Sam Neill - Credit to Ross Coffey
Sam Neill - Credit to Ross Coffey

Sam Neill’s Biography

Actor/ Writer/ Producer/ Director
Arts Foundation Icon 2020
"In my lifetime I have seen how critically important the arts have been in defining the way the world understands us." - Sam Neill DCNZM OBE

Sam Neill is a household name in the film industry, with an illustrious career that spans over 130 television and feature films.

“If it looks like fun, and it looks like quality, then I'll do it.” So says Sam Neill, familiar to most of us as the rugged and charming actor who has made countless appearances on our screens since his film debut in 1977. His impressive resume of television and feature films has made him something of a legend all over the world, although off camera he prefers to “live quietly and pluck my vines.”

Born in Northern Ireland in 1947, Neill immigrated to Ōtautahi Christchurch at the age of six. His aptitude for theatre blossomed at Anglican boy's secondary school, Christ College, where he took part in school productions as well as annual Shakespearian productions put on by novelist Ngaio Marsh. He went on to study a BA in English at Canterbury University, where he continued performing Shakespeare with the Players' Drama Quartet.

After University he turned to documentaries, producing a series of shorts for the National Film Unit. He also took on the odd screen role, including the 1971 teleplay The City of No and goldrush tale Hunt's Duffer. In 1977 came his breakthrough role in New Zealand feature Sleeping Dogs, a dramatic action-thriller which earned him international recognition as a leading man.

From there Neill hit the road, taking on roles in Australia and the UK, in the process earning him his first Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in his starring role in hit British TV series, Reilly: Ace Of Spies (1983). In 1993 Neill played a classic role in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jurassic Park, and the immediately followed it with a powerful performance in Jane Campion's award-winner The Piano.

Over the years, Neill has continued to play a wide range of roles spanning a variety of genres. More recently, he shone as grouchy but loveable Uncle Hec in Taikia Waititi’s oddball comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople – a role which also won Neill his first NZ Film Award for Best Supporting Actor. His long list of accolades includes 11 awards and 30 nominations, as well as being appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1991, and recognised as a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (DCNZM). He now lives in Central Otago where he owns a winery called Two Paddocks, and names his farm animals after film-industry colleagues.

What does it mean to be an Icon of the Arts Foundation?

"In New Zealand we often like to think of ourselves as a country where sport, and particularly rugby, defines us. I never felt like that. I thought I was lucky to live in a country deeply, profoundly enriched by its artists. Its poets, its painters and sculptors, its musicians, its dancers and novelists and playwrights. And of course its filmmakers and actors, its carvers and tattooists and weavers. Its comedians. Its historians. They sang for us.

All these many people, and more, helped me to understand where I lived, where I came from, why I loved my country. All that beauty and harmony, the darkness and the light, the ridiculous and the splendid. They still do. They nourish me. More than that, in my lifetime I have seen how critically important the arts have been in defining the way the world understands us.

In 2003 I was very honoured to receive the Icon award on behalf of my friend, the great artist Ralph Hotere, who was unwell. And now - one for me. I cannot but feel this is some extraordinary fluke. But to be in the company of all these distinguished New Zealanders, these artists like Ralph, makes me extraordinarily heartened, and very touched indeed."

- Sam Neill DCNZM OBE