21 February 1946 – 14 January 2016
British actor Alan Rickman, whose career ranged from Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company to the Harry Potter films, has died. He was 69.
His sonorous, languid voice was his calling card – making even throwaway lines of dialogue sound thought-out and authoritative.
It could also be laced with threat, something he employed to great effect in Die Hard, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the eight Potter films, where he played scheming potions master Severus Snape.
But he could also take on romantic leads, as in Anthony Minghella’s 1991 drama Truly, Madly, Deeply and later turned his hand to directing.
Born in Acton, west London, Rickman was the second of four children for Margaret Doreen Rose, a housewife, and Bernard Rickman, a painter and decorator.
His father died of lung cancer when he was just eight years old, leaving his mother to seek out work to feed her family.
“She was a tigress,” he later said. “She could do anything. She had various jobs, she got trained in various others, she always reinvented herself.”
The young Rickman showed an interest in the arts from an early age and trained in graphic design and typography at the Royal Academy of Art, writing for the college journal, ARK while he was there.
After graduation he opened a graphic design studio, Graphiti, with several friends – but theatre was always lurking in the background and after three years he quit to become an assistant stage manager at the small Basement Theatre Company.
Then, aged 26, he found himself posting a letter to Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) asking for an audition. To his surprise, he was accepted.
“Fortunately I wasn’t actually the oldest person there,” he later reflected.
Upon graduation, he worked for a number of repertory companies before becoming a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), sharing a house in Stratford with Ruby Wax.
But he left after a season, disillusioned by the company and declaring he wanted to “learn how to talk to other actors on stage rather than bark at them”.
He was soon seduced by the small screen, playing Tybalt in a BBC production of Romeo and Juliet (1978) and taking roles in Smiley’s People and The Barchester Chronicles (both 1982).
A return to the RSC in 1985 was more rewarding as the actor, having shed some of his youthful angst, took the starring role in Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
He portrayed the drawling sexual connoisseur Vicomte de Valmont, who “slips sly and inscrutable through the action like a cat who knows the way to the cream,” said the Guardian in its original review.
Rickman’s co-star, Lindsay Duncan, was less coy – saying the audiences would leave the theatre wanting to have sex “and preferably with Alan Rickman”.
The show transferred to the West End and then to Broadway, where the actor secured the first of two Tony nominations.
His next role – as sharp-tongued terrorist Hans Gruber in Die Hard – was to make him internationally famous. As he squared off against a sweaty Bruce Willis, his urbane put-downs and coldly-calculated violence helped raise the film above the standard blockbuster fare.
The actor also provoked a showdown on the set when he refused to throw fellow actress Bonnie Bedelia to the floor, as required by the script.
“My character was very civilised in a strange sort of way and just wouldn’t have behaved like that,” he said. “Nor would Bonnie’s character, a self-possessed career woman, have allowed him to. It was a stereotype – woman as eternal victim – that they hadn’t even thought about.”
The star brought similar thoughtfulness to his later roles, notably Truly, Madly Deeply – in which he played the ghost of Juliet Stevenson’s boyfriend, who comes back to ease her grief.
He continued to essay villains, stealing scenes from Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, as he screamed “No more merciful beheadings and call off Christmas!”
And his sensitive portrayal of Severus Snape allowed audiences a glimpse of the character’s anguished past long before JK Rowling revealed it in the books.
“He had a real understanding of the character and now looking back, you can see there was always more going on there – a look, an expression, a sentiment – that hint at what is to come,” said the franchise’s producer, David Heyman.
“The shadow that he casts in these films is a huge one and the emotion he conveys is immeasurable.”
But Rickman was no method actor – stepping out of character to playing pranks on his fellow cast members, some of which were caught on camera.
His other film credits included Sweeney Todd, Michael Collins, Dogma and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which he brought pathos to the voice of eternally depressed robot Marvin The Paranoid Android. (Rickman’s own distinctive voice, he later revealed, was a speech impediment caused by restricted movement in his jaw – a condition with which he was born.)
He worked often with Emma Thompson, after being cast as Col Brandon in her adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. He went on to play her (unfaithful) husband in Love Actually and later directed her in Scottish drama The Winter Guest, his first film behind the camera.
His second film as director, A Little Chaos, starred another Sense and Sensibility cast member, Kate Winslet, as Sabine, who is chosen to build one of the main gardens at King Louis XIV’s new palace at Versailles.
While promoting the film, Rickman, who also played King Louis, spoke of the difficulty of holding down two jobs on set, quoting his friend Ralph Fiennes, who told him: “The danger of directing yourself is that you are embarrassed about going for another take.”
On stage, he reunited with Liaisons Dangereuses director Howard Davies and co-star Lindsay Duncan in 2002 for Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which transferred to Broadway after a successful run in London, earning Rickman his second Tony nod.
Less successful was his 1996 interpretation of Hamlet, which was panned by critics who called it “a palpable miss”.
Other stage performances included Mark Antony opposite Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra at the Olivier Theatre in London and the title role in Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 2010.
He also directed the award-winning 2005 play My Name is Rachel Corrie about the American student who was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in the Gaza Strip.
The star was notoriously reluctant to discuss the art of acting, saying it was “too, too hard” to explain. But speaking to Bafta last year, he described his profession as “the act of giving yourself over to once upon a time”.
Rickman is survived by his wife Rima Horton, who he met as a teenager in art school and married in New York last year.
He had completed several films before his death, including Eye in the Sky, about drone warfare in Kenya, which is due for release in March and Tim Burton’s Alice Through the Looking Glass.