The actor Sam Neill has revealed he has had “a ferocious type of aggressive” non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The Jurassic Park star, 75, was diagnosed with Stage three cancer in March 2022 and thought: “I’m crook, I’m dying.”
Unable to work, he started writing as a distraction and to “give me a reason to get through the day,” he tells the BBC.
In his new memoir, Did I Ever Tell you This?, he discusses his illness and his near 50-year career on screen.
Neill first noticed he had lumpy glands in his neck on a publicity tour for Jurassic World Dominion last year.
When doctors told him what was wrong, he said his reaction was “pretty phlegmatic”, but it made him “take stock of things.”
“I thought I need to do something, and I thought, ‘Shall I start writing?'” he says.
“I didn’t think I had a book in me, I just thought I’d write some stories. And I found it increasingly engrossing.
“A year later, not only have I written the book – I didn’t have a ghost writer – but it’s come out in record time.
“I suspect my publishers, they’re delightful people, but I think they wanted to get it out in a hurry just in case I kicked the bucket before it was time to release the thing.”
Indeed at one point he thinks the subtitle for the book might have been Notes from a Dying Man.
There are, he says, “dark days.” He lost his hair after the first round of chemotherapy and writes in the memoir that when he looks in the mirror, “there’s a bald, wizened old man there.”
“More than anything I want my beard back. I don’t like the look of my face one bit.”
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a less common cancer that develops in the lymphatic system – the vast network of vessels and glands in the body.
But the star of films including The Piano, and TV’s Peaky Blinders, is now in remission and remains positive.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” he says. “What I don’t want to do is to stop living, because I really enjoy living.”
He continues: “I’ve regarded it as an adventure, quite a dark adventure, but an adventure nevertheless. And the good days are just fantastic and when you get some good news it’s absolutely exhilarating.”
The book, he is at pains to stress, is not about cancer. “I can’t stand cancer books.”
Instead it is mostly about what he calls his “fun” and “unlikely” life and long career. He’s appeared in more than 70 films, working alongside actors including Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum.
Grumble about mumbling
He doesn’t think screen acting has changed much over the decades but he does have a grumble about “mumbling” – actors who fail to enunciate their lines.
“I think it’s a thing that a lot of young actors have that it’s kind of sexy to have a whispering kind of thing that no one else can hear.”
He blames neck microphones, which he says enable actors to “get away with whispering and mumbling because the neck microphone is going to record everything.”
“It’s ridiculous. We speak so we can be understood. We don’t go around mumbling because someone has hung a microphone around our necks.”
‘Spilling the beans’
In the book Neill travels “through the past and the alleyways of my life.” It was “a pleasure”, he says, before mischievously adding: “Mostly.” And at times he is refreshingly uncensored.
He describes his co-star in The Piano, the American actor Harvey Keitel, as “truculent and difficult and a bit graceless”.
There is also clearly no love lost between Neill and the Australian actress Judy Davis. They appeared together in three films including My Brilliant Career and he says she’s the only actress who “made it clear I wasn’t in her league.”
“Look,” he adds, “I should’ve probably called this book, Spilling the Beans, because some beans I probably shouldn’t have spilled and one of them was meeting Barbra Streisand.”
He was flown to meet her in a hotel suite in New York in the early 1980s, to discuss a role in her film Yentl.
While he says he has always admired her, he admits: “I’ve never enjoyed her singing.”
So when she sang not one, but two, songs from the film, at full volume from a distance of about five feet away from him, he was, he says, “in a state of shock and dismay.”
Neill is also the man who didn’t want to be James Bond. He auditioned for the part in the 1980s, on the say-so of his “assertive” agent and against his better judgment.
“I really didn’t want to be the Bond that everyone didn’t like.
“I didn’t really want that gig at all because you’re stuck with it for the rest of your life… I have never wanted to be a celebrity.”
The book ends with good news. While Neill still has to undergo chemotherapy treatments, the tumours have gone.
Indeed he is about to start work on a new film in Australia with the star of American Beauty, Annette Bening. He is currently starring in the ITVX legal drama series The Twelve.
“The last thing I want is for people to obsess about the cancer thing,” says Neill, “because I’m not really interested in cancer.
“I’m not really interested in anything other than living.”
Did I Ever Tell You? by Sam Neill is out on 23 March.