Since his Hollywood debut way back in the late ’70s, Liam Neeson has risen to become of the world’s most in-demand movie stars. But while Neeson may now have a glittering career full of hit films, he’s had to endure a number of personal hardships along the way to this success. And on the day before his 68th birthday, he received another piece of devastating news – this time about his beloved mother.
Way before Neeson found his vocation, however, he was a burgeoning amateur boxer – something that may have stood him in good stead for his future action roles. Then, after leaving college and working a variety of jobs, the star began pursuing a life in acting in earnest.
And Neeson started to see success, too, first rising to prominence in the 1980s with parts in movies such as Excalibur, The Bounty and Suspect. Then, at the turn of the next decade, he was seen on screen in his first big leading role as the deformed avenging hero in Sam Raimi’s comic book-inspired film Darkman. But 1993’s Schindler’s List would end up changing everything for the star.
A stellar performance as Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama saw Neeson both showered with acclaim and with a Best Actor Oscar nomination under his belt. Then a step into the Hollywood mainstream beckoned, as the actor landed roles in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace and Batman Begins. And in the late 2000s, Neeson became an unlikely action hero after his star turn in the movie Taken.
As Neeson began to make his way into the big time, however, he met his future wife, English actress Natasha Richardson. The pair were both appearing in the play Anna Christie on Broadway at the time, and their romance progressed quickly. Neeson and Richardson walked down the aisle in 1994 – less than two years after their initial encounter – and ultimately went on to welcome two boys into their family.
And to commemorate World Children’s Day in 2019, Neeson – who is also a UNICEF global Goodwill Ambassador – reflected on his own childhood growing up in Ballymena. He said, “Everything revolved around school, amateur boxing [and] sports after school. My happiest memories were working on my uncle’s little farm in the summertime, making hay and milking cows.”
But Neeson had come of age during the Troubles conflict in Northern Ireland, and he reflected on this in his speech. The actor added, “Things now in the north of Ireland certainly are much, much better for children.” It seemed that he had done his bit in helping remove divides in the country, too.
“I do a lot of work for integrated education to educate Protestant… and Catholic kids together, which is proving to be very, very successful in the north of Ireland – certainly with parents and certainly with the children,” Neeson said. Prior to this, the actor had been a passionate advocate on the matter.
Neeson went on, “We look to our children for the future, so why do we continue to educate them apart [with] different religions, different backgrounds [and] different schools? There is another way, [as] most people agree that educating children together is a better way forward for our society. It’s time to turn our aspiration into reality, to believe in your children and believe in their future.”
As for Neeson’s own faith, the star explained in a 2016 interview with Men’s Journal that he has become a less devout Catholic as time has passed. Yet he has professed to possessing deep respect for those whose faith is as strong as ever – like his mother, Kitty.
Neeson said of Kitty, “She gets annoyed if she can’t walk to Mass on Sunday morning, and I just think, ‘Mom, you’re 90. It’s okay! God will forgive you.’” And the actor explained that it hadn’t been easy growing up in Northern Ireland in one of the few Catholic families living in a Protestant area, adding that he’d had to become “cautious” about his surroundings.
“Our town was essentially Protestant, but there were a few Catholics on our street,” Neeson revealed. “The Protestants all had marches and bands and stuff. I didn’t quite understand what it was about.” Speaking of the Troubles, he went on, “[There were] drive-by shootings, bombs.”
“You’d be in a bar, drinking a glass of cider, and suddenly soldiers would come in and say, ‘Everybody out – there’s a bomb scare,’” the actor continued. “We’d order more drinks to take across the street, then the soldiers would go off, and we’d filter back into the bar.” These days, however, Neeson believes that this cavalier attitude was ill-advised.
And, sadly, there was tragedy even closer to home in 2009. In that year, Richardson was on a skiing vacation at Mount Tremblant in Quebec when she fell on a slope and struck her head. Initially, the fall didn’t appear serious, and the actress apparently declined to be transported to hospital on at least two occasions.
Heartbreakingly, though, the situation was much graver than anyone had originally thought, as the type of head injury Richardson had sustained had the potential to become fatal without speedy treatment in a trauma center. And for a variety of reasons, it took almost six hours from the time of the accident to Richardson’s arrival at the Hôpital du Sacré-Cœur de Montréal.
Later, the New York City medical examiner determined that Richardson had suffered blunt force trauma to the head. This had then caused bleeding on her brain, which had needed urgent attention if the star was to survive. But, tragically, Richardson would ultimately pass away as a result of her fall.
And five years later, Neeson would open up about this incredibly difficult period of his life during an appearance on 60 Minutes. There, the actor explained, “I spoke to [Richardson after the accident], and she said, ‘Oh darling. I’ve taken a tumble in the snow.’ That’s how she described it.”
Neeson was shooting a movie in Toronto at the time, and so he subsequently flew to Montreal to be by Richardson’s side. The star went on, “I got a taxi to this hospital, and… 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.”
“The brain’s squashed up against the side of the skull. And it’s – as the blood tries to get a release,” Neeson went on. “I was told [that my wife] was brain dead. And seeing this X-ray, it was, like, ‘Wow.’ But obviously she was on life support and stuff. And I went in to her and told her I loved her.”
According to Neeson, he had said to his wife, “‘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 you back to New York. All your family and friends will come.’” He added, “And that was more or less it.”
The actor would also reveal that he and Richardson had made an ultimatum years beforehand. Apparently, they had agreed that if either one found themselves in a vegetative state, the other would make the decision to cut off life support. And while speaking to Loaded in 2014, Neeson admitted, “When I saw [Richardson] and saw all these tubes and stuff, that was my immediate thought. ‘Okay, these tubes have to go. She’s gone.’”
“[Richardson’s] death was never real. It still kind of isn’t,” Neeson went on. “There’s periods now where I hear the door opening, especially the first couple of years… Anytime I hear that door opening, I still think I’m going to hear her.”
But as Richardson was a registered organ donor, her heart, liver and kidneys were all given to other patients following her passing. To Neeson, that was important, as it meant that she had saved three people’s lives. And on 60 Minutes he described this small silver lining as “terrific,” adding, “And I think [Richardson] would be very thrilled and pleased by that too, actually.”
Neeson further explained that he had worked prodigiously as a method of coping with his grief; incredibly, the actor starred in nearly three dozen movies over the nine years following Richardson’s death. He told 60 Minutes, “I’m not good without work. I just don’t – I just don’t wallow too much. You know? And I just didn’t want to – especially for my boys – seem to be wallowing in sadness or depression.”
Naturally, Neeson’s sons struggled with losing their mother, too. The star’s eldest child, Micheál, admitted to partying too much and neglecting his studies in the wake of Richardson’s death, only getting back on track after a period of therapy. The young man also became interested in fashion – an industry his brother, Daniel, works in.
Eventually, though, Micheál decided to follow in his mother’s and father’s footsteps by becoming an actor – despite being warned away from doing so. In 2015 he told the Irish Independent, “Dad was like, ‘Please become a carpenter or something.’ On my mom’s side, I was encouraged to do whatever I wanted. I’ve done a couple of drama courses.”
But, sadly, tragedy would strike the Neeson family again in 2019, when the actor’s nephew Ronan Sexton died after sustaining a head injury. In 2014 he’d plunged 20 feet from a telephone booth and had needed treatment at a specialist neurological hospital ever since. Sexton had been the youngest son of Neeson’s sister Bernadette.
Then, little more than a year later in June 2020, Ballymena parish priest Father Paddy Delargy revealed to his congregation that Neeson’s mom, Kitty, had died at the age of 94. She had been in poor health for several months after a fall and had been recuperating during that time in care homes.
And, unfortunately, Neeson was in New York when his mother passed. A local source who apparently knew the family well told the Belfast Telegraph at the time, “He’s probably on a plane now. He really loved her, absolutely adored her.”
In the end, Neeson was unable to attend his mom’s funeral owing to travel rules as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, 100 mourners lined the streets to watch the procession as it moved from Henry’s Funeral Home to Ballymena Cemetery, where Neeson’s father, Barney, was also interred.
Neeson’s sisters Bernadette and Elizabeth were in attendance at the ceremony, and tributes were paid from many local people and organizations. Peter Johnston – the mayor of Mid and East Antrim – also pledged to initiate a minute’s silence for Kitty at his next council meeting.
And local politician Ian Paisley would ultimately take to Facebook to remember Kitty. There, he wrote, “I had the pleasure of meeting Kitty many times, [including] when [her son] was awarded Freeman of Ballymena. I’d like to express my condolences to [Neeson] and the rest of the family circle at this sad time.”
Kitty was also fondly remembered by Belfast’s Lyric Theatre – of which Neeson is a patron – with a representative for the venue calling her “a tremendous lady and friend.” And it appeared that the actor’s mom was extremely well-liked in her hometown, too. Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Ballymena retailer Eugene Diamond remembered Kitty as “a lovely lady.”
Plus, of course, Kitty was a big supporter of her son, even going so far as to accept an honor for Neeson at a 1998 prize ceremony in Dublin. There, she opened up to the press about her son’s amazing acting career, saying, “He was such a quiet lad. I never knew it would turn out like this.”
Kitty continued, “I love people. I love talking. Not like [my son]. He got his quiet ways from his father.” She then talked a little about Neeson’s unusual life path, adding, “He went to university, but that didn’t suit him. I didn’t know much about it when he started acting. All I know is that he worked very hard.”
Then, in 2013, Kitty accompanied Neeson to a ceremony awarding him the freedom of Ballymena. The star returned to his hometown and signed the Register of Burgess at The Braid – the very place where he first began acting on stage. And while addressing the assembled crowd, he said that even though he has a job that takes him around the world, he is still “99.9 percent Ballymena” in his heart.
Neeson told his hometown fans, “I’m absolutely delighted to be here today. This is the Ballymena I was privileged to grow up in. So, in the name of my grandfather Bernard, my father, Barney, and the good, decent people of Ballymena, I can promise all of you that I will continue to be an ambassador for Ballymena, as I have been.”
Interestingly, Neeson had been offered the same honor once before. He had initially been approached about the accolade in 2000, but on that occasion he had turned it down, claiming that he had once felt like a “second-class” citizen as a Catholic in the predominantly Protestant Ballymena.
And during the 2013 ceremony, Neeson addressed this fact, explaining that he lamented his decision to refuse the honor and noting that he is much happier to be in Northern Ireland today. Now, the nation has healed somewhat from the era of the Troubles, when sectarian violence was a major issue.
“They were different times, just different times, and luckily we have moved on,” Neeson said. The star then spoke of how delighted he was that Northern Ireland has changed so much, adding, “I am aware of the work that you have been doing the past few years, coming out of the darkness that we all had and hopefully leaving all that behind us – new days, new times.”
But while Neeson may have similarly turned a corner after losing Richardson, the tragedy naturally left a lasting impact. And becoming a widower has seemingly taught the actor some valuable lessons in how to best live life, as he has since gone on to explain.
It all happened so suddenly. In March 2009 Liam Neeson was working on a Toronto film set while his wife, Natasha Richardson, was skiing in Montreal. She then called him from the slopes to tell him that she had had a fall – which sounded at first like a minor dust-up. Yet a much more serious injury lingered beneath the surface.
Later, Neeson rushed from his workplace to Richardson’s bedside, shocked that she’d deteriorated so quickly from something that had seemed so minor. Doctors then showed him her prognosis, and Neeson knew he had to make a decision. But the actor wouldn’t tell anyone what he did for several years.
Sadly, of course, Richardson died, and Neeson subsequently took as much work as possible. But in 2014 the actor decided to tell the whole story. He then opened up on an episode of 60 Minutes about losing his wife in such a sudden way. And during the show, Neeson also made a confession about what happened in their last moments together.
Neeson’s story could have been so different, too. In fact, the Irishman’s life initially presented him with a slew of other career paths – but he somehow ended up as an Oscar-nominated actor in Hollywood. First, you see, Neeson enrolled at Queen’s University Belfast in 1971, where he studied computer science and physics. He eventually left academia for a job at Guinness, however.
Neeson later demonstrated another talent of his: soccer. In fact, the then-manager of Bohemian F.C., Séan Thomas, noticed that Neeson could play so he signed him up for a trial. The future actor even played in one match against the Shamrock Rovers F.C. – but he never received a contract from Bohemian.
Neeson then held a string of different jobs, including those of forklift operator and truck driver. He even enrolled in teacher training college in England but eventually ended up back in his Northern Irish hometown. But the actor finally found his calling in 1976 when he became part of the Lyric Players’ Theatre, where he subsequently performed for two years.
So Neeson had found his path, and his stage career would take him from Belfast and Dublin to London. Then in the 1980s the star began performing in movies, with the biggest initial part coming in The Mission – a 1986 flick that also featured Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro. Neeson also co-starred in Next of Kin with Patrick Swayze three years later.
The part that would skyrocket Neeson to fame, however, would come in 1993, when Steven Spielberg cast him in Schindler’s List. The director had seen Neeson in Broadway’s Anna Christie and put him in contention for the movie alongside the likes of Warren Beatty and Kevin Costner. And Neeson secured the part of Oskar Schindler – a role that subsequently made him one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actors.
For his performance in Schindler’s List, too, Neeson earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor as well as BAFTA and Golden Globe nods. The 1990s saw him also star in a slew of memorable films, including 1994’s Nell, Les Misérables four years later and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, which premiered in 1999.
Neeson has also earned Tony Award nominations for his on-stage performances in both 1993’s Anna Christie and 2002’s The Crucible. Alongside that, the Irishman has starred in even more well-known films, including Gangs of New York and Love Actually. But it’s the actor’s performance in the action film Taken that put Neeson back on Hollywood’s A-List in 2008.
And just as Neeson’s career changed and flourished, so too did the actor’s love life. For instance, one of his first big film roles, in 1981’s Excalibur, had him working alongside actress Helen Mirren. And while on set, Neeson said during a 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, the actor realized that Mirren liked him.
As Neeson remembered, “Before I met [Mirren] and we worked together, I had read somewhere that if she fancied a guy she would imitate his walk behind his back. And I turned around one day and she was doing that to me.” So it wasn’t long before the actor felt equally as enamored with his co-star.
Neeson said, “I remember being on the set [of Excalibur] as [Mirren] walked towards us dressed in her full Morgana le Fay costume… I was smitten.” From there, things quickly became serious between him and Mirren. As the latter described to Graham Norton, “We didn’t date; we lived together for four years.”
According to The Telegraph, Neeson later described what it was like to embark on his relationship with Mirren on the set of a period drama. “Can you imagine riding horses in shiny suits of armor, having sword fights, and you’re falling in love with Helen Mirren? It doesn’t get any better than that.”
As things progressed with Mirren, though, Neeson had trouble finding work in London – while Mirren’s career continued to flourish. Mirren said in a profile of Neeson in 1994, “It was difficult for him to be under my shadow. I was well known. I had the money.” This reportedly later led to the pair deciding to call it quits.
The split between Neeson and Mirren proved to be an amicable one, though. The decision also coincidentally paved the way for Neeson to jumpstart his career. He ended up relocating to Hollywood in 1987, you see, and six years later the actor earned his part in Schindler’s List. As Mirren explained in the profile of Neeson, the star had to “come out from under [her] wing. He handled it with great elegance and grace.”
Neeson’s move to Hollywood also introduced Neeson to another actress with whom he shared a long-term relationship. In 1988 a 35-year-old Neeson starred alongside Julia Roberts, then 19, in the movie Satisfaction. And according to The Kitty Kelley Files: Julia Roberts, within two weeks the pair had moved in together – and they remained an item until 1990.
The show also claimed that Roberts and Neeson worked well together. Kelley revealed, “Liam Neeson was great with Julia Roberts. She was new to the business; he was accomplished, he was successful.” Ultimately, though, the relationship didn’t last. The pair in fact split, and Neeson went on to date Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey.
Neeson also dated supermodel Janice Dickinson, model and actress Brooke Shields, and singers Cher and Sinead O’Connor. But in 1993 he met his match in actress Natasha Richardson, whom he’d met when they were both cast in the Broadway revival of the play Anna Christie.
Richardson’s background was significantly different from Neeson’s, though. She came into the world in London, England, as part of a performing family. In fact, some consider the Redgraves – including her mother, Vanessa – to be an acting dynasty. Richardson therefore had her first film role at four years old. The actor later went on to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, too.
Richardson then enjoyed a career both on stage and in the movies – yet her role alongside Neeson in Anna Christie marked the star’s Broadway debut. Then in 1998 she garnered a Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Musical for her part as Sally Bowles in the revival of Cabaret on the Great White Way.
Richardson also starred in such beloved films as 1998’s The Parent Trap and 2002’s Maid in Manhattan. But, as we mentioned earlier, it was her theatrical career that brought her to her future husband. And in his interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes, Neeson described the magnetic connection that they shared from the get-go.
Neeson said, “I’d never had that kind of explosive chemistry situation with an actor or actress. We just had this wonderful kind of dance-free dance on stage every night. She and I were like [Fred] Astaire and [Ginger] Rogers.” But his romance with Richardson didn’t begin right away, in spite of the obvious spark.
For one thing, Richardson was married to producer Robert Fox when she met Neeson. But, behind the scenes, their union had started to crumble, and her mounting feelings for Neeson didn’t help. According to Country Living, Richardson later said, “Working with [Neeson], what happened between us, and that becoming public knowledge in conjunction with my marriage falling apart, was kind of bad timing.”
Ultimately, though, Richardson couldn’t deny their connection. She said, “Obviously I fell very much in love with him.” And it was apparently Richardson who pushed their relationship from a friendship toward something more serious. At the time, Neeson had sent her a birthday card from the set of Schindler’s List with an ambiguous message, she recalled.
The note read, “You’re catching up with me. Lots of love, Oskar.” Neeson had signed the card with his Schindler’s List character’s name – but Richardson didn’t find it charming. Instead, she replied to Neeson and bluntly said, “This is like a letter from a buddy. What is our relationship?”
With that, according to Neeson, he fell for Richardson. The actor said, “That was when I knew I really loved this person. I thought, ‘This is real and genuine and is something that has to be protected.’” The pair made it official shortly thereafter, marrying in summer 1994. And, by the spring the following year, they had started to grow their family.
Neeson and Richardson’s son Micheál came first, with their second boy, Daniel, coming 18 months later. According to Country Living, Neeson said that his wife was very much a nurturer, adding, “She cared for everybody. She has a motherly instinct. And she’d make dinners for everyone and just looked after us all.”
But Richardson’s life as an actress, wife and mother would be cut tragically short. So while Neeson filmed in Toronto in March 2009, she went skiing at the Mont Tremblant Resort just outside of Montreal. But as Richardson took on the beginner ski slopes, she fell and bumped her head – a result that hadn’t phased her.
As Neeson said on 60 Minutes, “I spoke to her, and she said, ‘Oh darling. I’ve taken a tumble in the snow.’ That’s how she described it.” And although ambulances came to care for Richardson, she refused to go to the hospital. But she had actually suffered a head injury that can – and did – become serious without treatment.
It then became clear that Richardson did, indeed, need medical care. She ended up in a Montreal hospital, and, soon enough, Neeson abandoned the movie set to be by her side. When he got there, though, the doctor showed him just how much damage her fall had caused. Neeson peered at the X-ray and later described seeing her brain “squashed up against the side of the skull.”
The New York City medical examiner’s office subsequently revealed that Richardson’s head had suffered blunt force trauma. The injury had also caused internal bleeding. And when a damaged artery continues pumping, blood can pool within the organ, leading to irreparable damage without treatment.
The doctors eventually revealed Richardson’s prognosis to Neeson. The actor later explained 60 Minutes, “I was told she was brain dead… She was on life support and stuff. And I went in… and told her I loved her. I 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.’”
Neeson decided to keep Richardson on life support long enough to transport her from Montreal to New York so that her loved ones could say goodbye. But, as he revealed in his interview, the actor knew he would remove the life support. After all, Neeson and Richardson had “made a pact” that if either of them “got into a vegetative state that we’d pull the plug.”
The shock and heartbreak surrounding Richardson’s sudden death did have one bit of silver lining that Neeson could see later, however. The star said, “[She] donated three of her organs, so she’s keeping three people alive at the moment. Her heart, her kidneys and her liver.” And, as Neeson said, Richardson “would be very thrilled and pleased by that.”
After losing Richardson, Neeson filled his work schedule to the brim. In the ten years after his wife’s 2009 death, in fact, the actor has featured in almost 40 movies. The Northern Irish native felt as though he had to put a strong front on for his sons, adding, “I’m not good without work… And I just didn’t want to – especially for my boys – seem to be wallowing in sadness or depression.”
For their part, Neeson and Richardson’s children have found ways to honor their late mother, too. In October 2018, for instance, Micheál announced that he’d be changing his surname. Although his last name was once Neeson, you see, he decided to swap it for Richardson nearly a decade after his mother’s fatal accident.
According to Micheál’s grandmother, Vanessa Redgrave, he made the switch not to distance himself from his father, but to honor his mother. She told the Daily Mail, “That wasn’t because he wanted to avoid his father’s fame, which is enormous. He wanted to hold his mother close to him – because she was a remarkable actress. Absolutely remarkable.”
And, as time has gone on, Neeson has opened up more about what Richardson’s death has taught him. He took to Facebook in 2016 to share what he’d learned with his followers, writing, “They say the hardest thing in the world is losing someone you love.”
Neeson went on, “My wife died unexpectedly. She brought me so much joy. We have to stop and be thankful for our spouses. Because, one day, when you look up from your phone, they won’t be there anymore. What I truly learned most of all is, live and love every day like it’s your last. Because, one day, it will be.”