It’s rare that an actor who was almost exclusively relegated to supporting roles can have a huge impact on audiences and create so many memorable performances and characters, but Alan Rickman was just such an exception. Rickman, who passed away today at age 69, is rightfully being remembered for his famous roles as villains in movies like Die Hard, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the Harry Potter series (yes, Snape was a hero in the end, but for seven and a half films Rickman was playing the role of a villain), but his work was much more varied than headlines would suggest. He showed remarkable range, with a brilliant ear for comedy, a uniquely gorgeous voice, a charm and sophistication seldom seen these days, and the ability to rip your heart out of your chest and leave you emotionally destroyed. His roles always seemed to be the ones that stuck with you long after the rest of the film had faded from memory, and he could easily outshine those billed above him no matter the part. Every performance found layers to the characters that went beyond the script: his heroes were complex, his villains lovable. And while his career in the theatre is as worthy of celebration as any aspect of his career, his legacy lies in his varied roles on film, through which he connected to millions on a very personal level.
It all started with Die Hard. It’s hard to think of an actor who turned in a more memorable film debut than Rickman did. His Hans Gruber instantly became an iconic action film villain, clever, funny, adaptive, and a perfect counterpoint to Bruce Willis’s John McClane. But while Gruber was a ruthless villain, willing to kill anyone he needed to in order to pull off his heist, he was surprisingly likable. Rickman gave Gruber a dry sense of humor and an exasperation at his plans going awry that almost made you feel sorry for him. And his ability to do a believable American accent led to one of the film’s best scenes, as an encounter with McClane forces Gruber to think on his feet and concoct a story about escaping the terrorists. Given how well received was his villainous performance, it’s no surprise that villains are what he became known for. He followed up Die Hard by playing the wildly unhinged Sherriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and is by far the best thing about the film, playing a character he reportedly crafted himself. Rickman even got to show off his singing voice as the evil Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, only to be dispatched by Johnny Depp’s throat-cutting barber. And then there’s Snape, but we’ll get to him a little later.
Alan Rickman was always destined to do more than play villains, however. He was a sweet-natured, kind-hearted man, and that aspect of his personality came to the forefront in his portrayal of Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, brilliantly adapted from the Jane Austen novel by Emma Thompson (with many changes), who would go on to share the screen with Rickman on many occasions). Sense and Sensibility was always my favorite Austen story, but I never cared much for Brandon until I saw Rickman’s performance in the film. Brandon in both the book and the film is the more responsible choice of suitor for the free-spirited Marianne, but in the book I found him boring. Rickman’s portrayal makes Brandon a sensitive, romantic, compassionate man, who has developed a stiff, reserved exterior due to the somewhat tragic realities of his situation. One of my favorite moments is after Brandon has rescued Marianne from the rain, having carried her five miles and silently delivering her into the arms of her sister, only to be left behind as they care for her, soaked and exhausted to the point where he can barely stand, yet relieved that she is safe. He delivers so much emotion without words. Rickman’s Brandon is much more worthy of Marianne’s eventual affections, and his kindness, good intentions, and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others are almost heartbreaking, and Brandon becomes far more heroic a character than Austen had envisioned all thanks to Rickman.
Perhaps my favorite side of Alan Rickman was his comedic side. I never saw Dogma in the theater (I doubt at 15 my mother would have allowed me to go), but it played pretty heavily on TV soon after its release and I found myself captivated by Rickman’s portrayal of the Metatron, an angel who serves the role as the voice of God. Rickman makes the Metatron highly sarcastic and constantly put upon, but with an authority and a gravity that feels just shy of being out of place in the film. He’s unlike any angel we’ve ever seen onscreen, yet he fits so well in the film’s religious mythology and style. He also gives Metatron an undercurrent of sadness at the various misdeeds of humanity he’s had to witness, including having to explain Jesus as a young boy his eventual horrible fate. But my favorite comedic role of Rickman’s has to be as Alexander in Galaxy Quest. As a Shakespearean actor forced to live in the shadow of his alien character from a cheesy sci-fi TV show, Rickman makes Alexander the most self-loathing, perpetually dispirited character in history. Every line just drips with disdain for his fans, his old show, and everyone around him. His delivery of Alexander’s character’s famous catchphrase in service of the grand opening of an electronics store might be the 6 most painfully delivered words in all of cinema history. But as always, Rickman’s characters are always more than what they seem, and Alexander’s eventual embracing of his character’s legacy and influence in a moment of tragedy give the film an emotional punch stronger than one might imagine possible from such a silly film.
And, of course, there’s Snape. Severus Snape and Alan Rickman will forever be inseparable. When the Harry Potter series was first cast, there were many brilliant choices made of expertly matched actors and roles (Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, the young trio), but none were as perfectly paired nor as important to the story as Rickman and Snape. No one else could have played the role, nor brought as much to the character. His Snape felt infinitely more real than the character Rowling gave us, with all of the menace and loathing she created but with a weariness she hadn’t imagined. He feels like a teacher, who gets some secret satisfaction from his job despite seemingly despising it. Rickman made so much of the small moments, those little touches, which shine out above the melodramatic flourishes that define the character. But the image that will always come to mind when I think of Snape, and of Rickman, will be one that never existed in the books. During the final film, when Harry views Snape’s memories, we’re treated to a new scene, where Severus visits the wreckage of the Potter’s house after Voldemort’s attack. He finds Lily’s dead body, and cradles her in his arms, crying out at the loss of the only person he would ever love. It absolutely destroyed me, and to be honest, after today it might be a while before I can watch it again.
I wrote to Rickman several years ago, while he was performing in the play Seminar on Broadway. I write a lot of letters to celebrities, both as a film fan who likes to show his appreciation to those whose art he loves and as a collector of autographs. Often actors have their assistants or agents sign and reply for them, especially when they’re filming on location or performing nightly on the stage. But Rickman took time from his schedule to sign and personalize not only a picture but a playbill from his show. It’s not much in the grand scheme of things, and I have no proof that he signed them himself, but I like to think he took the time to read my letter and reply. It might be a fantasy, but it fits with the sort of person he always appeared to be and which came across onscreen. I’ll miss his varied roles, his stunning voice, his sense of humor, and his smile. But more than that I’ll miss the heart he brought to every character, the depth he found in even the smallest part, and the appreciation he had for art and his place in it. Whether as Snape, Hans Gruber, Colonel Brandon, Dr. Lazarus, or the Metatron, Alan Rickman always shone through. And today, the world is a little less bright without him.