Liam Neeson has enjoyed one of the most unusual career trajectories of any actor of his generation. Starting out in theatre, the Northern Irish actor broke into film in dramatic roles including Schindler’s List and Rob Roy.

Then, in his mid-50s, Neeson underwent an unexpected transformation into a prolific action star, most notably with the Taken trilogy. Here are some facts about the esteemed screen star that you might not have known.

25. He loves fly-fishing

Neeson loves the great outdoors and he’s a massive fan of fly-fishing in particular. He regularly enjoys getting out onto the water to catch trout and other types of fish. He told Jimmy Fallon in 2014, ”I try to take July and August off every year, do a little bit of fly fishing.”

Neeson had once revealed in an interview with Irish talk show host Ryan Tubridy that he was once forced to use his own hair to make a fly when he forgot to bring any of his own. Because of this, the next time Tubridy interviewed Neeson he gifted the actor with a box of beautiful hand-made flies, just so that the actor had a couple on hand next time he decided to go fishing.

24. He used to be a boxer

Neeson has shot plenty of fight scenes over the years, and he got some good preparation for this early on as an amateur boxer. The actor regularly competed in the sport as a teenager, winning the Irish Youth Championship, and getting his nose broken at 15.

Neeson decided to walk away from boxing when he once blacked out after leaving the ring, and the experience shook him up enough to make him quit, and instead pursue acting. Neeson says he’s still a huge fan of the sport, though, and he once portrayed a boxer in 1990’s The Big Man (AKA Crossing the Line).

23. His most embarrassing acting moment was during his audition for The Princess Bride

At 6’4″, Neeson is generally an imposing figure on screen, which has served him well playing tough guys. However, his height worked against him when he auditioned for the role of Fezzik the giant in 1987 comedy adventure movie The Princess Bride. The actor has since called this the most embarrassing moment of his career.

When Neeson turned up to the audition, he was met with a look of disgust from director Rob Reiner, who immediately recognised that Neeson was far too small for the role. The actor was instantly rejected, and Reiner instead cast wrestler André the Giant, a far better fit for the role at 7’4″.

22. Ian Paisley inspired him to become an actor

Credit: Harry Dempster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Liam Neeson was born and grew up in Ballymena, a town in County Antrim, Northern Ireland during a time when the divide between Unionists and Republicans was growing ever deeper. When he was a young boy, veteran Northern Irish minister Ian Paisley could often be found making speeches in the area and Neeson once caught a glimpse of him onstage.

In an interview with the BBC, the actor recalled that he once snook into a church to watch Paisley preaching. “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”. Paisley’s ‘performance’ influenced Neeson so deeply that the incident made him want to become an actor.

21. He gave up drinking alcohol after the death of his wife Natasha Richardson

Credit: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

On 16th March 2009, Neeson’s actress wife Natasha Richardson suffered a brain injury after a skiing accident. Neeson immediately left filming of the movie Chloe to be by her side, and was with Natasha when she tragically passed away only two days later. It’s little surprise to learn that Neeson struggled to come to terms with his wife’s sudden death.

But unfortunately he didn’t respond in a healthy manner to the loss. The actor told GQ in 2014 that he had been leaning too hard on alcohol during the grieving process, drinking two or three bottles of wine a night. However, Neeson recognised it was getting to be a problem, and gave up drinking completely in 2013.

20. He lived with Helen Mirren for four years

Before his marriage to Natasha Richardson, Neeson dated a string of high-profile women, one of whom just happened to be veteran actress Helen Mirren. The pair first met on the set of Excalibur in 1981, and Neeson admitted that he was ‘smitten’ from their first encounter. They became a couple and lived together for over four years.

Ultimately Mirren and Neeson decided to go their separate ways: whilst Neeson settled down with Richardson, Mirren ended up marrying American director Taylor Hackford. Happily, the former couple are still very friendly and have even appeared together on TV’s The Graham Norton Show discussing their relationship.

19. He’s dated Julia Roberts, Barbra Streisand and Brooke Shields

After his relationship with Helen Mirren ended, Neeson had a two-year courtship with a then-unknown American actress named Julia Roberts. The couple split in 1990, shortly before Roberts became the most popular actress in the world off the back of Pretty Woman.

Nor do Neeson’s big-name significant others end there. He’s also dated actresses Barbra Streisand, Brooke Shields and Jennifer Grey. Model Janice Dickinson says she and Neeson once had a fling, and it has also been rumoured he was once romantically involved with singer Sinead O’Connor.

18. Neeson denies rumours that he didn’t get along with George Lucas

Credit: Nicolas Genin via Wikimedia Commons

After Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, rumours abounded in the press about the lead actor and his director. According to some reports, Liam Neeson (who played Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn) didn’t get along with director George Lucas. However, the actor has rubbished the claims completely.

In response to the rumours, Neeson stated: “That’s simply not true” and that he had “absolutely no misgivings” about being in the film. He also added that Lucas was “very good” to work with, stating the writer-director “was clear about what he wanted.” While the film itself inspired mixed reactions, Neeson’s performance went down well with fans and critics.

17. He has a crippling fear of heights

Despite the fact that he’s reinvented himself as an action star in recent years, Neeson is still very afraid of one thing – heights. The actor suffers from severe acrophobia and even joked to Jay Leno that he gets ‘dizzy on a thick carpet’.

The actor once told People magazine: “I’m a wimp about heights. I just am. We’re all human, aren’t we? Somebody might freak out over a snake or a spider. I don’t – I pick spiders up and put them outside and stuff. But put me on a chair to fix a lamp or something, and then, boom.”

16. He accepted his first acting role because he had a crush on a girl

Neeson must have been a charismatic young man because at just 11 years old, one of his teachers gave him the lead part in a school play. This may have helped Neeson on the way to his future livelihood, but Neeson has since said the only reason he accepted the part was because he had a crush on one of the girls in the cast.

Neeson went on to make his name as a theatre actor, starring in a number of successful stage plays including a production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men early on in his career. In fact, it was his stage work which caught the eye of Steven Spielberg, who asked Neeson to audition for the part of Oskar Schindler after seeing the actor in a play.

15. He was considered for James Bond in GoldenEye

Believe it or not, the part of James Bond in GoldenEye was very nearly Liam Neeson’s. The actor once revealed that he was ‘heavily courted’ by producers, and he was naturally tempted by the prestigious role. However, Neeson took himself out of the running when his fiancée at the time, Natasha Richardson, said that she would refuse to marry him if he accepted the part of 007.

“It was about 18 or 19 years ago and my wife-to-be said, ‘If you play James Bond we’re not getting married’. And I had to take that on board because I did want to marry her.” Instead the part went to another Irishman – Pierce Brosnan. Even so, Neeson says he has no regrets about turning the part down.

14. He nearly studied physics and computer science at university

Neeson very nearly embarked on an academic career before deciding to quit at the last moment. The actor had actually enrolled onto a physics and computer science course at Queen’s University Belfast before deciding that it just wasn’t for him. This wasn’t the end of Neeson’s association with Queen’s University, however.

In 2009, the actor received an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University, whose Vice Chancellor Professor Peter Gregson said that Neeson “is to be commended for his continuing contribution to the sector both on the big screen and at his home in Northern Ireland.” Neeson himself was delighted with the award and joked he would be able to tell his mum that he had finally graduated from an Irish university.

13. He briefly played football for Bohemian F.C.

As well as having pursued boxing in his youth, Neeson was also keen on football, and came close to a professional career in the sport. One day while he was out playing, the actor was spotted by a scout – none other than Sean Thomas of Dublin’s Bohemian Football Club, who invited Neeson to a try-out at the club.

Neeson showed up and came on for one game as a substitute against Shamrock Rovers F.C. Sadly, his blossoming football career was cut short when the club decided not offer him a contract. Neeson remains a big fan of the beautiful game, however, and is known to be an ardent supporter of Liverpool FC.

12. He once starred in an episode of Miami Vice

After breaking through with early roles in the films Excalibur and Krull (both shot in Britain), Neeson headed to the US to pursue further screen credits. One of his biggest TV roles came when he was cast in an episode of one of the most popular cop shows of the era, Miami Vice.

Neeson appeared in Miami Vice’s 1986 season three premiere episode entitled When Irish Eyes are Crying. Appropriately enough, the role hinged on Neeson’s nationality, casting the actor as a former member of the IRA: a sensitive topic at a time when the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland were still raging.

11. He appeared in several films with his late wife Natasha Richardson

Neeson first met Natasha Richardson when they co-starred in a 1993 stage production of Anna Christie (which would earn them both Tony Award nominations). Richardson was married at the time, and rumours circulated of an affair with Neeson. Whatever happened, Richardson left her husband soon afterwards.

Neeson and Richardson became a couple, marrying in 1994. They would work together several more times in 1994 film Nell, 2000 TV movie The Man Who Came to Dinner and 2010 docu-drama The Wildest Dream. The latter was sadly a posthumous release for Richardson, who died in 2009 following a head injury incurred whilst skiing.

10. Neeson was the model for Optimus Prime in the Transformers movies

Liam Neeson has appeared in his share of blockbusters, but 2007’s Transformers is not among them. However, thanks to director Michael Bay, Neeson did have a significant role to play in creating one of the film’s key characters: Autobot leader Optimus Prime.

Bay revealed in the Transformers DVD commentary that he told animators to ‘seek inspiration’ from Liam Neeson when working on Optimus Prime’s body language. Some fans hoped to hear Neeson’s distinctive tones in the Transformers movies, but this never came to pass. However, Neeson did lend his voice to Aslan, the mighty lion in the Narnia movies.

9. He’s spoken out against America’s gun laws

Neeson has spoken out on America’s controversial gun laws, calling them a “disgrace” and calling for a tightening on gun control in the wake of the many scandalous mass shootings of recent years. Some accused Neeson of hypocrisy given the prominence of guns in his films, to which Neeson replied, “watching cowboy movies did not turn me into a killer.”

The US firearms company which provided weapons for the Taken films reacted angrily to Neeson’s remarks, vowing to never again allow their products to be used in a Neeson production. Of course, this has not stopped Neeson from continuing to play gun-toting characters in many more films in the years since.

8. He’s criticised method actors like Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis

Liam Neeson has shared the screen with two of the most acclaimed actors of the last 50 years, America’s Robert De Niro (in The Mission) and Britain’s Daniel Day-Lewis (in Gangs of New York). Reportedly Neeson didn’t appreciate Day-Lewis’ insistence on staying in character for the duration of the shoot, including when the cameras weren’t rolling.

Neeson called this approach “a load of b*****ks,” explaining, “Actors such as Daniel Day Lewis and Robert de Niro are often held up as the way to act. But I don’t go to bed dreaming and sleeping the character… I’m not criticising those guys as actors but sometimes you just have to show up and deliver a speech. You don’t have to pretend to be somebody.”

7. He used a toothpick to help him quit smoking

Liam Neeson used to be a heavy smoker. Early on in his career, the actor could often be seen puffing on cigarettes almost constantly. But he eventually decided to break the habit and rather than going full cold turkey, Neeson turned to toothpicks instead.

This was a challenge when Neeson played the role of Hannibal in the film adaptation of The A-Team, also the role required him to almost constantly have a cigar in his mouth. Neeson’s co-star Bradley Cooper revealed that the Irish actor refused to finish them entirely – meaning that Cooper got to have a puff on the rest of the cigar every time Neeson was done.

6. He once confronted a sandwich shop over a promise he could eat there for free

Credit: The Big Star Sandwich Company Instagram

Neeson may be a serious figure on screen, but happily he’s not without a sense of humour. Whilst the actor was shooting Cold Pursuit in New Westminster, Canada in 2017, local business The Big Star Sandwich Company put out a sign outside their shop which read, “Liam Neeson eats here for free.”

Neeson got wind of this, then showed up at the shop and growled in his signature gruff tones, “where’s my sandwich?” Naturally staff at Big Star Sandwich Company were delighted, and a photo of the actor posing outside the shop soon went viral on social media (although reportedly Neeson never did get a sandwich).

5. Rumours once circulated that Neeson had converted to Islam

In 2015, news reports surfaced claiming that Liam Neeson was converting to Islam. The actor was quoted talking about his experience shooting Taken 2 in Istanbul, where he would regularly hear the Muslim call to prayer: “By the third week, it was like I couldn’t live without it. It really became hypnotic and very moving for me in a very special way.”

Neeson (who was raised Catholic) was quoted as saying the experience “makes me think about becoming a Muslim.” Many media outlets jumped the gun and took this to mean the actor was actually converting to the religion, so he quickly issued a statement to clarify that this was not the case.

4. He once refused the key to his own hometown

Neeson comes from Ballymena, the eight largest town in Northern Ireland which witnessed a large paramilitary presence at the height of the Troubles. Unfortunately, this left Neeson with a few sour memories of his hometown. Back in the year 2000, Neeson stoked controversy in Ireland when he stated that he felt like a ‘second-class citizen’ in Ballymena due to the fact that he was a Catholic in a largely Protestant town.

As a way to make amends, Ballymena offered the actor the ‘Freedom of the Town of Ballymena’. However, the actor refused because he didn’t want to stoke further tension in the town. Eventually the town’s mayor offered Neeson the freedom again thirteen years later, and this time he accepted.

3. He became a US citizen after his wife’s death

Credit: Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Liam Neeson cut a somber figure for many months after his wife Natasha Richardson’s death, but he received an outpouring of sympathy from the general public, particularly in the US where he had lived for some time. Not long thereafter, Neeson decided to officially apply for American citizenship.

On the outpouring of sympathy from the American public, Neeson stated: “That is partly the reason why I’ve recently become an American citizen. I’m still a proud Irishman, of course, but I’ve become an American citizen – I’m very proud of that.”

2. He prompted outrage by admitting to racial hatred in his younger years

In February 2019, Neeson was vilified in the news and social media thanks to some shocking comments he made in an interview with a British journalist. The actor was explaining how he tapped into the ‘primal rage’ of his character in Cold Pursuit by recounting an incident decades ago in which he found out that one of his close female friends had been raped by a black man.

Neeson said he then “went up and down areas with a cosh … hoping some ‘black b*****d’ would come out of a pub and have a go” so that Neeson “could kill him.” The actor explained that he realised he was misguided and sought help afterwards, and hoped his comments would prompt debate about racially motivated violence. The red carpet premiere of Cold Pursuit was cancelled soon afterwards.

1. He once trained as a teacher, but was fired after punching a knife-wielding teenager

Neeson was admitted that his temper has come close to getting him in serious trouble more than once over the years. This also happened when Neeson was in training to become a teacher, before his acting career took off. Neeson recalls that teaching was the “most difficult” job he ever tried his hand at.

The day that ended his teaching career came when “a kid pulled a knife on me… so I had to punch him. And I was reprimanded for hitting the kid.” Neeson admits he “shouldn’t have done [this], but I felt threatened.” Unsurprisingly, Neeson lost his job and withdrew from teacher training shortly thereafter.