Alan Rickman passed away Wednesday at the age of 69.
Most Americans knew Rickman from two movie roles—as Hans Gruber in Die Hard and Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series. He was one of those actors who did not grow up before the audience, but emerged, fully formed, almost from the very first. Rickman was a late-bloomer—he didn’t apply to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts until he was 26, and didn’t graduate and begin acting professionally until he was 30. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and made a good living in the British theater, but didn’t break into television until he was 36, when he took the part of the obsequious Obadiah Slope in a BBC adaptation of the Barcester Towers series. By the time American audiences met him for the first time as the villain in the 1988 Die Hard, Rickman was already 42 years old. And he was also, improbably, a gigantic movie star.
Die Hard was probably the most influential movie of the 1980s. As film critic Alexandra DuPont put it some years back:
People forget how silly Die Hard looked on paper in 1988. It starred an unproven comic actor from a faddish TV show; it was helmed by a junior director (John McTiernan had Nomads and Predator under his belt); and it had that stupid car-battery pun of a title. But Die Hard has strength of story on its side, not to mention a certain genius of fusion—it took the 1970s disaster film, pureed it with ’80s action-movie tropes (typified up to that point by Lethal Weapon) and single-handedly resurrected the “siege film,” a genre last visited around, say, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.
Among the many elements which Die Hard imported into cinema was the concept of the villain as leading man, which is directly attributable to Rickman’s terrorist mastermind, Hans Gruber, who is by turns charming, menacing, and hysterically funny. For my mind, the scene that makes the movie is a little throw away moment when Gruber, in an elevator with one of his hostages, gives a little disquisition on bespoke suits. Every action movie made for the next 30 years tried to give its villain a similar character moment.
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But what made Hans Gruber so fantastic—David Foster Wallace wrote that Die Hard was the first time he ever consciously rooted for the villain—wasn’t just the writing. It was Rickman’s decision to play Gruber as though he was the star of the film. It’s a stroke of genius to which Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, Heath Ledger’s Joker, and dozens of other great screen villains owe an enormous debt.
After Die Hard Rickman became a household name, starring in movies that spanned the gamut from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to Galaxy Quest. In 1995, he was paired onscreen with his theater friend Emma Thompson (who also wrote the screen adaptation) in Sense and Sensibility, which turned out to be the best translation of an Austen novel to film. Here, Rickman played Col. Brandon, who is not a showy villain, but a quiet, reluctant hero—as Elinor calls him, “the kindest and best of men.” It’s a role that requires a great deal of actorly skill, because Brandon’s character is almost completely internalized. Rickman made audiences root for him again.
There followed more work in the theater, smaller films—including movies that he wrote and directed, one starring Thompson—and, finally, his turn as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films. Unlike some actors who are slightly embarrassed by big-box-office, franchise work, Rickman cherished the role. He was recruited for it by J. K. Rowling and was so moved by the series that upon completion he wrote a public love letter to the books’ fans.
Whether he was slithering through Hogwarts declaring “our . . . new . . . celebrity,” or swearing that he’d never again say the phrase “by Grabthar’s Hammer you shall be avenged,” or sitting across the table from Emma Thompson in a film which takes place entirely over a single lunch, when Rickman was onscreen, you couldn’t take your eyes off of him. Partly it was his voice—Rickman’s timbre, pacing, and diction made it a spellbinding tool. Partly it was his intelligence—like many British stage actors, and unlike most American film stars, you got the sense that Rickman was insanely well read. (Combining these two, his audiobook narration of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native is superb.)
But what really makes Rickman’s performances so memorable was that whether he was playing period drama or modern action, he had that ability to imbue characters with a sense that they had an entire life extending outward beyond the frame. Which made the story he was serving all the more compelling.
A cerebral stage veteran of the British stage who came to acting only as an adult, Alan Rickman was an unlikely movie star. As he did in every performance, he leaves us wanting more.