Alan Rickman (21 February, 1946-14 January 2016) was an actor known for his villainous but sometimes comic roles. Here we look at his remarkable, eclectic career on stage, film and television.
Although Alan Rickman was mainly known as both a dramatic and comedic actor, he was not without a good singing voice and actually sang on film. However, he was more often than not cast in unsympathetic, enigmatic or cruel roles, although some of these parts often had a comic edge to them. If you think of his performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Kevin Reynolds’ film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) opposite Kevin Costner in the title role, he was not only the darkest of blackhearted villains but also lent his dastardly ranting a touch of the absurd. Following a long diatribe to his sidekick exhorting him to come down on practically everybody in sight, including Robin Hood and his merry men, his memorable parting shot is an order to: “call off Christmas!”
Could anybody take his villainous performances on film for real when Rickman imbued them them with such endearing qualities? Even his playing of the German terrorist in Die Hard (1988) with Bruce Willis had its comic side. And in the Harry Potter films (2001-2010) his portrayal of Severus Snape was both creepy and hilarious at one and the same time. Although from humble, working-class stock, he acquired a rather aristocratic-sounding voice. This, along with his appearance in which he often seemed to sneer at all and sundry, merely added to the comic effect of his villainy. As Judge Turpin in Tim Burton’s film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) he was as evil and self-serving as the character should have been, but at one point he had to sing a duet with Sweeney, a very sweet and gentle song, ‘Pretty Women’, a romantically contemplative paean of praise to all womanhood: “Pretty women!/ Blowing out their candles or/ Combing out their hair… /Ah, pretty women…/ In their gardens…/ Flower-picking…/ How they make a man sing!/ Proof of heaven/ As you’re living –/ Pretty women, sir!”
Alan Rickman was born in Acton in west London, the son of a factory worker and his wife, from a family of mixed Irish, Welsh and English stock. His father, Bernard, was Catholic, his mother, Margaret, a Methodist. He had two brothers and a sister. His father died when Alan was eight. At school he was an excellent calligrapher and painter but on leaving his junior school he won a scholarship to Latymer Upper School where his interest in theatre burgeoned. After attending Chelsea College of Art & Design (where he met his future wife Rima Horton whom he married in 2012) and the Royal College of Art, he became, like his older brother, a graphic designer and went on to found his own graphics business. However, the call of the theatre was greater than the visual arts and he joined RADA. Following repertory work and appearances at the Royal Court, the Bush Theatre and in Edinburgh, Rickman subsequently joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and from 1982 began appearing on television in the BBC’s Barchester Chronicles of Anthony Trollope.
His big break in the theatre came in 1985 in the RSC’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses at Stratford, playing Valmont opposite Lindsay Duncan, Juliet Stevenson and Fiona Shaw, and he repeated this success in the West End and on Broadway where he was nominated for both Tony and Drama Desk Awards. In his time he was also a very fine Hamlet and made a memorable Antony opposite Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra at the National Theatre. He was Jaques in As You Like It and Achilles in Troilus and Cressida for the RSC. In later years he appeared more in films and television but also took to directing. In 2001 he and Lindsay Duncan made an excellent job of Noël Coward’s Private Lives in London and New York in what was perfect casting.
Rickman made notable appearances in such films as Truly, Madly Deeply (1991), Anthony Minghella’s tale of a dead lover ‘returning to life’ and Juliet Stevenson; Close My Eyes (1991), Stephen Poliakoff’s screenplay about incest in which Rickman’s character is caught up in a relationship between brother and sister, Clive Owen and Saskia Reeves; Bob Roberts (1992), in which Rickman plays a campaign chairman to a would-be US senator played by Tim Robbins; and An Awfully Big Adventure (1995), an adaptation of the Beryl Bainbridge novel with a theatrical setting in which Rickman appears as an actor playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan. He was Colonel Brandon in Emma Thompson’s screenplay of Sense and Sensibility (1995), Eamon De Valera in Michael Collins (1996), a member of an alien species in the hilarious sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest (1999) and Harry, the two-timing husband of Emma Thompson in Richard Curtis’ Love, Actually (2003). Although he had many other films under his belt Rickman may really be remembered mostly for the Robin Hood film, the Die Hard series and the Harry Potter films. He did, however, win an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award for his performance as the mad monk in the HBO TV movie of Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny (1996).
He voiced the Caterpillar in two Tim Burton Alice films: Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Alice Through the Looking Glass (to be released in May 2016) and his last performance was given in Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, a thriller co-starring Helen Mirren (due out in April 2016). Rickman also co-wrote and directed A Little Chaos (2014), in which he played King Louis XIV, with a cast including Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts. Sadly it did not go down well with the critics and was not a great commercial success. But Rickman will be missed more for his eclectic and individual performances rather than his directing skills. And he will indeed be very much missed as an actor, leaving as he does a large hole in the curious niche he carefully carved for himself in the theatre, the cinema and on television.