Hollywood star Liam Neeson insisted on Tuesday he was "not racist" after confessing that he once set out to attack a random black man after a friend of his told him she had been raped.
"I'm not a racist," Neeson said on ABC News, although he admitted he had felt a "primal urge to lash out" about 40 years ago after hearing from his close friend that she had been raped by a black man.
"I went out deliberately into black areas in the city, looking to be set upon," the 66-year-old star of Schindler's List said, recalling that he went out several times carrying a "cosh," a type of bludgeon, hoping a black person would pick a fight.
He made those comments to the British newspaper The Independent earlier this week while promoting his new thriller Cold Pursuit, about a father seeking revenge after his son is murdered by a drug gang.
"I'm ashamed to say that and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some black bastard would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could... kill him," he told the newspaper.
"It was horrible, horrible when I think back, that I did that. And I've never admitted that," he said, refusing to reveal the name of the woman or when the incident occurred.
In the end, no violence occurred and Neeson added: "It shocked me and it hurt me... I did seek help. I went to a priest."
While the star of Taken – a hit film about a former CIA agent trying to track down his kidnapped daughter – insisted he was not racist, he said his reaction underscored the need for a broader debate on race in society.
He told the newspaper that when he asked the rape victim if she knew who the attacker was, she didn't. He then asked, "What colour were they?" and she said "black."
"If she had said an Irish or a Scot or a Brit or a Lithuanian I would – I know I would – have had the same effect. I was trying to show honour, to stand up for my dear friend in this terribly medieval fashion," the Northern Irish actor was quoted by the newspaper as saying.
His remarks triggered widespread condemnation.
Charles Blow, an African American columnist for The New York Times, asked on Twitter if a black actor could have got away with the same thing: "Could Will Smith confess to stalking the streets of Los Angeles for a whole week searching for random white men to kill and get a pass?"
Kovie Biakolo, an African American editor at the BuzzFeed news site, noted a similarity between Neeson's desire for violent confrontation with a black man and George Zimmerman's killing of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Florida in 2012.
"Today is Trayvon's birthday and I had a thought: What's the distance between Liam Neeson and George Zimmerman? It gave me pause," she wrote on Twitter.
However, former England footballer John Barnes, who suffered racist abuse during his career, defended Neeson. The actor "deserves a medal" for his speaking honestly, Barnes said.
Barnes, who is black, told Sky News that Neeson responded in the way he did because "this is what society has shown him, that black people do, Muslims do – this is what society has wrongly shown him. This is what the media have wrongly portrayed to him."
In his interview with The Independent, Neeson said he learned the "need for revenge" while growing up in Northern Ireland during years of sectarian violence known as "The Troubles" in the British province.
Neeson's acting career has spanned four decades and included two voice roles in The Chronicles of Narnia series.