Liam Neeson: Puttin' on the Ritz

Liam Neeson pours the bubbly and spreads the charm in Room 2103.

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I'm running late, stuck downtown in a heat wave, and it's a 20-minute cab ride to Central Park South. I call The Ritz-Carlton hotel and ask Liam Neeson if it's okay if I'm a half hour late to our scheduled 2 p.m. interview. Brisk and businesslike but pleasant over the phone, Neeson lets me know that no matter when we start, he can't talk past 5 p.m., the arranged end time. Okay. So I hustle even faster. I get to the hotel earlier than I thought I would. Fifteen minutes flat. Then a strange thing happens. I call Neeson's room and he tells me to wait 10 minutes.

But he's gracious about this. "What can I get you, dear. A soda? A beer?" he asks. I wait 15 minutes and go up to the 21st floor. I knock on the door. No answer, no sound. I knock again. Then a third time. I return to the lobby and call the hotel operator to check his room number. Yes, Room 2103 is correct. I'm confused. I go back to the room and knock again, and wait. After several minutes, the door opens and it's Liam Neeson.

The first thing I notice when I walk into the suite is that Neeson is very tall and calls me "dear" and "darlin" ' a lot. The second thing I notice is that there's a woman in the room. I've heard he's seeing Barbra Streisand, so for a split second I think it might be her. It isn't. Neeson explains that the woman is a photographer. They've been taking some pictures for an article on him. Sounds reasonable. I notice the back of his hair is wet even though the air conditioning is on. Instead of leaving, the woman slips into the bedroom for 10 minutes. When she comes out, he kisses her on both cheeks and she leaves. Odd that she carries no cameras.

By this time I have settled into the deep pile sofa and caught my breath. Waiting for Neeson to get focused, I've been thinking about phrases like "lilting brogue" and "rumpled Irish charm," which are used so often to describe this handsome import. The same goes for the words "swoon" and "melt," verbs universally favored by the (mostly) women who interview him (many of whom sound as if they're aging high-school cheerleaders who haven't had a date in several years). I ask Neeson why he specifically requests female journalists. "I gravitate toward women," he says.

"Do you ask for them so you can charm them?" I inquire.

"My antennae are operating most strongly with women," he answers.

Here in a suite at The Ritz-Carlton, I'm not privy to the waitresses and other peripheral figures who reportedly swoon and melt on a regular basis whenever Neeson is out in public. Neeson, in any case, denies this happens: "I don't know about that," he murmurs uncomfortably. "Who says that?" He has apparently not read his own press packet, which is crammed with such stories.

This reminds me of one of the stranger curiosities of this Irish actor's film career. He's so obviously--I mean, these swooning waitresses aren't fools--a romantic leading man. He radiates a grown-up, passionate sensuality on screen when he's given the chance. But he's so rarely been given that chance. One of the first times American audiences saw him was in The Bounty, when he played the none-too-bright-every man-sailor Churchill. Later, his charm was camouflaged in Suspect, when he played the grimy homeless deaf-mute Cher defends. More recently he spent most of Darkman under a mask of gauze. He did play a leading romantic part opposite Justine Bateman in Satisfaction (1988), and that no-win situation might have been where the trouble started. In a movie that awful, Mel Gibson himself wouldn't come across. Still, anybody who saw The Good Mother should have realized Neeson's onscreen power as a gentle, humanized stretch of male sexuality. But Hollywood's a tough place when it comes to grabbing the romantic leads Neeson needs to break into full-fledged stardom. And he's a foreigner looking to play American. (Neeson says he has a great love for Ireland but has no interest in becoming a "professional Irishman like Peter O'Toole.")

Anyway, with only minutes passed since the departure of the photographer woman with no cameras who was not Barbra Streisand, I decide to leave both onscreen and offscreen romance out of our conversation for the time being. I sit on the couch and Neeson sits across the coffee table in a chair that barely holds his long torso and Carl Lewis legs. He's wearing jeans, a white T-shirt and running shoes. His glasses give him a scholarly look, but his broken nose hints at his macho past-- he was a boxer as a kid in Northern Ireland. He slides the huge vase of flowers over to the side so we can see each other. Room service has arrived with champagne and taken away the old tray with empty bottles. "Have some," Neeson urges. In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you I did. I don't drink champagne when I'm talking to Mayor David Dinkins, really. But this is a Celebrity Interview. If you've never done one, especially one involving a man and a woman, it's hard to explain. It's like having a blind date on the job.

Neeson will answer most questions, as long as I don't probe too much into the personal. "I want to talk," he says, crossing one long leg over the other. "I really do. It's just that sometimes it doesn't come off the way I said it." (After one recent article was printed, Neeson says, he was so upset that he called up the editor to complain.) Actually, he seems to like the interview process. He goes into a lengthy discourse on the evolution of the storyteller in world history. He tells me of the invitation he got from Ed McMahon to ride at the head of the Hollywood Saint Patrick's Day Parade, which he turned down. You figure you can guess what a classical trained, up-and-coming film star might make of the prospect of careening down Hollywood Boulevard with Johnny's foil, but Neeson is utterly without sarcasm. "I was very flattered," he says, gazing at me sincerely. And all the time, I'm wondering: Who is this guy? And for that matter, why was his hair wet? And who was the woman with no cameras?

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