(Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy)

The legacy of Alan Rickman: One of Britain’s finest artists

If people want to know who I am, it is all in the work.” – Alan Rickman

For kids who grew up watching the Harry Potter films, English actor Alan Rickman will always be remembered as the cold, complicated and ultimately selfless Professor Snape. However, reducing his extensive career to one role does not do justice to such a legendary actor. The recipient of several accolades like a Primetime Emmy and a Golden Globe, Rickman established himself as a top performer and gained recognition from the American mainstream consciousness. As a tribute to the late actor, we revisit his life and look back fondly on his contribution to cinema.

Born in West London to a working class family in 1946, Rickman grew up with two brothers and a sister. His father, a factory worker, house decorator and a former World War-II aircraft technician, passed away due to lung cancer when Rickman was just eight-years-old. In order to keep herself and her four children fed, his mother started working for the local Post Office and married again in 1960. The new marriage would not last for long because she would divorce Rickman’s stepfather three years later. It might come as a surprise to many people, but Rickman’s signature languid delivery of lines was a direct consequence of a childhood speech impediment. He was born with a tight jaw, and the mobility of the lower part of his jaw was restricted since birth. To Rickman’s enormous credit, he used it to his advantage and utilised it to form his unique acting persona. Rickman was drawn to the performing arts from an early age, but he studied graphic design at Chelsea College of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art because he felt it wasn’t the correct decision to take at the tender age of 18. “There was an inevitability about my being an actor since about the age of 7, but there were other roads that had to be traveled first,” he later said. “A voice in the head saying, ‘It’s time to do it. No excuses.'”

Rickman opened a graphic design studio called Graphiti with his friends after graduation, eventually deciding to pursue an acting career. At the age of 26, he applied for an audition with the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art which he attended until 1974. While working there, he supported himself by taking up freelance design gigs on the side and working as a set dresser for the likes of Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir Nigel Hawthorne. Rickman garnered invaluable experience from his time with British experimental theatre groups. Although he joined the more famous Royal Shakespeare Company in 1978 and appeared in acclaimed productions like The Tempest, the burgeoning actor was not impressed with how the production company operated. He said, “It’s a factory. It has to be. It’s all about product endlessly churned out—not sufficiently about process. They don’t look after the young actors. People are dropping like flies, doing too many shows at once. There ought to be someone who helps them develop.” Despite his complaints about the Royal Shakespeare Company, Rickman went on to achieve more fame and success with them. In 1985, he was cast as the male lead in the Company’s production of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He earned a Tony Award nomination and a Drama Desk Award nomination when the production eventually came to Broadway in 1987.

“Alan was able to transfix not only the viewer but he also seemed to have a kind of hypnotic effect on the people he was playing his scenes with.”

Christopher Hampton

A year later, Rickman rose to prominence with a fantastic performance as the antagonist of the iconic action thriller Die Hard. His portrayal of Hans Gruber, the orchestrator of a terrorist attack on Christmas, was lauded by critics and was regarded as one of the greatest hostile characters of all time by several publications and institutions including Empire and AFI. Rickman was hesitant about taking the role because he did not think an action thriller would be his kind of film, but it worked out in his favour because the sensational success of Die Hard solidified his status as a top actor in America. He followed it up with another fantastic portrayal of a villain as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves which won him a BAFTA Award and more critical acclaim. During this period, he played romantic leads in dramas like Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991) and Sense and Sensibility (1995). This was Rickman’s attempt to avoid being typecast as a villain, “I don’t see any of [my roles] as one word,” he once said. “It doesn’t matter what I’m playing: it’s not one word, and I think any actor would say the same.” In order to move away from playing the same kind of roles over and over again, he took on comedic parts in films like the cult sci-fi parody Galaxy Quest (1999). However, the serious roles were the ones that brought him critical success as he received a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his brilliant rendition of the “mad monk” Rasputin in HBO’s 1996 biopic about the mythical figure, Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny.

While Rickman was working on the biggest project of his career, the Harry Potter series which ran from 2001 to 2011, he actively worked within the contemporary theatre scene. Apart from acting in various productions around that time, he compiled and directed an experimental play called My Name Is Rachel Corrie which was based on the accounts of an activist who was killed by an Israeli soldier when she was just 23-years-old. Much to Rickman’s dismay, people boycotted his production because they thought the play had “anti-Israel” agenda, but the actor refused to give in to “censorship born out of fear” and went ahead with the production. He also worked on more comedic roles in works of humour like Love Actually (2003) and voiced the fascinating character of Marvin the Paranoid Android in the film adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Rickman appeared in critically acclaimed films like Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, released in 2007 alongside Johnny Depp and his Harry Potter co-stars Helena Bonham Carter and Timothy Spall. He was also cast in the title role of a production of Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman which served as definitive evidence that Rickman had a lot more to offer than just the Harry Potter series. He received the coveted James Joyce Award in 2009 by University College Dublin for his achievements in the arts.

After his stint as Severus Snape ended, Rickman further diversified his acting portfolio by playing historical figures like Ronald Reagan in The Butler (2013) and King Louis XIV in A Little Chaos (2014). He also portrayed local icons like Hilly Kristal, the owner of the iconic New York City punk rock club CBGB in the 2013 film CBGB. His final onscreen performance came in 2015 when he starred alongside Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and Barkhad Abdi in the political thriller Eye in the Sky. That same year, Rickman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after suffering a minor stroke, but he only told his closest friends and family about the terminal nature of his cancer. He passed away in January of 2016, just six weeks shy of his 70th birthday. Fans from all over the world paid tributes to the late cultural icon who had touched so many lives with his work. Rickman’s colleagues revealed how he had supported their careers and taught them how to fulfil their respective artistic journeys. Tim Burton rightly said:

That voice, that persona. There’s hardly anyone unique anymore. He was unique.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Delivering curated content