A Day on the Set Acting with Liam Neeson
By Ron Roman
Operation Chromite. That’s the name of the movie my agent called me up to tell me I’d be cast in featuring Oscar winner (1993 Best Actor for Seven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List) and super-star Liam Neeson as General Douglas MacArthur. Director would be John Lee (aka Lee Jae Han) for a cinematic remake of MacArthur’s outrageously successful Incheon Landing on 15 September 1950 right after the start of the Korean War. I had worked with Lee before portraying General John H. Church in Lee’s 2010 Korean War epic 71: Into the Fire. My role as US Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Forrest Sherman had been set to go to a Hollywood-based actor; for undisclosed reasons he couldn’t take it and my agent
convinced Lee to give it to me based on our prior collaboration. Come salary-negotiation time it was take it or leave it; my agent knew I’d pounce on the opportunity to work with Neeson, so my fee, though decent, was essentially caught in half. You long-term Korean-based ex-pats know what it’s like working here, right? Tsk-tsk.
Before shooting I’d make a trip to Seoul to get measured for my American admiral’s uniform, circa 1950, and finally to Sheraton Walker Hill Hotel to get fitted. Having served in the US military, though in the Army, I was certainly familiar with US military uniforms, though I’d soon discover that personal name tags weren’t worn during that time. No big deal, right? But when time came for my agent and her assistants to come over my house to rehearse my lines to be sure I had them down cold, I was told I’d have to shave off my mustache. (Upon my research of Admiral Sherman, I found he didn’t sport one. To his credit, Director Lee is a stickler for historical accuracy; off came the mustache.) Anyhow, I did have down cold all lines given to me as well as those of the other three actors in our two
separate scenes together: Neeson, Hollywood star Jon Gries (erroneously listed as Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Vandenberg; it had been General Omar Bradley) and “Andrew,” local ex-pat (as US Army Chief of Staff General “Lightning Joe” Collins). Next thing you know, before seven in the morning I was huddling on the set with Andrew and Director Lee in Lee’s private chambers.
Though his role as General Collins was small, considerably smaller than mine, Andrew would incessantly needle Lee as to the “workings” and “motivations,” and “make-up” of his character. Soon, as we all began shooting our initial outdoor scene with Neeson (as MacArthur) defiantly and sarcastically welcoming us as “The Three Stooges,” upon exiting our chauffeured sedan, Andrew’s continuous chatter got under Lee’s skin: “I need you to stay focused!” (Guess working with Neeson got to be too exciting.) He wouldn’t (couldn’t?) calm down. Finally, one helluva burly Korean guy, looking more like a gangster
from Seoul’s meaner streets but a representative from the production company, came lumbering our way. Sticking his head in the sedan while we waited inside for another take, in decent-enough English for all to understand, he snarled, “Mr. Neeson needs concentrate. Don’t interrupt. Don’t bother him. Stop talk!” Andrew, sitting next to me, gulped and blurted out: “Guess he means me!” Everybody twittered. We shot the scene numerous times, finally getting it down pat enough to Lee’s satisfaction. Next up, the “big” scene inside the war conference room where Neeson/MacArthur’s Incheon Landing plans were challenged by us “Three Stooges.”
MacArthur’s plans were considered so outlandish by other top US military officials as to be
almost not worth debating. (Vandenberg would go on to mock their odds of success as “5,000 to one!”) But debate they (we) did, almost to the point of quarreling. Up first was Neeson’s character pouting that nobody was seriously considering his strategy and “is it because you despise MacArthur?” followed by my angry lines: “The Incheon tides are the worst in the world! They rise and fall at a rate of 29 feet each day, sometimes as high as 36….” (I won’t bore readers with the rest of it; see the movie for yourselves!) If you’ve read this far, this brings us up to the main point: What’s it like working with a Hollywood super-star like Liam Neeson? In one word: Great.
For an expanded explanation, let’s describe Liam as worldly, intelligent, funny, well-informed/ well-read, as well as engaging, one helluva a raconteur, and a really good listener. Especially noteworthy is the last point: a good listener. I bring this up because, well, so many of us these days get so sucked in and swallowed up by our so-called social media that we can’t seem to make it past four words: “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine….” Neeson wasn’t like this at all, least not when we worked with him. (Of course, I should remind all, that, including myself, we shouldn’t judge anybody as this or that based solely on a single day’s exposure. I once spent the better part of the day with Arnold Schwarzenegger and…. Let’s leave it at that.)
During filming breaks Neeson went on to regale the three of us with his research on MacArthur to include stories of his family’s famous military background, all the while getting more animated as he spoke. He is as much of a lively character off-screen as he is on-. As a long-time fan, I told him I most admired his portrayal of aging hit-man Jimmy Conlon in “Run All Night,” pretty much a domestic box-office flop. He went on to detail how it was released at the wrong time, etc., a reminder of what anybody who knows anything about filmmaking knows: It’s as much a business as an art form. We broke for a typical mobile canteen Korean-style lunch as regularly eaten here on local TV and film sets,
and resumed filming long into the afternoon. Before we could all exchange salutes, it was a wrap.
And Andrew? He finally settled down. Perhaps he had finally got enough of a celebrity fix after squeezing out a cell phone photo of himself with Liam during a quick break.
* * *
I didn’t get Neeson’s autograph. Regretted it? No. Never was ensconced by celebrity worship, except for movie star Steve “Hercules” Reeves of the 60s. First time I was asked for an autograph myself in the late 90s, I thought it downright peculiar, perhaps delightful—but subsequently annoying. These days, with all the scores of cable channels, Internet hype—you name it—you’re “famous” for an entire two weeks after your face last hits the screen, if that.