Obituary: Alan Rickman - Cinema loses its most famous 'silver-tongued devil' of all
Published 15/01/2016 | 02:30
Alan Rickman, the actor and director, who has died aged 69, took sneering screen villainy to new levels as (among others) the scheming chaplain Obadiah Slope in the BBC's television adaptation of Trollope's 'The Barchester Chronicles' (1982), the German terrorist kingpin Hans Gruber in 'Die Hard' (1988), the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham in 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' (1991) and as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films.
In a profile of the actor last year, Robbie Collin attributed Rickman's reputation as "cinema's greatest silver-tongued devil" to his compelling voice - "honey-smooth and homely but still flecked with threat", but often sounding "as though he's caressing a claw hammer through a silk pillowcase". One "wisp", Collin observed, "can capture any room, office, castle or witchcraft and wizardry class in which it's heard".
Rickman became such a familiar figure that the US cartoon show 'Family Guy' once depicted him calling his own answering machine, reminding himself to perform mundane household tasks before ending with the chilling warning: "Do not disappoint me." Peter Mandelson said that he would like Rickman to portray him in any biopic, because "he's not afraid to play the hard guy''.
In fact Rickman did not always play baddies, and his voice was equally effective when he was Colonel Brandon, Kate Winslet's crumpled suitor in Ang Lee's 'Sense and Sensibility' (1995), or King Louis XIV in 'A Little Chaos' (2014, he also directed the film), set in the court of the Sun King, and also starring Kate Winslet.
To a younger generation Rickman was best known as Severus Snape, Hogwarts' lank-haired resident master of the dark arts, a role he took on in 2001 at a time when only three books in JK Rowling's series had been written. Hardly anyone except the actor, who had been let into the secret by Rowling, had any idea how the character would develop. He went on to play Snape in all eight Harry Potter films, gradually evolving his portrayal from the coldly sarcastic and controlled teacher of the early films to a more complex and enigmatic character. In the final two films, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Pt I' (2010) and 'Pt II' (2011), Snape was revealed as the hero of the hour. This was perhaps just as well; Rickman claimed to dislike being typecast as the villain, although he grudgingly accepted that it was for his portrayal of unsympathetic characters that he was best known.
"Being an actor is not about judging the characters you play," he said. "You don't think of yourself as good or bad - just another human being who has certain needs. And you get on with being that person."
Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman was born on February 21, 1946, on a council estate in Acton, west London. "My mother was Welsh and my father was Irish and I can speak both accents like a native, yet in my whole career I have never been asked to," he later recalled. His father, a factory worker, died when Alan was eight, leaving his mother to bring up her four children. She did remarry, but divorced three years later.
An artistic child, Alan won a scholarship to Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, where he acquired his languid and studied vocal delivery in order to master a speech impediment which prevented him from moving his jaw properly. He appeared in several plays at school, but did not regard studying drama as "a sensible thing to do at 18". Instead he went to Chelsea Art School followed by the Royal College of Art, where he studied graphic design.
He went on to open a design business, but after three years decided to audition for a place at Rada, which he attended from 1972 to 1974. While he was there, he supported himself by working as a dresser for Nigel Hawthorne and Ralph Richardson. "I would watch [Richardson] from the wings every night," Rickman recalled. "He was a magical force on stage."
His big breakthrough came in 1985 when he was cast as the sexy but manipulative and cruel Vicomte de Valmont in an RSC production of Christopher Hampton's 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses'. "I knew I had to seduce 200 people in the audience as well as the women in the play," Rickman recalled. When the production transferred to Broadway, his performance drew the attention of the Hollywood director John McTiernan, who invited him to play the villain opposite Bruce Willis in 'Die Hard'. Rickman admitted that he initially viewed the invitation with disdain: "I didn't know anything about LA. I didn't know anything about the film business … I'd never made a film before, but I was extremely cheap." After reading the script, he thought: "What the hell is this? I'm not doing an action movie."
In the event, as Hans Gruber, Rickman upstaged Bruce Willis and became an international star, confirming in the process the widely held belief that British actors make the best villains.
While he continued to play unsympathetic roles, including a cold, snarling Éamon de Valera in Neil Jordan's biopic 'Michael Collins' (1996), Rickman always sought to understand the complexities of the characters he played. He bridled when Jordan asked during an early stage of the production: "So, do you hate him [de Valera] yet?"
Later he would forge a close relationship with the director Tim Burton, playing the predatory Judge Turpin in 'Sweeney Todd' (2007) and voicing the Caterpillar in 'Alice in Wonderland' (2010).
He famously turned down the chance to play a Bond villain opposite Pierce Brosnan in 'Goldeneye' (1995). Although regarded as one of the best British actors of his generation, Rickman seemed uncomfortable in the media spotlight. His political views were well to the left of New Labour.
As a student at the Chelsea School of Art, he began dating Rima Horton, a fellow student. They lived together for half a century in London, where she became an economics lecturer, a Labour councillor and, in her partner's words, "possibly a candidate for sainthood". They finally married last year. "It was great because no-one was there," Rickman told the German newspaper 'Bild'. "After the wedding in New York, we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and ate lunch." Rickman gave his wife a gold band which, he noted, "she never wears".
Alan Rickman, born: February 21, 1946; died: January 14, 2016 (© Daily Telegraph London)