Alan Rickman: acclaimed performer who became a hero with a villain’s manner
Donald Clarke on the late actor, a funny, warm man in person, who could never quite shake the whiff of brimstone on screen
Alan Rickman, one of the UK’s most acclaimed actors, has died at the age of 69. He had been suffering from cancer.
Rising to fame with his insidious performance as the Vicomte de Valmont in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1985, he rapidly caught Hollywood’s attention and served as an exemplary villain opposite Bruce Willis in the action thriller Die Hard.
He was even more evil as a ranting Sherriff of Nottingham in the hugely popular Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. “Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas!” he famously bellowed.
Rickman was good at playing aristocrats and mad royalty, but his origins were actually quite humble. He was born in Acton, an ordinary suburb of West London, to a housewife and a factory worker. His dad died when he was just eight and the family struggled to get by.
Clearly a bright young man, Rickman studied at the Royal College of Art and worked as a graphic designer before throwing himself into acting. A scholarship to the Royal College of Dramatic Art followed.
Like all young actors, he did his time in rep and mad avant-garde theatre. He spent some time at the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1982, television viewers enjoyed his performance as Reverend Obadiah Slope in the BBC’s acclaimed adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s The Barchester Chronicles.
But it was the amoral, sexually ruthless Vicomte de Valmont that really pushed him above ground. The show travelled to Broadway and Rickman secured a Tony nomination.
Rickman never strived for work again. Though a funny, warm man in person, he could never quite shake the whiff of brimstone on screen and often found himself playing the villain. In Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, his delicious, purse-mouthed take on Éamon de Valera could hardly have been less flattering if the old fixer had horns sprouting from his temples.
Rickman played Rasputin in the same year and the performances exhibited amusing degrees of similarity. “It was quite clear to me that de Valera was not involved [in the death of Collins],” he later explained. “It is not a question of personal bias. He didn’t have enough power at the time to have given those orders.”
Rickman had Irish blood via his paternal grandfather. Last year, when attending the Dublin International Film Festival, he recalled shooting An Awfully Big Adventure, Mike Newell’s 1995 take on a Beryl Bainbridge novel, in Dublin and explained that it was “absolutely like coming somewhere I knew”.
Like so many actors of his generation, he secured a tasty gig in middle-age when the Harry Potter films kicked off. There will, sadly, be a more than a few obituaries today with the unwelcome headline “Harry Potter actor dies”. His portrayal of Severus Snape wound the characteristic Rickman uneasiness into a more enigmatic personality than those of his Hollywood villain. He ultimately became a hero with a villain’s manner.
Rickman also took to directing in later years. Last year, he directed himself opposite Kate Winslet in the period piece A Little Chaos. Later this year, he can be heard as the voice of the caterpillar in James Bobin’s Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Rickman met his partner, Rima Horton, an economics lecturer as long ago as 1965. They have lived together since 1977 and became married in 2012. She survives him.
The actor leaves an odd-shaped hole that nobody else could satisfactorily fill. He was a terrific villain and simultaneously an actor who was easy to love. Just watch Emma Thompson, in Love, Actually, sobbing to Joni Mitchell when she realises he has been unfaithful to her. We can understand that.