Chapter 2: Teen and University Years
He leaned against the form behind, presenting to the girls who sat there an intimate view of a very dirty collar and a reasonably dirty neck, which will instance Peter's complete disregard for inspection by girls. Not disregard as a state of mind, but as a blank unawareness of girls as sentient creatures. He knew nothing about girls, which is to say that girls had not yet considered him worth knowing.
---Norman Lindsay, Saturdee
The decades of the fifties and the sixties were a extremely tense time for the world. The United States' heavy involvement in the Korean War in 1950 is considered the first phase of the then-quickly escalating Cold War between the United States and Russia. In 1959 Cyprus gained its independence from Great Britain, which had annexed Cyprus in 1914, but the Greeks and Turks continued to fight against one another on the island. The British defended Kuwait's proclamation of independence against Iraq's claim of control. In August of 1961, Communist East Germany cut off access to West Berlin by erecting a fence of barbed wire, which was gradually replaced with concrete slabs, the Berlin Wall. Kennedy and Khrushchev faced off over the Cuban Missile Crisis. In April 1965, sharp fighting broke out between India and Pakistan, who were warring over borders; though a cease-fire led to an agreement in January of 1966, another round of fighting began in 1971, resulting in the secession of East Pakistan and creation of the independent state of Bangladesh. Israelis and Arabs fought the six-day war in 1967. The Vietnam Conflict, which began in the mid-1950s, continued until the mid 1970s.
To a young man living during this turbulent period, it would certainly appear that the entire world order was in upheaval. Could there possibly be a worse time for a young boy to begin entering adulthood? He must surely ask himself: what could be the point of studying and going through university, or getting involved in a relationship, if there is so much strife and stress going on? The teen years are confusing and frightening enough, but the violence that erupted during the 1950s through the 1970s only served to add more confusion and frustration.
Unfortunately, no one can choose when to be born or when to grow up; nature handles that process from conception. In 1961, in the midst of all the world's chaos, Sam began his journey from childhood towards adult life by entering secondary school at Christ's College, an elite Anglican boys' boarding school in Christchurch, New Zealand. During these years, from age 13 through 18, Sam was fortunate enough to be insulated somewhat from all of the world's problems, since he was not exposed to television and he did not have to worry, as many American teens did, about being drafted.
In primary and secondary school, Sam was not very keen on sports or outdoor activities. This fact, he says, did nothing to enrich his social life, since footballers seem to always garner all the glory, as well as the girls. 'Generally, I hated sports at school', he confesses. 'It was compulsory then. Now that I can choose, I actually like it and am keen on golf, skiing, tennis, and fishing.' Modesty prevails, and Sam adds, 'I'm still no good.'
At the age of fourteen, Sam began participating in outdoor sports such as mountain climbing, canoeing, and assault courses with his family. These physical sports gave Sam self-confidence, and this confidence in turn helped him to rid himself of his much-hated stutter while building him physically. Both of these--a clear voice and a strong body-- are necessities for any busy actor, but especially for an actor whose calling card is his voice and whose schedule is as hectic as Sam's.
Both Sam's primary school at Medbury in Dunedin, New Zealand, and his secondary school at Christ's College in Christchurch, were all-boys schools; therefore his experience with the female half of the population was very limited. He did not have what could be called a true girlfriend until he was sixteen: 'My schools were single-sexed so meeting girls was difficult. As for me being popular--I don't know!' Sam admits that his first love interest was a girl whom he met when he was seven years old and attending a school in South Wales; however, his first real 'crush' occurred during his fifth form years, which is the equivalent of American secondary school 11th grade. Sam was about 15 years old, and his beloved was a girl named Louise. Sam recalls the incident as being 'wonderful' and looks back upon it 'with the greatest affection -- and we're still very good friends.' Sam has kept in touch with Louise over the years, even to the point of being a godfather to one of her children. He makes a point to visit her family when he is able to return home to New Zealand.
Sam describes his boarding-school experience at Christ's College as being 'sort of insane, really. We didn't really know any better.' Since the students at the all-male school had virtually no contact with the opposite sex, females were surrounded with a mystique, an exotic aura. Although Sam says that 'we really had very distorted ideas of what things were about', the boys did pursue relationships with their girlfriends through letters. Perhaps this is shown in the courtliness and romantic idealism that Sam maintains today. Nevertheless, if his fans think of Sam as being very suave and gentlemanly, evidently this was not always the case. He remembers that:
In the school holidays, you'd go berserk. Kids would have parties and dances at which a lot of extreme behaviour was in evidence. During the term, we were totally cloistered really -- apart from anything else, it's hard not seeing your parents for 13 weeks.
Sam Neill, wild? 'Extreme behaviour?' A party animal? Can this be so? He continues:
Time was so short you see: you knew you were going back to school. You had to make as many gains as you could in the shortest possible time because time was always just about up -- we're going back to school any day now or any minute now.
The behaviour sounds a bit like that of a certain Neville Gifford from Sam's Australian film The Umbrella Woman. Sam continues in his attempt to explain such ungentlemanly behaviour by saying that it wasn't until he had been attending university for a couple of years that he realised that women could actually be friends with men. 'You can't get used enough to girls to treat them like mates; you're always in pursuit of something you don't understand.' Sam explains that his relationships with women are aspects of his life which he is still somewhat in awe of; perhaps they are aspects that he will never quite understand.
Nigel Creese was headmaster of the school during Sam's years as a boarder in Richard's House at Christ's College. 'I suspect that at school his (Sam's) main outlet and source of satisfaction was acting in plays, and he was very good at it.' Creese said. He continues, describing the atmosphere in which Sam stretched his wings as an actor:
Christ's College was a place in the 1960's when music and drama and debating counted for something, but there was, of course, more status and prestige if you were in Rugby Football.
Creese worked with Sam on several plays during this period, Sam's first appearance on stage at Christ's College being Private Willie Maltravers in The Amorous Prawn. The December 1962 edition of Christ's College's magazine, The Register states that in this production, 'N. J. D. Neill was an enthusiastic chef.' In the Register review for the production of Dry Rot, John Chapman writes that Sam was 'top of the trio of track twisters and the most talented of all the cast.' Chapman continues in his review of Sam, saying that
loud-suited, wide-smiled and smooth-voiced, he was the master of the double and triple take, manipulating the others out of trouble as surely as he did his black Homburg. His timing was masterly and one recalls, in this his last year, the pleasure he has given audiences in College productions.
The December 1964 edition of The Register commented on Sam's portrayal of George Hastings in the Oliver Goldsmith play, She Stoops to Conquer. The reviewer says that 'Hasting's part is one which in the hands of a lesser actor could have been relegated to a position of insignificance, but which in Neill's hands became a good foil to the hesitant, unconfident Marlow.' On November 8, 1994, Don Hamilton, who produced several of the Christ's College productions in which Sam acted, presented Sam with a Senior Honours Tie. In part, Hamilton's address reads:
By the time he (Sam) left in 1965 he had appeared in eight plays in four years under five differentproducers. Had School Honours Ties been awarded then he must have qualified several times over; today we are in some way repairing that omission.
Sam's roles at College revealed a very considerable range: from the polished and humorous lecturer in Ross to the rustic carpenter Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream, to the subtle first tempter in Murder in the Cathedral to the unobtrusively intelligent Stage Manager in Our Town.
He had, and has, masterly timing and a very wide acting range; he also has a very good sense of humour, absolute dependability and the quality of encouraging those less experienced than himself.
Creese remembers Sam as being a
gentlemanly and courteous person, qualities that he has retained in the midst of all his subsequent successes and fame. He was a modest, friendly person, and I have no reason to think he was not happy at school, but I suspect he would have been considerably less so if he had not had his acting, and a number of opportunities to practice it. I had no idea that Sam was going to become an actor -- from time to time one finds in school plays actors of great promise, but by no means all of them go on to make a career of it -- but I was not really surprised to spot him in My Brilliant Career. Sam seems to have retained the innate breeding, bearing, integrity, and genuineness that he displayed as a schoolboy.
At school, Sam began to notice that the subjects in which he seemed to excel were the same subjects in which his older brother Michael was proficient. Looking back on his school days, Sam contemplates this phenomenon, and remarks that he excelled in 'English and History and French and stuff like that'. He continues:
It took me a long time to work out that: a) I didn't have to be as good as him [Michael] and b) I didn't necessarily have to be as obsessive about the sort of things that he was obsessive about. My brother and I are quite close. He is five years older than I, and much brighter. We were never at school at the same time, so there was no question of competing or anything like that.
By the time Sam entered the University of Canterbury in Christchurch after completing his secondary years at Christ's College, he no longer felt pressured to live up to Michael's reputation; however, he did continue pursuing some of the same activities that Michael enjoyed, such as acting. Michael, although he was good at acting and enjoyed it, never aspired to become an actor in the terms of a possible career. He rejected the possibility of a actor's life to instead become a professor of English at Auckland University; Sam, however, continued to follow on the path of acting as a possible profession. 'I suspect that he [Michael] considers what I do for a living to be vulgar', Sam laughs. 'Neither my brother or sister ever refer to my work, but I think they take some interest. Maybe not.'
Coming from a rather conservative background, Sam seemed intent on leaning towards the left as much as possible. His boarding school education, first at Medbury and then at Christ's College, broke with the family tradition of sending their sons away to England. Nonetheless, Sam's family had hoped that he would follow somewhat in his father's footsteps -- Dermot Neill has been described as being 'very much a product of Harrow and Sandhurst', both of which are prestigious institutions in England. Sam did not see himself as being a mirror of his father, however, and refused to join the family import/export business as well as shunning a military career, opting instead for a profession in acting. Sam elaborates on his decision to not join the military:
My father and his sons were rather at odds about Vietnam and the military in general while growing up and there was no question of either of us joining the army. Towards the end of his life Dad tended to soften his views, and I think we tended to also.
In response to this radical decision of choosing acting as a profession, Sam's father declared that 'no son of mine will ever go onstage.' A friend of the Neills added that Dermot was 'very against Sam being an actor, and in the early days would talk of him as "my son, the strolling player."' These types of statements are perhaps predictable when considering that there is a bit of a skeleton in the Neill closet. Sam relates the family story:
It was an absurd idea that one should be interested in the acting profession. The only previous contact we had with acting, as far as I know, was when my father's great-uncle, who had got a double-first at Oxford and was heading toward a brilliant career, ran off with an actress and subsequently died of blood poisoning in a gutter in Saskatchewan.
Any parent could understand Dermot Neill's fears for his son's security if the child insisted upon choosing such an unacceptable, unstable career as acting, especially when the career was to begin in New Zealand. Dermot was not the only one sceptical about Sam's decision to become an actor. John O. Rymer was Principal of Christchurch College, a college within the University of Canterbury, during Sam's years as a student there. He relates the story of his reaction to Sam's decision:
The most memorable event of his time with me was when he asked for an appointment with me at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and announced that he wanted to cease reading for a science degree and leave both the University and the College. I asked him what he intended to do. His reply was that he wanted to be an Actor. On reflection, I asked him why he thought that he could possibly break in to such a world and make a living. When I think back on what I said, he has made such a "retort courteous" that I would never respond in such a way to any other student again!
Even Sam, who had no doubts that he wished to become a professional actor, was also sceptical of his chances in achieving such a goal:
It's not that I didn't want to be an actor, it was that no one had ever thought to tell me it was possible. No one actually thought to say to me-- though it was stupid of me not to work it out for myself -- 'look, this is actually the only thing you're going to be able to do and make it half way decent so you might as well do that.'
New Zealand was not a particularly good backdrop for someone dreaming of a career in acting, and that impediment plus the negative attitude of his family towards his choice tended to make acting somewhat of a dodgy choice for Sam. He describes the cultural atmosphere of New Zealand at the time:
All the cinema tended to be mainstream English films. Actors like Kenneth Moore and John Mills and Dirk Bogarde, they were the big stars. The American equivalents, which I suppose were Bill Holden, Brando, Humphrey Bogart -- I didn't know who the hell Humphrey Bogart was till much later on.
Sam continues, explaining that New Zealand has much more in common with England than with America:
We're much more -- we have been for years -- American- dominated than we were then. There wasn't any Coca-Cola when I grew up; it came in very late, about 1960, and I was almost at secondary school. A lot of that really good '50s and '60s American music completely escaped us; we only really heard it when the Beatles and the Stones started reviving that sort of stuff.
As far as cinema or pop music, New Zealand did not have a strong culture of its own; instead it patterned itself after England. Because it relied on England rather than America for its pop culture, there was not a heavy Hollywood influence. Above all, there was no national role model to provide a pattern for a young man interested in the film industry.
However, Sam continued following his acting, performing in plays during secondary school and then Shakespeare productions at University.
'He did no work at university but he was an absolutely brilliant actor', explains an old friend Louise Deans.
Sam expands on this:
At university I did a bit of stuff on the stage to kind of subsidise my life, such as it was, at university. The acting sort of took over a bit and I lost interest in university. I was never conscientious at school. I rather regret this. I was always an A-stream student and did the minimum possible. What I mean by A-stream is that I was always in the top class all the way through school, but was by no means famous for my application. I am not a good example, I fear.
As if he is afraid that he may lay the blame at the wrong doorstep, Sam continues, explaining that 'I had some really good teachers. Both schools were private schools, and my parents really sacrificed a lot to send us there.'
Their sacrifice was not a futile one, as Sam did take advantage of his opportunities at school.
My favourite classes were Drama, of course, and Debating, which I loved. University was by and large great fun. Bear in mind this was the 60's and a time of great change for people my age. Didn't do nearly enough work, but I did get involved in politics, student business, drama and so on. Not too radical, but certainly involved. I had some interesting drama producers at the time, including Dame Ngaio Marsh.
J. O. Rymer remembers Sam as being
always reserved and somewhat reticent. He was popular among the students at the College, but I don't think that he ever infringed the College rules to the extent that he was involved in disciplinary action!
Sam describes his university years as being rather ordinary:
My first two years were in a college, not unlike the colleges you find at English universities. I have a BA from the University of Canterbury, which I finished at Victoria University. My major subject was English Literature. I graduated by getting a piece of paper in the mail, and certainly didn't go to any kind of ceremony. Such things, at that time, were considered extremely uncool. Early on at university I suspect that I was rather conservative, entirely unpolitical, and I didn't even do any acting. More of a jock, I suppose. Later on I became more politicised, and remain so to this day.
The difference in American English and Australian English is extremely obvious in this statement, since in American English, the label of 'jock' is quite negative, bringing to mind visions of brain-dead, muscle-bound American football players or wrestlers. When questioned about this, Sam replied
No, not that sort of jock. More a Philistine, I suppose -- no interest in drama or anything remotely cultural. But very interested in parties, outdoor stuff, etc.
The parties must have been within close proximity to his living quarters, however, because Sam pointed out that he did not always have access to private transportation: 'I only had a car for one brief period, perhaps 12 weeks, while I was at university. It was a 1928 Plymouth which I bought for $25., and it was as reliable as the price would indicate.'
John Clarke, who later co-starred with Sam in Death in Brunswick, was a mate of Sam's during his university years. Sam credited John with tutoring him, staying up two nights in a row poring over philosophy. Sam said that
John taught me logic over two days. I'm stupid. It should have only taken one day. John Clarke is the most amusing man I know. And he is also the person I admire most in the world. John is the sort of person that I would like to be. He's got a bloody good brain; he's very perceptive; and he's completely independent of everybody and everything, apart from his immediate family. He doesn't work for anybody; he doesn't owe anybody anything. He's his own man. And he is a Renaissance man. He performs; he acts; there's nothing he can't do -- but, above all, he is funny.
While at University, Sam did not give much serious thought to becoming a professional actor. He explains:
I never intended to act for a living. I had one year in New Zealand Players Drama Quartet, travelling around New Zealand doing drama for schools, Shakespeare, etc. While I was working out what to do, I got a job with New Zealand National Film Unit and thought for some years that would be my career, but acting just popped up again. I was thirty by the time I decided, "I may as well admit it, come out of the closet and admit that I'm a fully-fledged actor."
Although Sam may not have begun his University days with a career in acting as a goal, the profession seems to have naturally flowed throughout his life. From his days as a student in the primary grades when he chose to change his accent on to his University years and stage acting, his interest in acting culminated in a professional career, beginning in New Zealand film.
Back to Sam Neill's Biography Page