The world became fully aware of the sly, languid and villainous charms of Alan Rickman, who has died aged 69 of cancer, as the self-parodying Sheriff of Nottingham pitted against Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves(1991). However, the actor had already established himself as a star name at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the mid-1980s and as the hilarious German terrorist, Hans Gruber, in the action thriller Die Hard (1988) with Bruce Willis.
Rickman appeared as the cello-playing, dearly departed ghost in Anthony Minghella’s sensual, taut and wonderfully muted Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), with Juliet Stevenson as his grieving partner. At the RSC, he had been sensational as the predatory, dissolute Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses,Christopher Hampton’s brilliant adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s 18th-century epistolary novel that started small in the RSC’s Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon and trailed clouds of glory to the West End and Broadway in 1987; Rickman was a pivotal figure in a company that included, at that time, and in that production, Lindsay Duncan, Stevenson and Fiona Shaw.
Having first trained and worked as a graphic designer, Rickman was a late starter as an actor, attending Rada between 1972 and 1974, and winning the Bancroft gold medal, before working in rep and the RSC in small roles at the end of the 70s. He began making waves as Anthony Trollope’s devious chaplain Obadiah Slope in BBC television’s The Barchester Chronicles in 1982.
Then he was, for a new generation entirely, the sinister potions master Severus Snape in the eight Harry Potter movies, for a decade from 2001. Snape had secrets, and this inner life infused one of the outstanding performances in the series as he stalked the corridors and back passages at Hogwarts like the ghost in Hamlet, smelling a rat at every turn, his noble face contorted with mysterious loathing and curious motivation.
However, it would be wrong to typecast Rickman as a villain. He was an outstanding Hamlet at the Riverside Studios and on tour in 1992, a mature student whose rampant morbidity masked an intense, albeit perverse, zest for life. And in Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre in 1998, he was fabulous opposite Helen Mirren’s voluptuous serpent of old Nile – shambolic, charismatic, a spineless poet of a warrior. It was his misfortune to have both these great classic performances displayed in productions that met with considerable critical hostility and public indifference.
Tall, commanding, extremely funny when required, he was never above sending himself up either on stage or in the movies. He had talent to burn, a glorious voice that sometimes blurred in slack-jawed articulation, if only because everything he did seemed to come so easily to him. He was a central figure in the life of the little Bush theatre on the London fringe, at the Royal Court in the Max Stafford-Clarkera of the 80s, as well as at Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands’s RSC, and he was a continual source of inspiration, and practical support, to his colleagues. He proved also to be a fine stage director, and in 2014 made his debut as a film director with A Little Chaos, a handsome 17th-century costume drama of love among the landscape artists at the newly constructed palace of Versailles, where Rickman himself presided in his bewigged pomp as Louis XIV, the Sun King.
The son of a factory worker, Bernard (who died when Alan was eight), and his wife, Margaret (nee Bartlett), he was of Irish and Welsh descent, raised on a council estate in Acton, west London, with three siblings (he was the second child), and educated at Derwentwater primary school in Acton, a Montessori school, and Latymer Upper. He studied graphic design at Chelsea School of Art – where he first met, aged 18, his future life partner, Rima Horton – and the Royal College of Art. With three friends, he ran a graphic design studio for three years in Notting Hill before going to Rada at the age of 26.
Read more: The Guardian