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Profile : The Reach of Sam Neill : After Moving to Los Angeles, the Actor Does Five Projects in One Long Year

December 01, 1991|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Movie audiences were first introduced to the quiet intensity of Sam Neill when he starred opposite another newcomer, Judy Davis, in the acclaimed Australian film "My Brilliant Career."

In the ensuing decade, Neill, who was born in Northern Ireland and raised in New Zealand, has developed his own rather brilliant career, starring in the popular PBS series "Reilly, Ace of Spies," the miniseries "Kane & Abel" and "Amerika" and such films as "A Cry in the Dark," "Dead Calm" and "The Hunt for Red October."

His latest project is the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" drama "One Against the Wind," which reunites him with Davis.

"I was intrigued with working with Judy again after 12 years," the soft-spoken, 43-year-old actor said over lunch at his favorite Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles. "It was one of the main reasons I wanted to do it."

"One Against the Wind" is based on the true story of Mary Lindell (Davis), an Englishwoman who, during World War II, operated the most successful escape route for downed Allied airmen in Nazi-occupied France. Neill plays Capt. James Leggatt, the first serviceman she helped. Though the two develop a relationship, the strong-willed Lindell and Leggatt constantly lock horns.

"I sort of like their relationship in the film," Neill said. "In some ways it is a little bit like our relationship in real life. Whenever I see Judy, we start arguing about three minutes after. That is just the way we are. I am very fond of Judy. We like sparring, you know."

The two, he said, argue about everything. "We just like to argue," Neill said, laughing. "Our relationship has been historically simply one of disagreeing on principle whatever the other one says. It works very well. We enjoy it."

Neill didn't enjoy the fact, though, he couldn't obtain much information on Leggatt.

"His widow is still alive, but doesn't care to talk about the Mary Lindell story," he said. "Don't ask me why. It was just difficult to get hard copy on him. So he becomes a fictional character as far as I am concerned--a composite of things of people I know and things I know. I play him as I see him on the page. I just hope it works."

"One Against the Wind" is one of five projects Neill has completed within the past year. He also stars with William Hurt in Wim Wenders' ("Wings of Desire") new film, "Until the End of the Earth," which is scheduled to open later this month.

"It's difficult to pin down really what the movie is about because it is various things," Neill said. "It's sort of a road movie and a love story. Then the film turns into something very different once it gets to Australia. There is a nuclear satellite that is about to explode and we think the world is coming to an end. It was shot in 12 different countries. It was a 21-week shoot and we would pick up a new crew in each place. It's a very ambitious film."

Before earning his living as an actor, Neill worked as a documentary filmmaker for the New Zealand Film Commission. "I wanted to act," he said. "But when I left university in New Zealand, I became disenchanted with acting. There weren't any films being made. There was very little TV being made, so the only thing you could make your living at was radio."

In 1976, he received a call out of the blue from then-unknown director Roger Donaldson ("The Bounty," "No Way Out"). "He said he was going to make a feature film, which in itself was staggering, because there hadn't been a feature film made in New Zealand in years. He said, 'I want you to play the lead.' It was sort of a double whammy and it was hard to say no. It was a film called 'Sleeping Dogs.' It was his first film, too."

After living in London and Australia the past decade, Neill and his wife made the move to Los Angeles a year ago. "My agent kept saying you've got to be here, get off your bum and come over and rent a house."

It was the best advice Neill had ever taken. "I am sort of amazed that I never got around to it before," he said. "I really enjoy it here. Film people have a lot in common wherever they come from, and this is sort of a company town. It is about film and entertainment, so immediately you have a lot in common. We have met some really good friends who have been wonderful to us, to my great surprise."

"One Against the Wind" airs tonight at 9 on CBS.

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