In honour of his 70th birthday, NZ On Screen's Nicky Harrop revisits some of the many highlights of Sam Neill's screen career.

Spanning 40-odd years (to date), encompassing more than 60 films, and including a number of acclaimed TV roles and directing credits, Sam Neill's screen career is nothing short of extraordinary. One of our most in-demand international actors, his work has often taken him offshore, but some of his most iconic roles and performances can still be found in New Zealand productions.

Neill's screen career began on the other side of the camera - he spent several years working as a writer, editor and director at the National Film Unit. During this time he also began to secure the occasional on-screen role. In this 1972 conservation short, The Water Cycle, he cameos as an eau-so-suave urbanite, illustrating the still-topical issue of the disconnection between water use and where it comes from.

Watch The Water Cycle here:

Neill's breakout moment came in 1977, playing the lead in acclaimed local feature film Sleeping Dogs. Directed by Roger Donaldson, and adapted from CK Stead's novel Smith's Dream, Sleeping Dogs heralded a new wave of Kiwi cinema; it was one of the decade's only local films to win a sizable audience at home, and placed Neill firmly in the limelight. This excerpt includes a much talked about scene featuring a baton charge by government forces.

See an excerpt from Sleeping Dogs here:

Sleeping Dogs represents the first of many landmark New Zealand films in which Neill has featured. In 1993, he played a leading role in Jane Campion's Oscar-winning feature The Piano, evoking a darkly brooding presence as the cuckolded husband of Holly Hunter's Ada. Twenty-four years on, The Piano remains the only New Zealand film to have won the coveted Palme d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival (also 70 this year) and Campion remains the only woman filmmaker to have won the top prize.

Watch an excerpt from The Piano here:

2016 saw Neill starring in another local blockbuster - Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Playing "Uncle" Hec to Julian Dennison's Ricky Baker, he earned rave reviews. The role won him his first New Zealand Film Award (for Best Supporting Actor), and Hunt for the Wilderpeople continues to hold the record for the highest-grossing Kiwi movie at the New Zealand box office.


Watch the trailer for Hunt for the Wilderpeople here:

In 1995 Neill turned his focus to analysing, rather than creating, our film history - writing, narrating and co-directing the award-winning documentary Cinema of Unease. This excerpt sees him weave portions of his own story through an insightful mash-up of New Zealand cinema - from its crude beginnings, to the breakthrough films of Peter Jackson and Jane Campion.

See an excerpt from Cinema of Unease here:

In 2013, Neill took his first role in a Kiwi TV series - playing an old-school Auckland detective in the gritty crime drama Harry. Starring Oscar Kightley in the title role, the show screened for a season on TV3, earning strong critical acclaim for both its performances and challenging content. As broadcaster John Campbell tweeted: "Not remotely suitable for kids. But nor are many excellent things."

Watch the debut episode of Harry here:

You can see more great Sam Neill content here, in NZ On Screen's Collection, including poignant backgrounders from Roger Donaldson and Ian Mune.