A Smooth Criminal
By Ed Garea
He was the most suave villain to hit the silver screen since Basil Rathbone, and like Rathbone he endowed his characters with a sort of cultured dignity to disguise the fact that their motivations were no different than an ordinary villain.
Alan Rickman, the accomplished British stage actor who proved equally successful in the world of film and television, died on January 14 at the age of 69.
Catherine Olim, a publicist, confirmed Rickman’s death, stating the cause was pancreatic cancer.
During a career that spanned more than 40 years, Rickman, known for his sonorous voice and often inscrutable smile, played a host of characters who, while suave and knowing on the outside, were often wrought by their own inner complicated motivations and emotions.
He was born Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman in Acton, west London, on February 21, 1946, the second of four children of Margaret Doreen Rose (Bartlett), a housewife, and Bernard Rickman, a painter and decorator. When only eight years old, his father died, leaving his mother to raise him and his three siblings mostly on her own, save for a brief marriage that lasted three years.
The young Rickman attended Derwentwater Primary School in Acton, Derwentwater Junior School, and then Latymer Upper School in London, where he became involved in drama. After leaving Latymer, he attended Chelsea College of Art and Design and later the Royal College of Art, where he trained in graphic design and typography, writing for the college journal, ARK, while he was there. His first job was as a graphic designer for the Notting Hill Herald, which Rickman considered to be a more stable profession than acting. Later, he opened his own graphic arts studio, called Graphiti, with several friends.
But the acting bug was still there, and after three years of business success, Rickman decided to pursue acting as a full-time career, taking a job as an assistant stage manager at the small Basement Theatre Company. He was awarded a place at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, which he attended from 1972 to 1974, studying Shakespeare and supporting himself by working as a dresser for Sir Nigel Hawthorne and Sir Ralph Richardson.
After graduation, Rickman worked in British repertory and experimental groups. He also performed with the Copurt Drama Group and the Royal Shakespeare Company, with whom he had on of his early successes, being cast as the manipulative Vicomte de Valmont in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He earned a Tony Award nomination when the production moved to Broadway in 1987.
His next role made him famous – that of urbane, sharp-tongued terrorist Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988). Matched against the Cagneyesque John McClane, the resourceful cop played by Bruce Willis, his elegant put-downs and coldly calculated violence helped raise the film above the standard action film.
Rickman played Hans Gruber for all he was worth, wringing every drop of malicious venom from Gruber’s swaggering speech. When finally meeting his adversary after being frustrated time and again, his delivery is wickedly perfect: “Who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?”
In one scene as he’s negotiating with the authorities, Gruber recites a list of terrorists he wants freed. After finishing, he’s asked by his assistant whether he thinks the authorities will actually release those he mentioned. “Who cares?” he says coolly.
Rickman said later in an interview that he got the role of Hans Gruber because he came so cheap: “They were paying Willis $7 million so they had to find people they could pay nothing."
But even as an actor appearing in his first big Hollywood production, Rickman managed to influence his surroundings. It was his idea to dress immaculately in a designer suit to further accent the differences between Gruber, the urbane thief, and McClane, the proletariat cop. In a later interview with GQ magazine, Rickman recalled how he temporarily shut production down when he refused to knock fellow actress Bonnie Bedelia to the ground as demanded by the script. "My character was very civilized in a strange sort of way and just wouldn’t have behaved like that," he told the interviewer. "Nor would Bonnie’s character, a self-possessed career woman, have allowed him to. It was a stereotype – the woman as eternal victim – that they hadn’t even thought about. Basically, they wanted a reason for her shirt to burst open. We talked our way around it – her shirt still burst open, but at least she stayed upright."
After playing an Australian rancher who tries to kill Tom Sellick in Quigley Down Under (1990), Rickman took a role that further cemented his typecasting as a villain – that of the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. His over-the-top performance was so mesmerizing that he stole the film from its star, Kevin Coster, who reportedly had some of Rickman’s scenes cut or reduced in the editing room. But who can forget the Sheriff’s disgust when asking a scribe about the popularity of Robin Hood: “That's it then. Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas!”
When he received a Bafta for his work, he said, “I'll take this as a healthy reminder that subtlety . . . isn't everything.”
Wary of typecasting, Rickman sought and accepted roles such as that of Jamie, the late boyfriend of Nina (Juliet Stevenson) who returns as a ghost to ease her grief in Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deeply (1990).
In 1995, he attracted critical acclaim as the honorable Colonel Brandon in Sense And Sensibility, opposite his close friend Emma Thompson, who offered him the role. His acting partnership with Thompson also led to roles in 2003's Love, Actually, in which they played husband and wife, and the 2010 BBC drama, The Song Of Lunch.
Rickman also took on broad comedy, playing Alexander Dane in the 1999 sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest, about the cast of a fanatically loved television show who haven’t been able to find work since it went off the air and have had to earn their living appearing at fan conventions and the like. Rickman gave a marvelously dry performance as Dane, who played the I-am-actually-not-my-strange-looking-alien character, Dr. Lazarus, a parody of Leonard Nimoy.
In 2001, Rickman took on the role of Severus Snape, the sarcastic instructor at the Hogwarts school from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of novels, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Although the character began as Harry’s nemesis, as the series progressed, Snape ultimately turned out to be a man who had young Harry’s best interests at heart.
In a 2012 interview with The New York Times, Rickman shared his ruminations over the character of Snape, saying that he signed on to the series without a clear idea of how the character would evolve over the course of the series, and finding the last film “very cathartic because you were finally able to see who he was.”
Besides film, Rickman also starred in television roles. During a hiatus from the RSC in 1982, Rickman played the Reverend Obadiah Slope in the BBC's adaptation of Barchester Towers, The Barchester Chronicles. He had earlier played the role of Vidal in the 1980 BBC adaptation of Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin.
He also had a couple of outings behind the camera, directing Emma Thompson and her mother, Phyllida Law, in the 1997 Scotland-based drama The Winter Guest. And in 2014, he directed and starred as French King Louis XIV alongside Kate Winslet (with whom he had starred in Sense and Sensibility) – in A Little Chaos.
In his private life, Rickman met his partner Rima Horton in 1965 while in the amateur Group Court Drama Club, when he was 19 and she was 18. They lived together from 1977 until his death. In 2012, Rickman announced that he and Horton had secretly married in a private ceremony in New York City. Horton was a Labour Party councilor on the Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council from 1986 to 2006 and an economics lecturer at Kingston University. They had no children.
In his spare time, Rickman supported many charities and was an honorary president of the International Performers' Aid Trust, a charity that alleviates poverty in some of the world's toughest conditions.
When talking about politics, Rickman has said he “was born a card-carrying member of the Labour Party.”
In August 2015, Rickman suffered a minor stroke, which lead to the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He concealed the fact he was terminally ill from all except a few close friends. He died on January 14, 2016, in a London hospital. A family statement simply said: “The actor and director Alan Rickman has died from cancer at the age of 69. He was surrounded by family and friends.”
Rickman will be seen in two films completed before his death: Eye in the Sky, a thriller about drone warfare in which he stars alongside Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul to be released in March; and Alice Through The Looking Glass, scheduled for release in May, in which he plays the voiceover for the Blue Caterpillar.