Since the Internet permeated world culture 20 years ago, it has been easy for people to do searches to find famous people who stutter. However, in the pre-internet era of the early 1990s, actor Sam Neill seemed to be one of the few celebrities who was open about his stuttering in both print and broadcast media. At the time, he spoke openly of his stuttering on entertainment shows in the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. More than 20 years later, the film star from Down Under is still talking about stuttering.
Over the last two years he has addressed not only his own stuttering, but also his daughter’s stuttering and subsequent speech therapy underscored his longtime belief that there is a genetic predisposition for stuttering. In addition, he has not been shy about voicing his displeasure with certain aspects of the 2011 movie The King’s Speech while stating that he liked the film overall.
Stuttering aside, the life of Sam Neill has been interesting to say the least. He was born September 14, 1947, in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland to Dermot Neill, a British Army officer serving with the Irish guards, and his English wife. Neill’s father was a third-generation New Zealander whose own father owned and operated Neill and Co., the largest and most well-known liquor retailer in New Zealand.
The Neill family returned to New Zealand when Sam was seven years old. He would go on to graduate from Victoria University in Wellington with a BA in English literature.
Later pursuing acting, Neill’s career took off as he starred in high-profile New Zealand and Australian films. His breakthrough role came in 1981 as the star of Omen III: The Final Conflict in which he portrayed Damien Thorn, the son of the devil. The brilliant career of this talented actor is too large to cover in full, but the roles continued with films such as Dead Calm, The Hunt for Red October, Jurassic Park, The Piano, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Bicentennial Man, Merlin, and Merlin’s Apprentice in addition to various high-profile mini-series. Also, Neill was a leading candidate to succeed Roger Moore as James Bond, a role that ultimately went to Timothy Dalton. His screen test for James Bond can be seen on the special features section of the DVD of the 1987 Bond film The Living Daylights, and can be viewed on YouTube.
Sam Neill has always been open that stuttering affected his childhood. During an interview in 2004 on the Australian talk show Enough Rope, which is available on YouTube, the actor was asked by interviewer Andrew Denton about his stuttering. Neill responded that the speech problem greatly affected his childhood and that he always hoped people would not talk to him so he would not have to answer back. The actor added, “I kind of outgrew it. I can still…..you can detect me as a stammerer.”
On September 20, 2013, an article about Neill and his stuttering appeared in the Daily Mail with the revealing headline “The stutter that cursed my family: He’s starred in 70 films, but Sam Neill reveals he suffered from a childhood stammer – and he fears he passed it on to his daughter.” The New Zealand Star quoted him about his struggles with stuttering, “I was painfully shy, probably because of it. When people said something to me, I was afraid I’d have to reply so I really didn’t say much.”
While the worldwide stuttering community heralded the movie The King’s Speech as a groundbreaker, Neill offered a frank view, “I have to say, as much as I liked the film, I did take issue with it. In the movie George VI had been bullied by his father and his stutter was the result of that, but the idea that a stutter is caused by childhood trauma has been rather discredited. It’s more like a genetic disposition.”
The article continued with Neill frankly addressing his daughter’s stuttering, “I discovered this [genetic disposition] because my youngest child Elena stuttered very badly, and we took her to a therapist who asked if there was a history of it in the family. I told her I used to stutter, and after six months of exercises Elena was absolutely OK. Acting has had a therapeutic effect on me and it probably helped give me confidence.”
On the website of The British Stammering Association there is a page entitled “The Actor Sam Neill’s perspective” in which he addresses various topics relating to stammering. One of those topics is “The Importance of Gaining Confidence” in which the actor relates his own experience, “I don’t know what I did to change the stutter, I think I just forgot it, by degrees and in part I always thought that actually … I was sent on one of those, kind of, outward bound things where you had to run across logs or fall in the river and drown, and that did a lot for my physical self-confidence. At about the same time I was kind of doing better at school, and I was learning to debate, and I was involved in drama and plays and so on. I was becoming kind of a confident person, and I suspect that all of that kind of worked on the stuttering and vice versa, and so there was no particular game plan, it just sort of happened organically.”
In addition to being public about his stuttering, Neill is a supporter of both the Australian Speak Easy Association and the British Stammering Association. The worldwide stuttering community should rejoice in having such a high-profile actor to speak on behalf of both people who stutter and the power of speech therapy. The fact that Sam Neill was so vocal about his stuttering in the pre-internet era and continues to be so today strongly conveys his commitment and compassion to bringing attention to stuttering.
From the Summer 2015 Newsletter