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Liam Neeson fights to recover after sharing racist episode

After sparking a scandal by recalling a racist episode from his distant past, Irish actor Liam Neeson is now battling to save his career - a task experts predict will be difficult but not impossible.

While promoting his new revenge thriller Cold Pursuit, which opens here on Feb 21, the 66-year-old told The Independent of London that more than 40 years ago, he was enraged to learn of a friend's rape by a man she said was black.

In a candid interview, he recounted how he spent days roaming city streets, a bludgeon in hand, looking for a "black bastard" he could "kill".

His unvarnished words sent shockwaves across the media landscape, and while he has apologised - insisting he was "not racist" - far from everyone was satisfied.

For African-American director Ava DuVernay, whose films Selma and 13th explored episodes in America's racially fraught history, Neeson symbolises a sort of "white privilege" that will tolerate actions that would not be accepted from a black man.

"Imagine if this was Will Smith," she tweeted.

On social media, some demanded that Neeson's scenes in the upcoming film Men In Black: International be reshot with another actor.

Professor Joseph Cabosky, a University of North Carolina professor who specialises in public relations, said: "Bad actions tend to be more damaging than bad words.

"Neeson's is a bit of a unique case because it wasn't just what he said, an offensive opinion, but that what he said was attached to an actual behaviour - his sharing of a time when he thought of actual violent behaviour toward a black male."

But several crisis management specialists said the Good Morning America television interview Neeson gave the day after the controversy erupted was, at least, a good start.

"In a world where media is instant, you need to move quicker than ever before. Today's world where social media is omnipresent, you have to be very, very, very hyper-conscious," said Mr Ronn Torossian, founder of public relations agency 5WPR.

"He needs to continue to apologise and outright say that he made a mistake, rather than trying to defend his words or bring in more context. That's the only way to save his image."

"Actions speak louder than words," said Mr Steve Jaffe of Jaffe & Company, adding that Neeson needed to "be an active participant" in a dialogue about racism.

But that strategy, he and other experts caution, can work only if it is perceived as sincere and not opportunistic.

"It's easier to hear an apology from a good person than it is from somebody who's just trying to save their job," said Mr Jaffe, who has worked with former US President Bill Clinton.

None of Neeson's current projects appears threatened by the scandal.

Actors and directors have come to his defence, including actress Whoopi Goldberg, who said on ABC talk show The View: "People walk around sometimes with rage. That's what happens. Is he a bigot? No. I've known him a pretty long time, I think I would have recognised. I've been around a lot of real bigots.

"You can't be surprised that somebody whose loved one is attacked is angry and wants to go out and attack."

Actor Terry Crews tweeted: "I believe that every person on earth is capable of the greatest good, or unspeakable evil. Liam is just describing his fork in the road."

Cold Pursuit opened in North America last week and earned US$11 million (S$14.9m), a figure that tracked with industry expectations but also happens to be the worst opening for any wide release starring Neeson since 2010. - AFP

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