There was that voice, which no less an expert than Helen Mirren once said “could suggest honey or a hidden stiletto blade.” There was what Ian McKellen called that “mournful face, which was just as beautiful when wracked with mirth.” And, of course, there was that high-intensity stare, which he could train in an instant on a maverick New York City detective, a medieval “prince of thieves,” or a classroom full of would-be witches and wizards. Each of these elements, combined with a commanding presence honed by years of performing on the stage in London and New York, made Alan Rickman–who passed away this week from cancer at 69–an unforgettably intimidating screen figure since his debut in 1988.
Born in west London in February of 1946, Rickman attended the Chelsea College of Art and Design and Royal College of Art, and upon graduating he spent three years working in a graphic design studio he opened with friends. The call of performing was too strong to ignore, however, and he spent 1972-74 at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he studied Shakespeare and worked as a dresser for acting legends Ralph Richardson and Nigel Hawthorne. Throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s Alan made a name for himself across the UK stage with the Court Drama Group, Royal Shakespeare Company and other troupes, and on television in roles ranging from Tybalt in a 1978 airing of Romeo and Juliet to Obadiah Slope in 1982’s The Barchester Chronicles.
In 1985 Rickman starred as the Vicomte de Valmont in the RSC production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and, two years later, reprised the role on Broadway, which earned him a Tony nomination for Best Actor. And while he didn’t get the chance to appear in the 1988 film version, his work did bring him to the attention of producer Joel Silver and director John McTiernan, who that same year cast Alan as urbane, skyscraper-hijacking criminal mastermind Hans Gruber in the seminal actioner Die Hard.
And so began a 28-year screen career that saw the actor delight audiences in such roles as detective Kevin Kline’s painter friend in The January Man (1989); A racist, murderous Australian land baron in Quigley Down Under (1990) with Tom Selleck; The ghostly cellist boyfriend of Juliet Stevenson in Truly Madly Deeply (also ’90); and a truly villainous Sheriff of Nottingham in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner, where he made the potentially silly line “I’ll cut your heart out with a spoon!” sound truly menacing. He was Colonel Brandon in Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and played Russian “mad monk” Rasputin in the 1996 TV movie of the same name, for which he won an Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award.
Rickman ventured back into comedy in 1999 as the herald angel Metatron in Kevin Smith’s religious satire Dogma, then followed that up as Alexander Dane, a classically trained thespian who resents being best known as the alien science officer on a sci-fi TV series, in the interstellar spoof Galaxy Quest. Two scenes in particular from the latter film stand out in demonstrating the range Rickman was capable of: early on, when an exasperated Dane, sick of repeating his tube character’s catchphrase “By Grabthar’s hammer, by the suns of Worvan, you shall be avenged!,” tires of hearing fans repeat it to him; and when an ally’s fatal wounding leads him to console the dying figure with a heartfelt recital of those once-loathed words.
2001 saw Rickman first play the part that moviegoers under the age of 25 certainly know him best for, that of perpetually sneering and seemingly antagonistic Hogwarts potions teacher Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first of eight hit movies based on J.K. Rowling’s best-selling fantasy book series. Rowling, who once said that she wrote Snape’s appearance and demeanor with Rickman in mind, confided details about the character’s true motives to the actor long before they saw print, so that he would be able to bring the proper nuance to his performances. When directors would ask him about what he was doing, Alan would coyly say that he “knew more” than they did.
In between his Hogwarts duties, the 2000s found Alan reuniting with his Sense and Sensibility co-star Emma Thompson as a couple whose marriage hits a rocky patch in the all-star romantic comedy Love Actually (2003); giving voice to Marvin the Paranoid Android in 2005’s big-screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; playing the evil Judge Turpin in Tim Burton’s 2007 adaptation of the Steven Sondheim stage musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; and starring as real-life wine expert Steve Spurrier in the oenophile seriocomedy Bottle Shock (2008). He also continued to be active on the stage on both sides of the Atlantic, and in 2002 garnered his second Best Actor Tony nomination for a revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.
Rickman re-teamed with director Burton as the voice of the Caterpillar in 2010’s Alice in Wonderland (he will reprise his turn as the intellectual insect in this year’s Alice Through the Looking Glass), and portrayed a dichotomous pair of historical figures–New York punk club owner Hilly Krystal in CBGB and U.S. President Ronald Reagan in Lee Daniels’ The Butler–in 2013. His final screen appearances came as France’s 17th-century monarch Louis XIV in the 2014 costume drama A Little Chaos, which he also directed, and as a British general in favor of an anti-terrorism drone program in the timely military drama Eye in the Sky, coming out later this year.