Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman (21 February 1946 – 14 January 2016) was an English actor and director known for playing a variety of roles on stage and on screen. Rickman trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, performing in modern and classical theatre productions.
His first big television role came in 1982, but his big break was as the Vicomte de Valmont in the stage production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1985, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. Rickman gained wider notice for his film performances as Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988) and Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series.
Rickman’s other film roles included the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), for which he received the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Jamie in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991), Colonel Brandon in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995), the title character in Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny (1996), which won him a Golden Globe Award, an Emmy Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award, Harry in Love Actually (2003), P.L. O’Hara in An Awfully Big Adventure (1995), Dr. Alfred Blalock in the Emmy-winning HBO film Something the Lord Made (2004), Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest (1999), and Judge Turpin in the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).
Rickman died of pancreatic cancer on 14 January 2016 at age 69. His final film roles are as Lieutenant General Frank Benson in the thriller Eye in the Sky (2015), and the voice of Absolem, the caterpillar in Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016).
Rickman was born in Hammersmith, West London on 21 February 1946, to a working-class family, the son of Margaret Doreen Rose (née Bartlett) and Bernard William Rickman. Rickman’s mother was a housewife and his father was a factory worker, house painter and decorator, and former World War II aircraft fitter. His ancestry was English, Irish and Welsh; his father was Catholic and his mother a Methodist. Rickman’s family also included brothers David and Michael, and sister Sheila.
When he was eight years old, Rickman’s father died of lung cancer, leaving his mother to raise him and his three siblings mostly alone. According to Paton, the family was “rehoused by the council and moved to an Acton estate to the west of Wormwood Scrubs Prison, where his mother struggled to bring up four children on her own by working for the Post Office.” She married again in 1960, but divorced Rickman’s stepfather after three years. Before he met Rima Horton at age 19, he stated that his first crush was at 10 years old to a girl named Amanda “at sports day.” As a child, he excelled at calligraphy and watercolour painting. Rickman attended Derwentwater Primary School in Acton, a school that followed the Montessori method of education, and then Latymer Upper School in London through the Direct Grant system, where he became involved in drama. After leaving Latymer, he attended Chelsea College of Art and Design and then the Royal College of Art. This education allowed him to work as a graphic designer for the Royal College of Art’s in-house magazine, ARK and the Notting Hill Herald, which Rickman considered a more stable occupation than acting: “Drama school wasn’t considered the sensible thing to do at 18”.
After graduation, Rickman and several friends opened a graphic design studio called Graphiti, but after three years of successful business, he decided that he was going to pursue acting professionally. He wrote to request an audition with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), which he attended from 1972 until 1974. While there, he supported himself by working as a dresser for Sir Nigel Hawthorne and Sir Ralph Richardson.
After graduating from RADA, Rickman worked extensively with British repertory and experimental theatre groups in productions including Chekhov’s The Seagull and Snoo Wilson’s The Grass Widow at the Royal Court Theatre, and appeared three times at the Edinburgh International Festival. In 1978, he performed with the Court Drama Group, gaining roles in Romeo and Juliet and A View from the Bridge, among other plays. While working with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), he was cast in As You Like It. He appeared in The Barchester Chronicles (1982), the BBC’s adaptation of Trollope’s first two Barchester novels, as the Reverend Obadiah Slope.
Rickman was given the male lead, the Vicomte de Valmont, in the 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, directed by Howard Davies. After the RSC production transferred to Broadway in 1987, Rickman received both a Tony Award nomination and a Drama Desk Award nomination for his performance.
Rickman has played a wide range of roles. He played romantic leads including Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Jamie in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991); numerous villains in Hollywood big-budget films, including German criminal Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988), Australian Elliot Marston opposite Tom Selleck in Quigley Down Under (1990) and the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991); and the occasional television role such as Dr. Alfred Blalock in HBO’s Something the Lord Made (2004) and the “mad monk” Rasputin in the HBO biopic Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny (1996), for which he won a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy Award.
Rickman’s role as Hans Gruber in Die Hard earned him a spot on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains list as the 46th best villain in film history, though he revealed he almost did not take the role as he did not think Die Hard was the kind of film he wanted to make. His performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves also earned him praise as one of the best actors to portray a villain in films.
Rickman took issue with being typecast as a villain, even though he was known for playing “unsympathetic characters”. His portrayal of Severus Snape, the potions master in the Harry Potter series (2001–2011), was dark, but the character’s motivations were not clear early on. During his career, Rickman played comedic roles, including as Sir Alexander Dane/Dr. Lazarus in the sci-fi parody Galaxy Quest (1999), the angel Metatron, the voice of God, in Dogma (also 1999), Emma Thompson’s foolish husband Harry in the British Christmas-themed romantic comedy Love Actually (2003), providing the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) and playing the egotistical, Nobel Prize-winning father in Nobel Son (2007).
Rickman was nominated for an Emmy for his work as Dr. Alfred Blalock in HBO’s Something the Lord Made (2004). He also starred in the independent film Snow Cake (2006) with Sigourney Weaver and Carrie-Anne Moss, and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (also 2006), directed by Tom Tykwer. He appeared as Judge Turpin in the critically acclaimed Tim Burton film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) alongside Harry Potter co-stars Helena Bonham Carter and Timothy Spall. He provided the voice of Absolem the Caterpillar in Burton’s film Alice in Wonderland (2010).
Rickman performed onstage in Noël Coward’s romantic comedy Private Lives, which transferred to Broadway after its successful run in London at the Albery Theatre and ended in September 2002; he reunited with his Les Liaisons Dangereuses co-star Lindsay Duncan and director Howard Davies in the Tony Award-winning production. Rickman’s previous stage performance was in Antony and Cleopatra in 1998 as Mark Antony, with Helen Mirren as Cleopatra, in the Royal National Theatre’s production at the Olivier Theatre in London, which ran from October to December 1998. Rickman appeared in Victoria Wood with All the Trimmings (2000), a Christmas special with Victoria Wood, playing an aged colonel in the battle of Waterloo who is forced to break off his engagement to Honeysuckle Weeks’ character.
Rickman directed The Winter Guest at London’s Almeida Theatre in 1995 and the film version of the same play, released in 1997, starring Emma Thompson and her real-life mother Phyllida Law. With Katharine Viner, he compiled the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie and directed the premiere production at the Royal Court Theatre, which opened in April 2005. He won the Theatre Goers’ Choice Awards for Best Director. Rickman befriended the Corrie family and earned their trust, and the show was warmly received. But the next year, its original New York production was “postponed” over the possibility of boycotts and protests from those who saw it as “anti-Israeli agit-prop”. Rickman denounced “censorship born out of fear”. Tony Kushner, Harold Pinter and Vanessa Redgrave, among others, criticised the decision to indefinitely delay the show. The one-woman play was put on later that year at another theatre to mixed reviews, and has since been staged at venues around the world.
In 2009, Rickman was awarded the James Joyce Award by University College Dublin’s Literary and Historical Society. In October and November 2010, Rickman starred in the eponymous role in Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin alongside Lindsay Duncan and Fiona Shaw. The Irish Independent called Rickman’s performance breathtaking.
Rickman again appeared as Severus Snape in the final installment in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011). Throughout the series, his portrayal of Snape garnered widespread critical acclaim. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said Rickman “as always, makes the most lasting impression,” while Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine called Rickman “sublime at giving us a glimpse at last into the secret nurturing heart that … Snape masks with a sneer.”
Media coverage characterised Rickman’s performance as worthy of nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His first award nominations for his role as Snape came at the 2011 Alliance of Women Film Journalists Awards, 2011 Saturn Awards, 2011 Scream Awards and 2011 St. Louis Gateway Film Critics Association Awards in the Best Supporting Actor category.
In November 2011, Rickman opened in Seminar, a new play by Theresa Rebeck, at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway. Rickman, who left the production in April, won the Broadway.com Audience Choice Award for Favorite Actor in a Play and was nominated for a Drama League Award.
Rickman starred with Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz in Gambit (2012) by Michael Hoffman, a remake of the 1966 film. In 2013, he played Hilly Kristal, the founder of the East Village punk-rock club CBGB, in the CBGB film with Rupert Grint.
In the media
Rickman was chosen by Empire as one of the 100 Sexiest Stars in film history (No. 34) in 1995 and ranked No. 59 in Empire’s “The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time” list in October 1997. In 2009 and 2010, Rickman was ranked once again as one of the 100 Sexiest Stars by Empire, both times placing No. 8 out of the 50 actors chosen. Rickman was elected to the Council of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in 1993; he was subsequently RADA’s vice-chairman and a member of its Artistic Advisory and Training committees and Development Board.
Rickman was voted No. 19 in Empire magazine’s Greatest Living Movie Stars over the age of 50 and was twice nominated for Broadway’s Tony Award as Best Actor (Play): in 1987 for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and in 2002 for a revival of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. The Guardian named Rickman as an “honourable mention” in a list of the best actors never to have received an Academy Award nomination.
Two researchers, a linguist and a sound engineer, found “the perfect voice” to be a combination of Rickman’s and Jeremy Irons’ voices based on a sample of 50 voices.
Rickman featured in several musical works, including a song composed by Adam Leonard entitled “Not Alan Rickman”. Credited as ‘A Strolling Player’ in the sleeve notes, the actor played a “Master of Ceremonies” part, announcing the various instruments at the end of the first part of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells II (1992) on the track “The Bell”. Rickman was one of the many artists who recited Shakespearian sonnets on the album When Love Speaks (2002), and also featured prominently in a music video by Texas entitled “In Demand”, which premiered on Europe MTV in August 2000.
In 1965, at age 19, Rickman met 18-year-old Rima Horton, who became his girlfriend and would later be a Labour Party councillor on the Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council (1986–2006) and an economics lecturer at the nearby Kingston University. In 2015, Rickman confirmed that they had married in a private ceremony in New York City in 2012. They lived together from 1977 to 2016, the year Rickman died. The two had no children.
Rickman was an active patron of the research foundation Saving Faces; and honorary president of the International Performers’ Aid Trust, a charity that works to fight poverty amongst performing artists all over the world. When discussing politics, Rickman said he “was born a card-carrying member of the Labour Party”.
Illness, death and legacy
In August 2015, Rickman suffered a minor stroke, which led to the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He concealed the fact that he had terminal cancer from all but his closest confidants.
On 14 January 2016, Rickman died in London at age 69, a little more than a month before what would have been his 70th birthday.
Tributes from Rickman’s co-stars and contemporaries appeared on social media following the announcement; since his cancer was not publicly known, some—like Ralph Fiennes, who “cannot believe he is gone”, and Jason Isaacs, who was “sidestepped by the awful news”—expressed their surprise.
Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling called Rickman “a magnificent actor and a wonderful man”. Emma Watson wrote, “I feel so lucky to have worked and spent time with such a special man and actor. I’ll really miss our conversations.” Daniel Radcliffe appreciated his loyalty and support: “I’m pretty sure he came and saw everything I ever did on stage both in Britain and America. He didn’t have to do that.” Evanna Lynch said it was scary to bump into Rickman in character as Snape, but “he was so kind and generous in the moments he wasn’t Snaping about.” Rupert Grint said, “even though he has gone I will always hear his voice.”
Kate Winslet, who gave a tearful tribute at the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards, remembered Rickman as warm and generous, adding, “And that voice! Oh, that voice.” Dame Helen Mirren said his voice “could suggest honey or a hidden stiletto blade.” Emma Thompson remembered “the intransigence which made him the great artist he was—his ineffable and cynical wit, the clarity with which he saw most things, including me … I learned a lot from him.” Colin Firth told The Hollywood Reporter that, as an actor, Rickman had been a mentor. John McTiernan, director of Die Hard, said Rickman was the antithesis of the villainous roles for which he was most famous on screen. Sir Ian McKellen wrote, “behind mournful face, which was just as beautiful when wracked with mirth, there was a super-active spirit, questing and achieving, a super-hero, unassuming but deadly effective.”
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