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Born in Northern Ireland to army parents, his family returned to the South Island of New Zealand in 1954. He went to boarding schools and then attended the universities at Canterbury and Victoria. He has a BA in English Literature. Following his graduation, he worked with the New Zealand Players and other theater groups. He also was a film director, editor and scriptwriter for the New Zealand National Film Unit for 6 years. His first feature film was Sleeping Dogs (1977). He then moved to Australia and his performance in My Brilliant Career (1979) was noticed in London by British actor James Mason who lobbied for Neill to get the lead role in Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981). Because of this, Neill moved to England where he also became famous as the title character in "Reilly: Ace of Spies" (1983). After his Great Britain stint, he moved back to Australia in the late 1980s. He now makes films all over the world. In 1993, he achieved "commercial and critical success" with Jurassic Park (1993) and The Piano (1993).