The noted British actor and director Alan Rickman passed away today, after a battle with cancer. Rickman was a veteran of the stage and screen. Although he had expressed an interest in the stage from an early age, Rickman initially pursued a different career. Considering art and graphic design to be a more stable professional field than acting, Rickman spent his early adulthood working as a designer on The Notting Hill Herald and founding the art studio Graphiti with close friends.

Although successful in his field, Rickman made a conscious decision to branch out into acting in his late twenties. He auditioned for, and earned a place at, the  Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He studied there between 1972 and 1974. Through the late seventies and into the eighties, Rickman worked primarily in theatre, at one stage playing with the Royal Shakespeare Company. However, Rickman would soon find himself branching out again.

In the late eighties, Rickman found great success playing the Vicomte de Valmont in an adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The production was so successful that it transferred to Broadway. While in New York, Rickman would receive a Tony Award nomination for his work. This work would also herald greater success for the actor, bringing him to the attention of casting directors working in film. Rickman was persuaded to take a few meetings in Los Angeles. On his second day there, he would be offered the role of a German terrorist in an action film headlined by then-television star Bruce Willis.

“I’d never made a film before, but I was extremely cheap,” quips Rickman of the experience. Rickman was initially reluctant to take the role of Hans Gruber in Die Hard, expressing very little interest in playing a generic bad guy in a bland action movie. Nevertheless, Rickman’s agents convinced him to accept the part.

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For better or worse, Hans Gruber remains Rickman’s most iconic and recognisable role. It is impossible to quantify just how much of Gruber came from Rickman. The actor’s distinctively deep voice and quiet sophistication provided a sharp contrast to many of the other action movie antagonists of the late eighties. As Rickman tells it, he provided producer Joel Silver with feedback on the character, suggesting that Gruber might wear a suave business suit instead of generic terrorist attire. “Get the hell out of here, you’ll wear what you’re told,” Silver allegedly responded, taking umbrage at the actor’s presumption. Nevertheless, when Rickman received the next draft of the script, Gruber was wearing a suit.

Although Rickman was far from the first British actor to develop a reputation for playing villains in big budget Hollywood blockbusters, he was one of the most memorable. His interpretation of the Sheriff of Nottingham remains one of the most enjoyable aspects of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a prime example of a supporting performer elevating his material. A stock criticism of the film suggested that Rickman was starring in an entirely different film than his co-stars. “To add to the irony, it is a more entertaining movie,” observed Roger Ebert of Rickman’s performance.

However, while these roles made Rickman a recognisable performer with a high profile, the actor refused to be pigeon-holed. Rickman’s career is fascinating, creating the impression of an artist simply enjoying the freedom that his blockbuster appearances afforded him. Immediately following his breakout role in Die Hard, Rickman returned to the BBC to appear in the short Revolutionary Witness and in a segment of Screenplay. Rickman’s choices could often seem esoteric, but the actor never seemed hedged in by his career decisions. Rickman balanced commitments to stage and screen throughout his life.

Rickman enjoyed a particularly strong connection to Ireland. The actor filmed An Awfully Big Adventure in Dublin in the mid-nineties. A year later, Rickman found himself cast in the role of Eamon DeValera opposite Liam Neeson in Michael Collins, one of the biggest Irish films of the decade. “When I came here, and I’m not kidding, it was absolutely like coming somewhere I knew,” Rickman recalled of his first visit to the country. More recently, Rickman appeared at the Abbey Theatre in a well-received production of John Gabriel Borkman and attended a screening of his second directorial feature film, A Little Chaos, at the Dublin International Film Festival in 2015.

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Rickman was always an actor difficult to pin down, with a tremendous range. Rickman could alternate skilfully between tragedy and wry comedy, often finding elements of both in his performance. Rickman is perhaps best known to younger audiences as the crucial character of Snape in the Harry Potter franchise, perhaps the most nuanced role in the entire canon. At the same time, Rickman punctuated his work on those blockbusters with roles in smaller and quirkier indie fare like Bottle Shock or Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Nevertheless, Rickman’s voice remained one of his most defining attributes across his four-decade career; Kevin Smith very shrewdly cast Rickman as the voice of God in Dogma. In an oft-quoted anecdote, his  Les Liaisons Dangereuses co-star Lindsay Duncan wryly commented on the success of the play’s opening night, “A lot of people left the theatre wanting to have sex, and most of them wanted to have it with Alan Rickman.” 

Rickman was a master of the stage and screen, and his talent will be sorely missed.

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