SAM NEILL

Sam Neill has appeared in a staggering 80 movies. If you think that has taken up a lot of time, this Kiwi actor has also starred in 40 television productions. I should also mention he still finds time to oversee the running of his 4 vineyards!

Sam was born in Ireland in 1947 but moved to New Zealand when he was 7 and is a New Zealand citizen and regards himself a proud Kiwi. It amazes me when I surf for movies on the net to discover such a diverse range of films featuring this guy. He has appeared in horror, romance, drama, thriller, children’s stories and fantasy movies.

EARLY ACTING ROLES

Sam was a director at the NZ National Film Unit in Wellington when he was offered the lead role in the Kiwi film Sleeping Dogs which I have mentioned in an earlier blog. Like many New Zealand films, this 1977 production was bleak and depressing. It dealt with industrial disputes, police control and fascism. Sam’s performance as the lead character impressed Australian director Gillian Armstrong who offered him the male lead in her romance story, My Brilliant Career. This 1979 film made over 3 million dollars at the Australian box office and I guess established Sam Neill as a screen performer capable of playing leading roles.

INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS

It only took 2 years after his two Australasian films for Sam to be offered an international screen role. He played the son of the devil in the Omen franchise’s third instalment, Omen111: The Final Conflict which took 20 million dollars at the box office. That same year, 1982, Sam made another horror movie, the German-French production, Possession. Being the only English language film from Polish director, Andrzej Żuławski, Possession went on to become a cult movie and established Sam as an actor with a wide range of skills.  

Sam Neill didn’t really register on my radar until he played Doctor Alan Grant is Stephen Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park. This first film in the Jurassic franchise clocked up over one billion dollars at the box office and really cemented Sam’s position as one of Hollywood’s most popular actors. He also appeared in 2001’s Jurassic Park111

One of my favourite Sam Neill films is Hunt for Red October where he played a Russian First Officer on a submarine called “Red October”. The movie also starred Sean Connery as the captain of this vessel. This exciting espionage thriller focused on a tense confrontation between the Soviet and American navies and was the 6th top grossing film of 1990 making 200 million at the box office. It managed to hold me captive as the two sides tried to outwit each other.

One film that didn’t work for me was the unrelentingly depressing and anti-male bore The Piano where Sam played a Kiwi bushman in a loveless marriage to the lead female character. The film’s bleakness was reflected in Sam’s performance as the unpleasant bushman. I’m pleased he went onto happier stories such as 1994’s The Jungle Book and 1998’s The Horse Whisperer.

Sam’s last major starring role was as Hec, a laconic hillbilly in the Kiwi film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Released in 2016, it is the highest grossing Kiwi film to date and brought Sam Neill to the attention of a new generation of cinema goers.

TELEVISION ROLES

In 1983, Sam was nominated for a Golden Globe award for his performance as Sidney Reilly in ITV’s 12 episode series, Reilly, Ace of Spies. He went onto appear in a further 8 TV productions before landing the title role in the 30 million dollar NBC-TV miniseries Merlin. In 2007, he was nominated the Monte Carlo Television Festival Award for Outstanding Actor in a Drama for his role in Working Title Television’s The Tudors. He hasn’t eased up on his TV appearances with his latest being ITV’s 2016 miniseries Tutankhamun.

DOCUMENTARIES

In my opinion, the best documentary ever made on New Zealand cinema was Sam’s Cinema of Unease. I used to teach film making classes and made sure my students watched this informative and insightful production. I even got the students to write a review of the documentary to ensure they had understood the message Sam was delivering. Cinema of Unease was directed and presented by Sam for the British Film Institute’s Century of Cinema series. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995 and took the audience on a journey through New Zealand cinema’s fixation on bleakness and depression. Sam suggested it reflected the Kiwi search for identity. I’d say it was a reflection of the atmosphere created partly by the commercial, often inhumane killing of farm animals for profit. I’m sure audiences who saw Cinema of Unease would have been shocked at the message it delivered. I would also add that Sam hit the nail on the head with his assessment of the country and its bleak films.

WINE MAKER

Not content with just making an endless stream of screen productions, in 1993, Sam planted 5 acres of pinot noir in a vineyard he purchased in Central Otago under the name “Two Paddocks”. Within 7 years, his properties had extended to 4 vineyards covering over 60 acres and by 2001, Two Paddocks was producing 3000 cases of premium wine a year. This of course, is a small amount by usual vineyard output standards but being exclusive, the wines demand a premium price from a discerning market. Being a Sam Neill production, it will come as no surprise that Two Paddocks also produces medicinal and cooking herbs for the local market, all organically grown of course! It is claimed that Sam’s Red Bank vineyard is the most southern vineyard in the world to produce Riesling wines.

It’s interesting to note that Sam’s neighbour and fellow vineyard owner, Roger Donaldson, was the director of Sam’s first movie. He even named his winery, “Sleeping Dogs” in homage to his – and Sam’s first feature film.

WHAT’S NEXT?

This year, Sam stars as Mr McGregor, an elderly villain in Columbia Film’s Peter Rabbit and has a supporting role in Lionsgate’s action thriller The Commuter released this month. It would seem, at the age of 70, Sam Neill still has plenty of gas in his tank and we can look forward to seeing him in a number of films yet to be made.

Here is a trailer for Peter Rabbit: Although Sam doesn’t appear in it, you can see the sort of film he is currently interested in being involved in.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LXVY5-zjVs

Ceidrik Heward

Comments

  1. Is Sam Neill a vegan?

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