Alan Rickman, the scene-stealing star of films like Die Hard, Sense and Sensibility, and the Harry Potter series, passed away Thursday after a battle with cancer, his family confirmed. He was 69.
“There are no words to express how shocked and devastated I am to hear of Alan Rickman’s death,” wrote Potter scribe J.K. Rowling. “He was a magnificent actor & a wonderful man.”
That Rickman left us a mere five days after another British chameleon, David Bowie—at the very same age, and of a similar disease—make this a truly awful stretch for cultural icons. But even Bowie was admiring of Rickman’s considerable talent, investing in the actor’s 1994 passion project Mesmer. And that the news of Rickman’s death broke mere hours before the nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were announced seemed fitting as well, since the brilliant character actor never received a single nod, thus proving their triviality.
Blessed with a velvety baritone, lethargic delivery, and icy sensuality, Rickman first made a name for himself on the stage as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), and his performance as the rakish Vicomte de Valmont in Christopher Hampton’s 1986 adaptation of Les Liasons Dangereuses earned him a Tony Award nomination. “Mr. Rickman, with his leonine matinee idol’s mane, heavy-lidded eyes and insinuatingly intimate vocal delivery, uses the whole notion of actorliness to define the dissolute Vicomte,” wrote The New York Times in their review of the play.
Two years later, he’d make his film acting debut as German terrorist ringleader Hans Gruber in Die Hard, commanding the screen with a deliciously diabolical playfulness and whimsy that belied his onscreen experience. “I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative,” his Gruber announces to a pack of shrieking hostages. “Not a lot to ask. Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way...so he won’t be joining us for the rest of his life.” Rickman’s wonderfully campy turn made him an instant star, and will forever be enshrined in the pantheon of great cinema villains. And the thesp was no spring chicken when he made his movie debut in Die Hard at the age of 42, thus serving as an inspiration to us all that it’s never too late to chase your dreams.
Born to a housewife and factory worker in Acton, London, Rickman initially pursued graphic design, thinking it a more viable career choice than acting, and attended the Chelsea College of Design followed by the Royal College of Art. He then worked as a graphic designer for the local newspaper, the Notting Hill Herald, before setting up his own design studio with pals, Graphiti. But acting beckoned, and at the age of 26, he won a spot at the esteemed Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. There, he studied and performed in numerous prize-winning Shakespeare plays, while also working as a dresser for the likes of Ralph Richardson and Nigel Hawthorne.
Following his tenure at the RSC, several BBC series, and that indelible turn as Gruber, Rickman would go on to have a fruitful career in film, including as the scheming campaign chairman to Tim Robbins’s wacky Republican folk singer running for Senate in the witty political satire Bob Roberts; The Metatron, aka The Voice of God, in Kevin Smith’s religious satire Dogma; and as the hilarious faux-alien Dr. Lazarus in the underrated space comedy Galaxy Quest. In addition to memorable villains and droll sidekicks, he made for a dashing romantic lead as the kindhearted Colonel Brandon in Emma Thompson and Ang Lee’s lovely period film Sense and Sensibility, and would later reunite with Thompson as a struggling married couple in the celebrated romcom Love Actually, as well as the BBC Drama The Song of Lunch.
“Alan was my friend and so this is hard to write because I have just kissed him goodbye,” wrote Thompson in a statement. “What I remember most in this moment of painful leave-taking is his humour, intelligence, wisdom and kindness. His capacity to fell you with a look or lift you with a word. 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, and the fact that he never spared me the view. I learned a lot from him.”“He was the finest of actors and directors,” she continued. “I couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do with his face next. I consider myself hugely privileged to have worked with him so many times and to have been directed by him. He was the ultimate ally. In life, art, and politics. I trusted him absolutely. He was, above all things, a rare and unique human being and we shall not see his like again.”
Rickman also directed, both on the stage, 1995’s The Winter Guest and 2005’s My Name Is Rachel Corrie, and onscreen, 1987’s The Winter Guest and A Little Chaos, a period drama released last year starring himself and Kate Winslet.
He met Rima Horton back in 1965 when he was just 19, and the two lived together from 1977 until his death. They married in a private ceremony in New York City in 2012. Horton would serve as a Labour Party councilor for 20 years, and Rickman was a huge supporter of the Labour Party, as well as a prolific philanthropist, serving as honorary president of the International Performers’’ Aid Trust, as well as a patron of Saving Faces, a charity devoted to the prevention of facial diseases, injury, and oral cancer.
In recent years, Rickman gained an entirely new fan base with his memorable turn as Professor Severus Snape in the wildly popular Harry Potter films, helping craft perhaps the most complex and unpredictable character in the entire Potter universe.
Fans of Rowling’s books should recall a passage where the sinister-looking Snape expresses his inner love and affection for “the boy who lived”:
“Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?” asks Dumbledore.
“For him?" shouted Snape. “Expecto Patronum!”
From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe: She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.
“After all this time?”
“Always,” said Snape.
Always. Rest in peace, Alan Rickman.