This weekend, Liam Neeson will go head-to-head with, well, Liam Neeson, when the Oscar-nominated actor’s latest actioner, director Jaume Collet-Serra’s Non-Stop, faces off against current box office champion The Lego Movie (in which Neeson voices three characters) at the box office.

Those beloved building blocks have been raking in the dough the past few weekends, but is Liam Neeson: Family Man any match for Liam Neeson: Action Star? We’ll have an answer to that very question, at least financially-speaking, on Monday morning. In the meantime, let's dig into how the 61-year-old actor became Hollywood’s most unlikely action star in the first place. Spoiler alert: he sort of started out that way.

Ten years ago, it seemed as if the entirety of Liam Neeson’s career would forever be summed up by one title: Schindler’s List. Forty-one years old at the time of the gut-wrenching film’s release, the Northern Ireland-born thespian was hardly a Hollywood newcomer.  

Neeson made his acting debut in Ken Anderson's 1978 adaptation of John Bunyan's allegorical novel, Pilgrim's Progress, playing the titular Pilgrim. From there, it didn't take long for Hollywood to come calling.

 

Action-adventure movies were a bit of a staple in Neeson's early career resume, though they were often tinged with a historical or dramatic foundation. He proved that he could wield swords and other weaponry throughout the 1980s in films like John Boorman's Excalibur, Peter Yates' Krull, and The Suspect, Roger Donaldson's The Bounty, Roland Joffé's The Mission, and Buddy Van Horn's The Dead Pool. He even appeared on an episode of Miami Vice, as an IRA terrorist.

Then there was that time he played second fiddle to Justine Bateman in 1988's better-left-forgotten Satisfaction. (That photo above says it all.)

 

If there had ever been a perfect time for Neeson's career to shift into full-throttle action gear, it should have been 1990, when he was cast as the titular superhero in Sam Raimi's Darkman. Reviews of the film were mixed, with Time's Richard Corliss stating, "Raimi isn't effective with his actors, and the dialogue lacks smart menace." The time had come, it seemed, for Neeson to make a change.

In 1992, Leeson nabbed the kind of gig that many actors work their entire careers for: a starring role in a Woody Allen movie, the dark marital comedy Husbands and Wives. Released just a year before Schindler's List, Leeson's work over much of the next decade would be deeply rooted in historical dramas, with starring roles in Ethan Frome, Rob Roy, Michael Collins, Les Misérables, and Gangs of New York.

He also played Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace. Which, in a way, fits the "historical" thing. (It did, after all, take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.)

 

In 2005, Neeson started kicking some ass again. Christian Bale's, in particular, in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins

Then came 2008's Taken, which became one of the year's biggest surprise hits and served as a potent reminder that Neeson could do a lot more than just impersonate historical world figures. Unsurprisingly, a sequel followed in 2012, and a third entry in the kidnapping/vigilante franchise has been announced.

 

Neeson hasn't abandoned drama, though. He's done well for himself with highbrow films like Atom Egoyan's Chloe (2009).

But he seems to relish the role of badass senior citizen.

And this weekend he'll do it again. While on-board an airplane. Non-Stop, indeed—and full circle.

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