One of the most famous film personalities to hail from the South Pacific, New Zealand-bred actor Sam Neill possesses the kind of reassuring handsomeness and soft-spoken strength that have made him an ideal leading man. Born Nigel Neill to a military family in Omagh, Northern Ireland, Neill relocated to New Zealand in 1953 at the age of six. There he picked up the nickname that would become his stage name, and attended both the University of Canterbury and the University of Victoria before beginning his acting career. Neill labored as a director/editor/screenwriter for the New Zealand National Film Unit for several years; he made his first movie in 1975 and scored his first significant film success four years later as the romantic lead opposite Judy Davis in director Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career. Shortly thereafter, Neill was brought to England under the sponsorship of star James Mason (who undoubtedly recognized the marked similarity between his acting style and Neill's).
The actor's subsequent movie work included two memorable collaborations with actress Meryl Streep and director Fred Schepisi: Plenty (1985) and A Cry in the Dark (1988). Neill's British TV credits were highlighted by his starring role in the unorthodox espionage drama Reilly: Ace of Spies (1983), for which he won the British television BAFTA Best Actor award. He also began working on American films during the '80s, including the 1981 Omen sequel The Final Conflict (in which he demonstrated a considerable breadth of range as Satan's son Damien) and the 1987 TV miniseries Amerika. Neill also kept busy with projects down under, with perhaps his most memorable film being Dead Calm (1989), a masterfully crafted thriller that starred the actor as Nicole Kidman's husband.
Neill truly came to international prominence during the '90s (as evidenced by his guest spot as a cat burglar on an episode of The Simpsons). He experienced a bumper-crop year in 1993, portraying the raptor-fearing Dr. Alan Grant in Steven Spielberg's blockbuster Jurassic Park, before returning to New Zealand to portray Holly Hunter's taciturn, unexpectedly violent husband in The Piano (1993). He was also honored with the Order of the British Empire that same year. Neill continued to work on a wealth of diverse international projects throughout the rest of the decade, notably John Duigan's Sirens (1994), which cast him as a '30s bohemian artist; the Australian satire Children of the Revolution (1996), reuniting him with Judy Davis; Revengers' Comedies (1997), which cast him as a suicidal businessman; the acclaimed miniseries Merlin (1998), in which he played the titular wizard; Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer (1998), as the husband of Kristin Scott Thomas (the two had previously co-starred in Revengers' Comedies); and Bicentennial Man (1999), which featured the actor as the head of a family who purchases an uncannily human robot played by Robin Williams.
Though Neill was notably absent from the 1997 sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park, the second sequel in the series, 2001's Jurassic Park III, found the stalwart actor once again fleeing ornery dinosaurs on a tropical island and living to tell the tale. A turn as Victor Komarovsky in the made-for-TV remake of Doctor Zhivago quickly followed, and over thecourse of the next decade Neill would alternate frequently between television (Triangle, Merlin's Apprentice) and film (Wimbledon, Dayberakers), while still managing to land the occasional meaty role in projects like The Tudors (2007) and Dean Spanley (2008). In 2011, Neill brought an impressive air of menace to the ecological thriller The Hunter with his turn as an outwardly benevolent Aussie with a dark secret, and the following year he returned to television as a federal agent on the trail of convicts who mysteriously vanished without a trace in Alcatraz.
In addition to acting and managing a New Zealand winery, Neill directed an acclaimed 1995 documentary about the New Zealand film industry, Cinema of Unease: A Personal Journey by Sam Neill. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi