Last updated 12 July 2019
Born on May 12, 1950 in Walkinstown, Dublin, The Republic of Ireland, Gabriel James Byrne, whose Irish name is Gabriel Séamas ÓBroin, is the oldest of six children. His father worked as a cooper at the Guinness factory and his mother was a nurse. When he was 12 years old, a Catholic priest came to his school to show students what life was like saving souls around the world. From that moment, Gabriel was interested in becoming a member of the clergy, and eventually went to seminary in Birmingham, England. But Gabriel and life in the seminary proved an unhappy match. Later, he would share more about his experiences during this time, but for many years, his decision to leave the clergy was simply seen as a great gain for the world of acting. He returned home to Dublin and landed a scholarship to University College, where he studied languages and archeology.
After graduating, he toiled in a series of odd jobs, famously installing glass eyes in teddy bears at a toy factory, working as a plumber and a bartender, and teaching English and Spanish. He made his first foray into acting in 1974 with the Dublin Shakespeare Society, then joined the Focus Theatre, an experimental repertory company run by director Jim Sheridan.
In 1978, he began acting full-time at the Abbey Theatre, where he stayed for two years. He had found his calling.
Thanks to his stage work, he started to land minor parts in small films, making his debut in On a Paving Stone Mounted (1978), which he followed with The Outsider (1979), a film that led to starring roles in the Irish soap opera The Riordans and its spin-off Bracken. Gabriel’s first significant film role was as King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), a gritty ode to the Arthurian legend, which brought several other new faces to the screen, including Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, and Ciarán Hinds. He played an Israeli attorney in Costa-Gavras’ controversial Hanna K (1983), then a German soldier in Michael Mann’s supernatural WWII cult classic The Keep (1983), with Ian McKellan and Jürgen Prochnow. He proved a capable lead in the taut political thriller Defence of the Realm (1985), sharing the screen with brilliant character actor Denholm Elliott and bringing intensity and a sense of humor to his role as a newspaper reporter investigating the crash of a nuclear bomber in the English countryside. But Hollywood remained distant.
He turned to American television in a pair of miniseries, playing the title role in Christopher Columbus (CBS, 1985), then the son of fascism’s father in Mussolini: The Untold Story (NBC, 1985), with George C. Scott and a very young Robert Downey Jr. Back on the big screen, he co-starred with Natasha Richardson and Julian Sands in Gothic (1986), directed by Ken Russell, playing Lord Byron in Russell’s hallucinogenic account of the Mary Shelley Frankenstein origin story. 1987 brought a bumper crop of films: Julia and Julia, the first film ever shot in HD video format, with Kathleen Turner and Sting sharing the screen; Siesta, directed by Mary Lambert, with a remarkable cast including his future wife, Ellen Barkin; and Hello Again, shot in the United States. In 1988, The Courier, filmed in Ireland, offered Gabriel as a nasty villain, and New Zealand’s A Soldier’s Tale, based on the haunting book by M. K. Joseph, took him back to WWII. Gabriel returned to England to play the lead, Lord Hugo Bruckton, in Nick Broomfield’s dark look at the ruling class, Diamond Skulls (aka Dark Obsession in the US), made in 1989.
With a new decade commencing, Gabriel began to catch the attention of American audiences, starting with Miller’s Crossing (1990), a critically-acclaimed revisionist take on the gangster film, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. As Tom Reagan, the right hand of an Irish mobster (Albert Finney) neck deep in a city-wide gang war with his Italian rival (Jon Polito), he exuded a cool confidence, despite routinely being beaten to a pulp, while also falling out with his boss over the smoldering gun moll played by Marcia Gay Harden. Critical appreciation for Gabriel’s work in this film has continued to grow in the intervening years since its release: David Thomson calls Miller’s Crossing “…not just his best film, it’s one of the best performances in American film–the whole melancholy routine.” [The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2004]. Gabriel followed this landmark film with another: Into The West (1992), playing Papa Reilly, an alcoholic single father, in Jim Sheridan’s charming fable, a mythic tale of redemption which offered Irish lore, travelers, and a magical white horse. Working with a fine cast of Irish co-stars, including David Kelly and Colm Meaney, as well as his wife, Ellen Barkin, the film was shot entirely in Ireland and remains one of his most popular, with children and adults alike. Now considered a classic, Gabriel served as associate producer of the film and continued his journey as a prominent force in Ireland’s film industry. In what must have seemed like a fun change of pace, Gabriel next essayed the cartoonist who creates the Cool World (1992) of Ralph Bakshi’s mix of live action and animation, with Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger. He later remembered the experience as “like being sedated for three months.”
Continuing to make a name for himself in American film, in Point of No Return (1993), he played a secret agent for an unnamed organization who oversees the training of a drug offender turned hit woman (Bridget Fonda). Later that year, he romanced two women – one vulnerable and disturbed (Debra Winger); the other lonely and insecure (Barbara Hershey) – in A Dangerous Woman (1993), a sensitively-handled drama from director Stephen Gyllenhaal. He vied with Steve Martin for the love and custody of a little girl in A Simple Twist of Fate (1994), his first of three films with co-star Laura Linney, and played an obsessive U.S. Attorney in Trial by Jury (1994) with able support from bad guy Armand Assante. He caused hearts to flutter as the German philosophy professor who sweeps Jo (Winona Ryder) off her feet in Little Women (1994), a role he actively sought, telling the producers it was his favorite book growing up in Ireland. His achievement in the role has stood the test of time–it seems there can be only one Friedrich Bhaer.
And, speaking of books, Pictures In My Head, his memoir published in 1994, was praised by The Independent: “He records the events of his life with a merciless, moving, and extraordinarily perceptive eye. Byrne magically captures the moment.” Now a successful author, Gabriel went on to attain his highest screen profile since Miller’s Crossing, starring as a corrupt cop-turned-thief in The Usual Suspects (1995), Bryan Singer’s excellent neo-noir thriller about a gang of thieves recruited by a mysterious underworld figure to stop a massive drug deal. They learn too late that they are pawns in a much bigger game. Kevin Spacey took home an Oscar for his work as Verbal Kint in the film, but everyone remembers Gabriel’s smoldering Dean Keaton, and Keaton would go on to become the character for which he is most often recognized. He next teamed with Matt Dillon and Anne Parillaud for Frankie Starlight (1995), a gentle and poignant period romance that saw him fall in love with a French woman (Anne Parillaud) after he helps her enter post-World War II Ireland.
In 1996, the increasingly busy Gabriel co-starred with Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch’s revisionist Western Dead Man; he was on screen for about one minute, but recalls the shoot with fondness because it afforded him a chance to talk with Robert Mitchum, an idol from Gabriel’s Wild West movie phase when he was a young film buff. He headlined the Irish story of star-crossed lovers This Is the Sea (1997), with Samantha Morton and Richard Harris, a film about Northern Ireland during the ceasefire. He then co-wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in the charming teen romance The Last of the High Kings, based on the book by Irish writer Ferdia Mac Anna. It was eventually released on video in the United States as Summer Fling in 1998. This was merely the first screenplay to come from Gabriel. He always maintained his love of his language, writing Draíocht (Magic), the first drama in Irish on Ireland’s national Irish television station, TG4, that same year. In 1997, his continued admiration for European film-making led him to star in Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence and Smilla’s Sense of Snow, directed by Bille August. His characters in both films are mysterious and slightly dangerous good guys–he manages to survive in one, at least. Polish Wedding (1998) found him starring with Lena Olin (as his wife) and Claire Danes (as his daughter), and navigating a Polish accent, in Theresa Connelly’s poetic film.
Meanwhile, he displayed a taste for horsemanship, swordplay, and roses as the noble d’Artagnan in the historical adventure The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), which also featured Leonardo Di Caprio in a dual role and an international group as the Musketeers: Gerard Depardieu, Jeremy Irons, and John Malkovich. His work as the romantic and principled d’Artagnan continues to break the hearts of Gabriel Byrne fans around the world.
With his place in Hollywood now firmly established, Gabriel was free to choose his projects, even if the first one happened to be a small role in the paranoia-inspiring thriller Enemy of the State (1998). In a nod to his former days as a priest-in-training, he played Father Andrew Kiernan in Stigmata (1999), a pulse-pounding, music video-inspired religious thriller that paired him with Patricia Arquette, and then flipped to the other side to play Satan in End of Days (1999), with Arnold Schwarzenegger. These films were released in the midst of the millennial apocalyptic craze; Y2K turned out to be the year of the black Armani coat, which, ironically, he wore in both movies. But whether he was playing a man of God (who also happened to be a scientist) or the human incarnation of evil, he proved that his presence in the cast could enliven thrillers of any stripe. His next role would forgo the silver screen altogether, however.
After two decades away from the stage, Gabriel had the starring role in the Broadway revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten (2000), Eugene O’Neill’s transcendent drama of guilt and forgiveness. His harrowing performance as the guilt-wracked James Tyrone Jr. received overwhelming praise by critics and theatergoers alike. His handling of the heart-wrenching monologue – particularly where James confesses his sins to human angel Josie (Cherry Jones) – proved more than compelling. He was able to shift from emotional detachment to extreme candidness with unusually moving grace. His co-star called his experience with the monologue each night on stage “climbing the mountain.” Gabriel called it “running a marathon.” Ben Brantley, writing for the New York Times, observed: “Mr. Byrne’s long third-act monologue…is a harrowing act of self-administered surgery, etched in escalating degrees of pain. It is, in a word, brilliant, itself the stuff of theatrical legend.”
Always looking for ways to expand his pursuits, Gabriel took on network television with a starring role in the short-lived sitcom Madigan Men (ABC, 2000-01), playing a recently divorced Irishman who routinely receives romantic advice from his teen-aged son Luke (John Hensley) and widowed father Seamus (Roy Dotrice). He maintained numerous producing projects on his slate, including Mad About Mambo (2000), a Belfast-set coming-of-age tale produced by his own Plurabelle Films. Meanwhile, he continued to be in-demand as a character actor, happily toiling away with parts in such mainstream films as Ghost Ship (2002), a supernatural thriller in which he played a salvage ship captain whose crew encounters a mysterious ocean liner lost at sea. Critics though the first ten minutes of the film were its most memorable, but fans found Gabriel’s Captain Murphy appealing, if sadly doomed.
In Spider (2002), helmed by critically acclaimed director David Cronenberg and based on Patrick McGrath’s book, he essayed the challenging role of the father of a psychologically damaged man (Ralph Fiennes) recently released from a mental institution—a man who may or may not be telling the truth about his childhood trauma. About his role as Spider’s father, Gabriel noted: “It’s a very difficult thing, to tread the line between being a bad man in the eyes of a child and being real for the audience, so that the audience understands the story. So, its actually very slippery and it’s probably the most difficult role I’ve ever played in my life.” After a brief turn in Shade (2004), an indie about poker hustlers, Gabriel appeared in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Thackerey’s Vanity Fair (2004), playing the seductively titled and privileged Marquess of Steyne, who offers Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) all she wants – for a price.
His next film, the remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 thriller, Assault On Precinct 13 (2005), provided Gabriel with what Roger Ebert characterized as “one of his thankless roles in which he is hard, taciturn, and one-dimensional enough to qualify for Flatland.” Wah-Wah (2005), on the other hand, revealed him at his best. He played an alcoholic father trying to raise his son and hold on to two strong women (played by Miranda Richardson and Emily Watson) in Richard E. Grant’s autobiographical story about growing up in Swaziland at the end of the 1960’s, as that country looked forward to independence. Gabriel’s work as Grant’s father in the film ranges from broad and sly comedy to heart-breakingly vulnerable drama; he remains good friends with the director to this day. A break in his world travels saw Gabriel essay the role of the self-deceiving, “rhetoric-spouting, alcoholic windbag,” Cornelius Melody, in another haunting performance of an O’Neill play on Broadway: A Touch of the Poet. Variety notes: “In Byrne’s capable hands, these ricocheting extremes are as compelling for the audience as they are unnerving for the bruised figures around him.”
In Jindabyne (2006), based on Raymond Carver’s short story “So Much Water So Close To Home” and directed by Ray Lawrence, he was a gas station owner in Australia who heads off on a fishing trip with his pals and discovers the body of a young Aboriginal woman in the river. The men do not call the police, choosing instead to continue with their fishing trip. This causes serious repercussions when they return home. Laura Linney plays Claire, the empathetic wife of Gabriel’s stoic Stewart. The shoot was a remarkable experience for him: “This is a film that makes you think about your life. I remember Ray saying to me, I think you should do this film. It would be really nice if you came to Australia and did it. It would be a work experience but I think it would be an important spiritual experience for you. That is what stuck with me. Nobody has ever said that to me before as a reason to do a film.” Gabriel followed one remarkable portrayal with another: Christopher in Emotional Arithmetic (2007), based on Matt Cohen’s beloved book, which paired him with Susan Sarandon as childhood survivors of the Holocaust, now grown up and discovering one another again. That year also brought him recognition from his peers, including the first Volta Award for Lifetime Achievement in Acting, presented by the Dublin International Film Festival; an honorary degree by the National University of Ireland, Galway–the president of the University, Dr Iognáid Ó Muircheartaigh, said that this award is in recognition of the actor’s “outstanding contribution to Irish and international film”– and the Honorary Patronage of the University Philosophical Society of Trinity College, Dublin.
Back on television, Gabriel starred in one of the most provocative and talked-about cable shows of the decade, In Treatment (HBO, 2008-2010). He played Dr. Paul Weston, an apparently successful psychotherapist and family man whose personal life begins to unravel and whose intimate involvement with his patients proves problematic. Each 30-minute episode illustrated a therapy session involving a single patient; these episodes aired consecutive days each week, mimicking Dr. Weston’s week, and showcased a regular set of patients (the stellar cast included Blair Underwood, Mia Wasikowska, Dianne Wiest, Alison Pill, Irrfan Khan, Hope Davis, and Amy Ryan). While critics adored it and audiences were a bit more skeptical, there was no conflict over Gabriel’s performance. In 2008, he earned an Emmy nod for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, losing out to Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad).
Gabriel then received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Television Series – Drama, which he promptly won. That same year, he portrayed King Arthur in the Lincoln Center revival of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot (a fun turn after having played Arthur’s father in Excalibur) and was the subject of a documentary, Gabriel Byrne: Stories From Home, directed by Pat Collins.
2009 brought another face-off with Bryan Cranston for an Emmy Award in the lead actor category, thanks to Gabriel’s remarkable performance in the second season of In Treatment, which was renewed for a third and final time. The following year found him preparing to help bring Flann O’Brien’s difficult and funny book “At Swim-Two-Birds” to the big screen, with a screenplay and direction provided by compatriot Brendan Gleeson, but progress stalled due to funding issues.
Taking a break from acting, Gabriel assumed a new role as the first Cultural Ambassador for Ireland. For the next two years, he worked tirelessly to promote the Irish arts in America and to connect with the Irish diaspora. His activities included speeches and presentations to the global Irish community, curating film festivals, and representing Ireland at numerous events in both the United States and Ireland. He soon returned to acting, starring with film icon Charlotte Rampling in her son Barnaby Southcombe’s first feature film, the neo-noir thriller I, Anna (2012) and also re-uniting with legendary director Costa-Gavras to bring the acidic financial dramedy Capital (2012) to the big screen, with co-star Gad Elmaleh. Writing for Variety, critic Joe Leydon says of Gabriel’s performance as the hedge fund shark Dittmar Rigule: “Byrne amusingly devours huge swaths of scenery with uninhibited relish.” In the same year, the small screen saw Gabriel take on the role of Tom Dawkins, the British Prime Minister in Chris Mullins’ A Very British Coup, now re-adapted as Secret State, for UK’s Channel 4. His portrayal of the beleaguered left-of-center leader evoked more than one demand for “Gabriel Byrne for PM!” on Twitter.
Gabriel continued to work in both film and television in 2013. His films included All Things to All Men, a UK-based thriller that failed to thrill most viewers, despite the triple threat of Mr. Byrne, Rufus Sewell, and Toby Stephens. His second film that year proved more successful and infinitely more memorable. Just A Sigh (AKA Le temps de l’aventure), written and directed by Jérôme Bonnell and co-starring the always radiant Emmanuelle Devos, was tender, delicately acted, and deeply romantic. Set in Paris in June, on the day of the Fête de la Musique, the story avoided cliché by providing refreshing humor and depicting adult passion realistically. Gabriel’s work in the film was a reminder that stories calling for romance, delicate or steamy, were not off the table. The film was greeted with positive reviews, both in the US and in Europe. The surprise that year was Vikings, the History Channel’s first scripted series. Taking on the role of Earl Haraldson, Gabriel brought a gritty realism to the character. Unshaven, malevolent, and tortured by the past, the sword-fighting Haraldson was an engaging, if not long-lived, departure from English professors and mobsters. Part of a resurgence in the film industry in Ireland, where it shoots every year, the series continues without him.
The following year was defined by books. Vampire Academy (2014) was based on the first book of Richelle Mead’s young adult series and managed only a small bite at the box office, but offered audiences Gabriel’s first foray into the world of preternatural beings who prey, in this case, on high school students. It was a witty script and his was a witty and accomplished portrayal. Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, as the saying goes, Quirke was an incisive and atmospheric drama, set in 1950’s Dublin and based on the books by John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black. This 3-episode BBC mini-series transferred Dr. Quirke, Gabriel’s character, from page to screen. Banville’s emotionally scarred pathologist was a man who lived “among the dead” and sought to discover, not only how, but why each victim ended up on his slab. Discussing the actor chosen to play his creation, Banville called Gabriel Byrne “the real thing.”
Four films in 2015 provided two different kinds of roles: leading and supporting. Gabriel worked with Juliette Binoche in a supporting capacity on Endless Night, Isabel Coixet’s study of two women waiting for the same man, explorer Robert Peary, in the frozen landscape of the Arctic, and followed this with a film shot in Chile and Colombia, The 33, in which Gabriel portrayed the real-life engineer André Sougarret, who helped mastermind the rescue of the men trapped in the copper mine in the Atacama desert of Chile. His next two films offered Gabriel the spotlight. No Pay, Nudity was directed by Broadway stage veteran Lee Wilkof and it provided Gabriel with a rare comedic lead role in a story about acting and career ennui; his co-stars included Nathan Lane and Frances Conroy. Finally, Louder Than Bombs presented Gabriel at the pinnacle of his artistic powers as Gene, a father, husband, and teacher, coping with the loss of his wife and trying to connect with his often-volatile sons. Directed by Joachim Trier in his first English language feature, it competed at Cannes. Isabelle Huppert, Jesse Eisenberg, and Devin Druid rounded out the family in extremis. The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane praised his portrayal: “Byrne is marvelously grave.” A. O. Scott at The New York Times was even more succinct, calling his work “impeccable.”
In 2016, the boards called once again, and Gabriel took on his third great Eugene O’Neill role: James Tyrone Sr. in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for which he received a Tony nomination in the category Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play. His portrayal was described as “quietly commanding” and “humanly warm yet inhumanly fierce.” Those fortunate enough to see him on stage will never forget his powerful presence there. Ben Brantley noted: “As the selfish, scared Tyrone Sr., Mr. Byrne gives such a beautiful performance — a haunted and haunting incarnation of fraying majesty — that, for once, I found myself waiting eagerly for his character’s windy, self-explanatory monologue in the second half.”
And then, suddenly, Gabriel was on the small screen again, in a one-episode spot in the Netflix original series Marco Polo, playing Pope Gregory X, scheming against the Mongol Horde as though the papal mitre were a weapon. It was a brief but memorable surprise.
His next three films showed off Gabriel’s range. In Mad to be Normal (2017), the story of psychiatrist R. D. Laing and his community at Kingsley Hall, he played a patient prone to violent outbursts. Robert Mullan wrote and directed this intriguing biopic, which was filmed in the UK and also starred David Tennant (as Laing), Elisabeth Moss, and Michael Gambon. Gabriel segued from psychological drama to comedy in Carrie Pilby, playing Bel Powley’s dad in the film based on the book by Caren Lissner. His co-stars included Nathan Lane, Donna Murphy, and Frances Conroy. The film premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival to enthusiastic reviews.
Finally, back in the UK, this time in Yorkshire, heavy drama ensued with Lies We Tell (2017), first time director Mitu Misra’s story about a young woman caught between her family’s past and her own beckoning future. Sibylla Deen and Harvey Keitel co-star.
The following year saw a strong emphasis on the future: speculative fiction, young writers, performers, and directors, and cutting edge technologies all figured in Gabriel’s projects in 2018. In The Cloud was a science fiction thriller, penned by actor/writer Vanya Asher, that premiered on Crackle, Sony’s streaming service, and starred Gabriel as the mastermind behind software designed to store a human being’s consciousness and memories to “the cloud,” or virtual space. That’s about as cutting edge as you can get! The comedy An L. A Minute co-starred Kiersey Clemons, “an undeniable talent on the rise.” Gabriel plays a jaded writer who is shaken out of his complacency by his experience with a young performance artist. Maniac continues the speculative fiction trend–Gabriel portrayed the father of Jonah Hill’s character, a troubled young man who volunteers for a pharmaceutical trial during which “things do not go as planned.” Emma Stone joins him in this experiment in drugs, psychology, and story-telling. Inventive and visually stunning, this Netflix series, directed by Cary Fukunaga, received raves from critics and viewers alike. Finally, in a stunning change of pace, Gabriel took on his first horror role in many years, starring with Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro in Hereditary. Written and directed by Ari Aster, in his remarkable feature film debut, it was lauded as the most original horror film in recent memory: “uncommonly unsettling,” “supremely effective,” and “harrowing” were the critical consensus.
As it happens, though, one of the most memorable Gabriel Byrne appearances in 2018 was in real life. In February of that year, in a lovely ceremony, he was awarded the Irish Film and Television Academy Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to Irish cinema. His heartfelt acceptance speech is memorable because he speaks so eloquently about his own experience as a struggling artist, and he offers sound advice to those following in his footsteps.
Gabriel’s current projects in the pipeline include the Netflix film Lost Girls, TV series ZeroZeroZero and a modern re-telling of War of the Worlds, and feature film Death of a Ladies’ Man, based on the music of Leonard Cohen.
Gabriel Byrne likes to keep his private life just that: private. There are three items of note, however: It is rumored that he is continuing to work on a second volume of auto-biographical stories, the sequel to his first, Pictures in My Head. In August 2014, he married Hannah Beth King, a film producer and director in her own right, in a private ceremony in Ireland. And in February 2017, Gabriel and Hannah Beth welcomed their new baby daughter to the world!
The original text of this biography is from Fancast. It has been edited beyond all recognition and brought up-to-date by Stella. heart