Obituary: Alan Rickman, actor

Alan Rickman, actor, director and activist best known for his villainous roles on the big screen. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Alan Rickman, actor, director and activist best known for his villainous roles on the big screen. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Born: 21 February, 1946, in London. Died: 14 January, 2016 in London, aged 69.

Alan Rickman made a career playing evil characters and brought to them all a creepy villainy. His lethargic – almost languid – diction gave all his screen villains a genuine touch of menace.

Audiences squirmed as he scoffed phrases such as “Call off Christmas” in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But it was Rickman’s Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films for which he will be widely remembered. In his jet black wig and white make-up he cut a, mysterious figure. In one dramatic scene with Daniel Radcliffe’s Potter, Rickman spits out: “How extraordinarily like your father you are. He too was exceedingly arrogant… Don’t lie to me, Potter.”

Like all Rickman’s performances, the professor was beautifully thought through and came alive in the hands of a consummate actor.

Rickman began his career as a stage actor and was renowned for his Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) roles in the Eighties – most notably in the original stage version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

At the beginning of his career, Rickman made two significant visits to the Edinburgh Festival. In 1976 he was a member of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company, firstly playing Friar Peter in Measure for Measure and then Wittipol in Ben Johnson’s The Devil is an Ass. In 1981 he gave a startling performance in the world premiere of a stage version of the Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov with the Brighton Theatre Company. Allen Wright in The Scotsman wrote of Rickman: “It would be ­harder to imagine a better performance.”

He attended Glasgow Film Festival last year to support A Little Chaos, a movie which he directed and appeared in. The film, starring Kate Winslet, told of the creation of the gardens at Versailles.

Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman’s father died when he was eight. He won a scholarship to Latymer Upper School and showed a talent for drawing as well as drama. He attended Chelsea College of Art and on graduating worked as a graphic designer. In 1972 he auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada), paying his fees by working as a dresser for Ralph Richardson and Nigel Hawthorne in the evenings.

After seasons with various companies he joined the RSC and in 1986 played the seductive male lead in Les Liaisons…. Christopher Hampton’s play was an immediate hit, with one critic writing: “Rickman with that drawling voice steeped in languor, and that impassive countenance, slips sly and inscrutable through the action like a cat who knows the way to the cream.” The success was repeated on Broadway and the play made Rickman a star.

In 1988 he was cast as the German terrorist Hans Gruber in Die Hard, starring Bruce Willis. Rickman came to a sticky end in the movie: he was dropped 70ft and only one take was necessary. Rickman admitted that “the look of total fear on my face was genuine”. The film made him known in America and his performance made the movie a cult classic.

Robin Hood with Kevin Costner followed. Rickman apparently turned down the Sheriff part twice but the producers won him over by saying he had carte blanche in how he delivered the character. Rickman made the Sheriff as menacing and fiendish as possible and won a Bafta.

He delighted in playing the ambiguous master of potions in Harry Potter: apparently devious and petty minded but underneath, well-meaning and good. Rickman captured those qualities with enthusiastic cunning. When JK Rowling offered him the part of Snape she assured Rickman that there was more to him, “than an unchanging costume”.

The author wrote on social media yesterday: “There are no words to express how shocked and devastated I am to hear of Alan Rickman’s death. He was a magnificent actor & a wonderful man.”

In 1997 Rickman adapted and directed Sharman Macdonald’s Scotland-set play The Winter Guest, with Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson. Other movies included Sense and Sensibility and Love Actually (both with Thompson), Perfume: the Story of a Murder (with Dustin Hoffman); Sweeney Todd and The Butler, in which he played Ronald Reagan with typical insight.

He returned to the stage and was in a memorable National Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra with Helen Mirren in 1998, and was in London and New York in Private Lives with Lindsay Duncan in 2002.

Rickman was born “a card-carrying member of the Labour Party”. He devoted much time to the charities Saving Faces and International Performers’ Aid Trust.

He was an actor who liked to take on challenges. After his success as scheming baddies he could have gone to Hollywood and been cast as the stereotypical English rotter. But he chose not to follow that path and delighted in surprising fans by avoiding typecasting. Once asked if he had regrets that he had never won an Oscar, he replied: “Parts win prizes, not actors.”

Rickman married his long-time partner Rima Horton in 2012. She survives him.