Sam Neill, an actor, explains why he is “not particularly interested” in his disease and why the idea of retiring scares him.

Actor Sam Neill

Sam Neill has vineyards he’s turning organic, a winery enterprise going carbon neutral, a garden he’s fussing over, grandchildren to adore and an acting career that keeps delivering roles.

He’s also combating a rare cancer but that’s far less interesting to him.

Why waste precious time, asks Neill, trawling through the internet for details about his non-Hodgkin blood cancer, angioimmunoblastic T-cell lymphoma, when there’s so much else to do?

“I know I’ve got it, but I’m not really interested in it,” Neill, 76, tells Australian Story.

“It’s out of my control. If you can’t control it, don’t get into it.”

That, he says, he’ll leave to the experts, his doctors who have ushered him through dark days ever since his diagnosis early last year.

About three months into chemotherapy, the treatment stopped working. The tumour was growing. His doctor switched treatment to a rare anti-cancer drug — and it worked.

He’s been in remission now for 12 months, requiring infusions every two weeks, indefinitely.

The few days after treatment are “very grim and depressing” with Neill left feeling, he says, like he’s gone 10 rounds with a boxer.

“But it’s keeping me alive.”

For now. Neill knows it’s only a reprieve. At some stage, doctors have told him, the drug will stop working. “I’m prepared for that,” he says.

It’s not dying he’s afraid of. Neill thought deeply about mortality after the shock diagnosis and decided that, while dying would be “annoying” because he’s got more to do, he’s “not remotely afraid” of death.

But retirement? That “fills me with horror”, he says.

So, he’s back in front of the camera, filming on the Gold Coast with Annette Bening for the adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel, Apples Never Fall, before the US actors’ and writers’ strike shut down production, and in Western Australia for season two of the mini-series The Twelve. Neill spoke to Australian Story in June before the strike began.

‘I was running against the clock’

Being with actors makes Neill happy.

Throughout his long career that took off in 1979 after working alongside Judy Davis in My Brilliant Career, he’s performed with some of the best: Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern in the Jurassic Park series, Meryl Streep in Evil Angels, Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm and the late Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October.

“I can’t tell you how privileged I am to spend that amount of time with so many actors, so many of whom I’ve really enjoyed and so many of whom I’ve really

Then there’s the many roles he’s played alongside Australian actor, Bryan Brown. He’s an idiot, says Neill, and his best mate.

Banter is part of Neill and Brown’s schtick, a mateship filled with playful ribbing of each other about their roles, their looks, their talent.

“We’re very close,” Neill says, “but we’re always sort of competing.”

Even about their hair. Soon after starting chemotherapy, Neill went bald. “I wasn’t a pretty sight: I had no hair, no beard,” he says. The same week that Neill lost his hair, Brown was rushed to hospital after suffering severe burns to his face and arms. His hair was gone, too, and he looked, says Neill, “like a badly boiled egg”.

Brown had made the “very bad mistake” of throwing petrol onto a bonfire of rubbish. Brown’s dice with death upset Neill, Brown jokes, “because this was meant to be his moment of sickness, not mine”.

Even more galling for Neill, Brown’s hair grew back first. Plus, the treatment for the burns left Brown with smoother skin on his now 76-year-old face.

“He does point out my neck, though,” Brown says. “A lot. He does like to tell me my neck is just like a dinosaur’s.”

They’ve known each other for more than 40 years, their international careers starting to take off in the early 1980s — Neill’s through My Brilliant Career and Brown’s through the Boer War drama, Breaker Morant.

“Both movies captured the world in its own way and gave both of us opportunities,” says Brown. “We’ve experienced similar things … we understand the journey of each of us.”

So, it was natural for Neill to call Brown when he returned to Australia from a trip to Los Angeles early last year, after promoting the sixth Jurassic movie, Jurassic World Dominion.

Neill confided that he had lumps in his neck. Brown suggested he might have picked up COVID on the plane. Neill said he’d have a blood test.

“A day or two later he rang me, and he said, ‘I’ve got cancer’. And that was the start of it,” Brown says.

“He wasn’t hysterical or anything like that. He dealt with it pretty well just straight on, ‘this is what I’ve got to deal with now. Let’s get on with it’.”

But Neill couldn’t get on with acting, or with working on his vineyard in Central Otago, New Zealand, while receiving chemotherapy, which took a heavy toll on his body. He had time on his hands.

“I started to look at my life and realise how immensely grateful I am for so much of it,” Neill says.

“I started to think I better write some of this down because I’m not sure how long I have to live. I was running against the clock.”

Writing gave him something to look forward to every night when he went to bed.

It poured out of him; migrating to New Zealand from Northern Ireland as a boy, being shy and named Nigel in a foreign land, changing his name to Sam, falling in love with Australia, the importance of family, his love of the vineyard and the rollicking stories amassed over more than 40 years of being an actor on the world stage.

Within months, he had about 50,000 words, found a publisher and the heart-warming, self-deprecating book, Did I Ever Tell You This?, took form.

“I don’t pretend to be a writer,” says Neill, “but I am a conversationalist. I love chatting. Here are some stories that amuse me. You might like them, too.”

Neill says the impetus for the book was his desire to leave his four children and eight grandchildren “a sense of me”.

“I thought it would be great for them to have some of my stories,” he says. “I mightn’t be here in a month or two. We’ll leave something for them.”

He admits his family life has been “haphazard” but he is “immensely grateful” that his children are incredibly supportive. It can be isolating, though, he says, being a single person. “I had some very lonely times last year,” he says.

Neill has been on some dates but he’s careful not to look too far forward. “I’m in a very uncertain world at the moment,” he says.

“Very uncertain. Nothing is assured.”

Neill’s 10 glorious days ‘to feel alive’

Neill’s haematologist, Dr Orly Lavee, says when his current treatment stops working, “we may need to think about a third line option”.

“That’s a difficult thing to carry around, day in, day out, waiting for that to happen,” she says.

Brown knows his mate carries “a terrible weight” but he’s rooting for him to make it to 80. Purely selfish reasons. Every 10 years, they throw a big and expensive party. “He’s got to get through the next four years,” Brown says, deadpan. “To pay for the next party.”

For Neill, though, it’s day by day. He’s always understood the importance of living in the moment, he says, but “the cancer thing” has focused his mind on making the most of his time.

When morning dawns, he’s “so pleased to be awake”. Once the sickness from his treatment has lifted, he has 10 glorious days. “Ten days,” he says, “in which I could not feel more alive or pleased to be breathing and looking at a blue sky”.

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