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Rickman, Alan (1946-)


Main image of Rickman, Alan (1946-)

As a portrayer of cool, sophisticated villains, Alan Rickman ranks with the best; his peers are such legends of suave on-screen villainy as Basil Rathbone, George Sanders and Jules Berry. He can invest out-and-out baddie roles - Hans Gruber in Die Hard (US, 1988), the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (US, 1991), Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (US/UK, d. 2007) - with a near-pantomimic relish. But he's even more effective at playing those characters whose malevolence is ambiguous, who may yet be capable of redemption; this made him ideal casting for Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films (2001-2011), keeping us wondering right to the end of the series whether he really had gone over to the dark side. His range extends to romantic heroes, too - he was Juliet Stevenson's returning ghost-lover in Truly Madly Deeply (d. Anthony Minghella, 1990), and wooed Kate Winslet as Colonel Brandon in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility (US, 1995) - albeit they're almost always tinged with a sardonic edge.

He was born in Hammersmith into a working-class family of Irish-Welsh descent, and grew up in a council house. He won a scholarship to Latymer School, where he was involved in dramatic productions but also showed artistic talent, and on leaving school studied at the Chelsea College of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art. He set up a graphic design studio with two friends, but acting still drew him and in 1972 (at the relatively late age of 26) he successfully applied to RADA. After graduating in 1974 he spent the next four years playing in rep all over the country - Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester, Bristol - taking on everything from farce, light comedy and pantomime to musicals and Shakespeare. In 1978 he joined the RSC but found the company too hidebound and elitist, returning after a year to freelancing in rep.

His television debut - barring a televised stage production of Romeo and Juliet (BBC, tx. 3/12/1978) - came in the BBC's three-part adaptation of Zola's domestic grand guignol Thérèse Raquin (1980). It was a relatively minor role; he attracted more attention in the John Le Carré spy thriller series Smiley's People (BBC, 1982) and achieved fame the same year as the serpentine schemer Rev Obadiah Slope in the seven-part BBC Trollope adaptation The Barchester Chronicles, scripted by Alan Plater. (Not for the last time, Rickman's portrayal of an odious character earned him copious fan-mail, mainly from women.) In 1985 he rejoined the RSC, where he created the role of arch-seducer Valmont in Christopher Hampton's dramatisation of Laclos' novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The play transferred to New York, where Rickman was nominated for a Tony award. He missed out on that, and lost the film role to John Malkovich, but his performance was seen by producer Joel Silver, who offered him his cinematic debut as Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

Rickman's performance set a fashion in Hollywood for smooth-spoken English villains. It also showed that, for all his lack of big-screen experience, he was a dangerously accomplished scene-stealer - as Kevin Costner found out three years later. Even though Costner, as both co-producer and lead actor of Robin Hood, notoriously cut down Rickman's scenes, the latter's flamboyant Sheriff of Nottingham effortlessly made off with the film. In between he partnered Juliet Stevenson, a friend and colleague from his earliest RSC days, in Anthony Minghella's directorial debut, Truly Madly Deeply; and followed up Robin Hood with an edgy performance as a man whose wife (Saskia Reeves) cuckolds him with her own brother (Clive Owen) in Stephen Poliakoff's Close My Eyes (1991).

In Tim Robbins' political satire Bob Roberts (US, 1992) Rickman was delectably hypocritical as spin doctor Lukas Hart III. The title role of Mesmer (Canada/US, 1994) offered him impeccable casting as the 18th-century hypnotist and perhaps charlatan, but the film, scripted by Dennis Potter, hit legal problems and was held back from release. Drawing on his own experience, Rickman played a former matinee idol reduced to provincial rep in the Liverpool-set An Awfully Big Adventure (Eire/UK, d. Mike Newell, 1995), and further spoofed his actorly image as the Dr Spock-figure in the Star Trek send-up Galaxy Quest (US, 1999). On TV he was a full-blooded Rasputin (tx. 23/3/1996) for HBO, while his cold, calculating De Valera offset Liam Neeson's impulsive hero in Neil Jordan's Michael Collins (UK/UK, 1996).

In the past decade the eight-film Harry Potter series has occupied much of his career, though he found time to voice Marvin the Paranoid Android in the film version of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (US/UK, d. Garth Jennings, 2005) and the Blue Caterpillar in Tim Burton's eccentric version of Alice in Wonderland (US, 2010). His sole foray into directing so far is The Winter Guest (US/UK, 1997), adapted from a play that he also directed on stage about four sets of intersecting characters in a Scottish village. Quietly atmospheric, it was respectfully but not fervently received.

Philip Kemp

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Thumbnail image of Close My Eyes (1991)Close My Eyes (1991)

Alan Rickman stars in this drama about an incestuous love triangle

Thumbnail image of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

The film that brought J.K. Rowling's boy wizard to the big screen

Thumbnail image of Truly Madly Deeply (1990)Truly Madly Deeply (1990)

Romantic comedy about grief, loss and a roomful of ghosts watching old videos

Thumbnail image of Barchester Chronicles, The (1982)Barchester Chronicles, The (1982)

Beautifully-observed adaptation of Trollope's church intrigue

Thumbnail image of Romeo and Juliet (1978)Romeo and Juliet (1978)

BBC Television Shakespeare version of the classic doomed romance

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