At an age when most lead actors are edging into supporting gigs, the Irish thespian seemed to be pulling off something truly unique in 2009: a late-career transformation into an action star. His down-and-dirty revenge flick Taken shocked pundits by earning a quarter of a billion dollars; Neeson was finally muscling onto the box office A-list. Then, tragedy: his wife Natasha Richardson died of a freak head injury skiing the beginner’s slope at a Canadian resort. Paparazzi photos from the time show the face of a broken man.
“Her death was never real [to me]. It still kind of isn’t,” Neeson told 60 Minutes earlier this year. But he survived—and thrived—by throwing his full energies into his career and raising his two young sons. Now Neeson is at the peak of his bankability. “I’m 61 years of age, man,” he says. “Going around fighting all these guys…I feel a bit embarrassed.” Taken 2, Unknown and Non-stop were worldwide hits, earning Neeson a $20 million payday for Taken 3. And many believe the kick-ass authority he brings to roles displays more than just the gifts of a skilled actor—it’s the work of a man who has known devastating sorrow and channeled it into performances of ferocity and passion.