson Cooper: That's what was at the root of it?

Liam Neeson: Yeah, yeah. Who had skin of alabaster. Kid you not.

Anderson Cooper: Really?

Liam Neeson: Lips, cherry red. She was 11 years of age.

Anderson Cooper: Do you remember that feeling of being on the stage for the first time?

Liam Neeson: I sure do. I'll never forget it. And I know where I was standing. Right over there. And it was, like, "Oh my God, this is great."

Neeson saw acting as an escape. He went to Belfast where he auditioned for the director of the Lyric Theatre. At the time, Belfast was a dangerous place because of clashes between Protestants and Catholics over British rule.

Liam Neeson: I called up. And they were actually looking for someone over six feet.

Anderson Cooper: So that was one of the first questions they asked you, "How tall are you?"

Liam Neeson: Yeah. And I said, "I'm 6'4"." And she says, "Be up here next Thursday." So I came up and did an audition. And very-- a very crude but passionate, desperate audition for her. And she says, "Why do you wanna do it?" I said something like-- "If I don't do it, I'll curl up and die."

Anderson Cooper: Did you mean it?

Liam Neeson: I did kind of. It was a way out.

He won his first movie role at 28, cast as a knight of the Round Table with Helen Mirren in the 1981 film "Excalibur."

Liam Neeson: I fell in love with Helen Mirren. Oh my God. Can you imagine riding horses in shiny suits of armor, having sword fights and stuff, and you're falling in love with Helen Mirren? It doesn't get any better than that--

Mirren helped get him an agent, and his talent, good looks, and sexual magnetism won him Hollywood's attention. Over the years he got small roles in big films, but he didn't get worldwide recognition until he was cast in "Schindler's List" by director Steven Spielberg.

[Neeson in "Schindler's List:" Their fingers polish the insides of shell metal casing. How else am I to polish the inside of a 45 millimeter shell casing? You tell me. You tell me.]

Anderson Cooper: He said that he-- he wasn't looking for a movie star. But he was looking for somebody who women would--

Liam Neeson: Yes?

Anderson Cooper: That had a presence but that women would fall for.

Liam Neeson: He didn't tell me that. But I think he certainly wanted someone without any cinematic baggage.

Liam Meeson was nominated for an Academy Award for his role, but we were surprised to learn he isn't satisfied with his performance.

[Neeson in Schindler's List: This car, what good would have bought this car....]

Liam Neeson: I thought the film was quite extraordinary except for myself.

Anderson Cooper: Really?

Liam Neeson: Yeah.

Anderson Cooper: Are you always that critical of yourself?

Liam Neeson: I was of that one.

Anderson Cooper: What did you not like about yourself though?

Liam Neeson: I didn't own the part. I just-- it wasn't-- I-- I didn't see enough of me in there.

Neeson says he does see himself in the action movies he's been making the past few years though at times he seems almost embarrassed by his success as an action star.

Liam Neeson: I'm 61 years of age, man, you know? Going around, fighting these guys, I feel a wee bit embarrassed, you know? And, of course, there's always a part of mind you think, "Oh, I wish I was 37 years of age again," you know?

[Neeson in "Taken:" I will find you, and I will kill you.]

He was 56 when "Taken," the first action thriller he starred in came out it cost just $25 million to make and earned more than $250 million at the box office. He was as surprised as anyone that it became a hit.

"I'm 61 years of age, man, you know? Going around, fighting these guys, I feel a wee bit embarrassed, you know?"

Liam Neeson: I was convinced it was straight to video so it would go under the radar.

Anderson Cooper: Why did you think it would go straight to video?

Liam Neeson: It just seemed such a simple little story, I thought. There was nothing complex about it. It is a guy going-- determined to find his daughter. Oh yeah. OK. Oh, look. He finds her. And he kills all these guys.

In his newest action film, "Non-Stop," Neeson plays an air marshal fighting terrorists aboard a plane. It's a physically demanding role, one few actors his age can pull off.

Neeson works hard to stay in shape. Well aware there are only so many years left to make the big money of an action star.

Anderson Cooper: Reports are for "Taken 3," you're gonna make upwards of $50 million. You're laughing.

Liam Neeson: Yeah.

Anderson Cooper: So you're a working class guy from, you know, from Northern Ireland. Does that feel real to you?

Liam Neeson: No, it's kind of-- it's-- that's fantasy time, you know? It is. But it's great, you know. And it's not gonna last. You know, so I'm milking it a little bit, you know? Not in an ego way. But I'm just like-- I'm saying, "OK, I'm comfortable with this."

The first "Taken" film came out just two months before Neeson's wife Natasha Richardson died.

Liam Neeson: We got married here in this house. Yeah. Twenty years ago.

liamnatasha2.jpg
Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson
At their farm house in upstate New York he agreed to talk with us about Natasha's death. They'd worked together, on Broadway in Eugene O'Neill's classic play "Anna Christie" in 1993.

Liam Neeson: She was a radiant beauty. Yeah, cascading hair. I remember. There was-- that was very, very attractive.

Liam Neeson: I'd never had that kind of an explosive chemistry situation with an actor, or actress.

Anderson Cooper: You actually felt it on stage?

Liam Neeson: Yeah, she and I were like Astaire and Rogers. We had just this wonderful kind of dance, free dance on stage every night, you know?

[Scene from "Anna Christie"

Natasha Richardson: And I must say I don't care for your langue. Men I know don't pull that rough stuff when I'm around.

Liam Neeson: Ladies...]

Natasha was the daughter of British actress Vanessa Redgrave, she continued her acting career while raising their two boys, Micheal and Daniel who were just 13 and 12 when she died.

Liam Neeson: And she cared for everybody. She has-- she has a motherly instinct. And she'd make dinners for everyone and just looked looked after us all. You know?

Anderson Cooper: I heard you can find the cloud in even in a silver lining.

Liam Neeson: Yeah.

Anderson Cooper: And she was sort of-- she would see the silver lining.

Liam Neeson: Yeah. I would always see the glass half empty.

Anderson Cooper: You do?

Liam Neeson: She would see it half full.

In March 2009, Natasha was on a ski vacation in Quebec, Canada, with her oldest son, Micheal. She was coming down a beginners slope on Mont Tremblant, when she fell and hit her head. She wasn't wearing a helmet. An ambulance was called but she reportedly turned down medical attention and was escorted to her hotel room by her ski instructor and a member of the ski patrol. Neeson was in Toronto filming a movie when she called him.

Liam Neeson: I spoke to her and she said, "Oh, darling. I've taken a tumble in the snow." That's how she described it.

Anderson Cooper: Do you think she had any idea about what could go wrong?

Liam Neeson: No. Of course not. Who would, you know.

What Natasha didn't know was she was experiencing what doctors call the lucid interval, a period when someone with a traumatic brain injury appears normal but blood is building in the brain causing pressure which can be fatal. A second ambulance was called and Natasha was taken to the local hospital arriving more than three hours after the fall. Neeson received a call from his assistant.

Liam Neeson: And Joanna said, "Look, you better get up there straightaway." And then I flew up immediately.

Liam Neeson: When I was in the air the pilot was told, "Listen, divert your flight to Montreal because she's gonna be taken to the-- the big hospital in Montreal." I got a taxi to this hospital and uh-- this doctor, he looked all of 17, showed me her X-ray. And you didn't need to be a rocket scientist to see what was happening. You know? It's-- it was like a cartoon. You know, the brain's squashed up against the side of the skull. And it's-- as the blood tries to get a release. You know?

Anderson Cooper: Was she conscious then?

Liam Neeson: I was told she was brain dead. And seeing this X-ray it was, like, "Wow." You know. But obviously she was on life support and stuff. And I went in to her and told her I loved her. Said, "Sweetie, you're not coming back from this. You've banged your head. It's-- I don't know if you can hear me, but that's-- this is what's gone down. And we're bringing ya back to New York. All your family and friends will come." And that was more or less it. You know?

Anderson Cooper: But at that point you didn't think that there was any hope?

Liam Neeson: She and I had made a pact. If any of us got into a vegetative state that we'd pull the plug. You know? So when I saw her and saw all these tubes and stuff, that was my immediate thought. Was, "OK, these tubes have to go. She's gone." But donated three of her organs, so she's keeping three people alive at the moment. Yeah. Her heart, her kidneys and her liver.

Anderson Cooper: That must give you a good feeling.

Liam Neeson: It's terrific. Yeah. It's terrific. And I think she would be very thrilled and pleased by that too, actually.

Anderson Cooper: Did it seem real to you?

Liam Neeson: It was never real. It still kind of isn't. There's periods now in our New York residence when I hear the door opening, especially the first coupla years, she would always drop the keys in the-- on the table. Say, "Hello?" So anytime I hear that door opening I still think I'm gonna hear her, you know. And, then, it's-- grief's like-- it hits you. It's like a wave. You just get this profound feeling of instability. You feel like a three-legged table. Just suddenly you just-- the Earth isn't stable anymore. And then it passes and becomes more infrequent, but I still get it sometimes.

Anderson Cooper: What's it like to suddenly be a single parent raising two teenagers?

Liam Neeson: Listen, I'm OK. You know. It could have been a hell of a lot worse. I'm name dropping for a second. Bono is a pal and he came 'round to have a dinner. And I remember he was sitting beside Micheal and, just out of the blue he said, "What age are you, Micheal?" He said-- Micheal said, "13." And he said, "Yeah, that's the age I was when I lost my mum." That was it. And it-- I-- I coulda kissed him for it. He was, like, saying, "You know, I lost my mom at this age and I'm doing OK. And you will do OK too." You know.

He went back to work just days after Natasha's funeral and he's worked nearly nonstop ever since.

Liam Neeson: I'm not good with-- without work. I just don't-- I wallow too much. You know? And I just didn't want to-- especially for my boys, to be-- seem to be wallowing in sadness or depression or--

Anderson Cooper: Having a schedule. Having some place to go. Having--

Liam Neeson: Having a schedule. Yeah. Yeah.

Anderson Cooper: That helps?

Liam Neeson: That helps a great deal.

"...[Bono] was sitting beside Micheal and, just out of the blue he said, 'What age are you, Micheal?' He said-- Micheal said, '13.' And he said, 'Yeah, that's the age I was when I lost my mum.'"

He's made more than 20 movies since Natasha's death...

Anderson Cooper: What do you think she would make of-- of your--

Liam Neeson: What, "Taken 5"?

Anderson Cooper: Well, no--

Liam Neeson: --that I'm about to do?

Anderson Cooper: No, your action mo-- your-- your status now. I mean the money you're making. The clout you probably have in Hollywood.

Liam Neeson: She'd be very-- she'd be very-- chuffed at that. She would-- yeah, she would.

Anderson Cooper: Chuffed is a good thing?

Liam Neeson: Chuffed's a good thing. Yeah. She'd be-- she'd be-- she'd be--

Anderson Cooper: She'd be tickled by it?

Liam Neeson: She'd be tickled. Thank you. Yeah.

  • Anderson Cooper

    Anderson Cooper, anchor of CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360," has contributed to 60 Minutes since 2006. His exceptional reporting on big news events has earned Cooper a reputation as one of television's pre-eminent newsmen.

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