If there ever was a villain that people fought to work with, it was Alan Rickman, one of the most skillful actors to play antagonistic roles of all time. An Englishman in love with theatre, America, and his partner of fifty years, will be remembered for generations to come, as professor Severus Snape of the 'Harry Potter' movie saga, and one of the most specific voices of film.
Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman, as was the actor’s full name, was born in London of an English, Iris and Welsh ancestry. His parents were Margaret Doreen Rose, then a housewife and Bernard Rickman who worked as a factory worker, house painter and decorator and a former World War II aircraft fitter. When Alan was just 8 years old, his father died of lung cancer. He was the second of four children, having an older and a younger brother, as well as a younger sister. After his father’s death, Alan’s mother had to move the family out the council estate they’ve been living on and start working. She found a job at the Post Office, but it wasn’t an easy existence. Eventually, she remarried in 1960 but got divorced only three years later.
As a child, Alan was great at calligraphy and watercolor painting. He was interested in acting as well, but his artistic skills led him to study Graphic Design first, and ignore his love for acting, which, as he says, wasn’t considered a sensible thing to study when he was young. During his studies, he worked in an in-house magazine. Around that time, he met his future life partner and wife Rima Horton. Once he graduated, he started his own graphics design business called Graphiti, along with a few friends. The business was a success and Alan kept working for it for three years. However, unable to bury his great passion for theatre, Alan changed his mind about his career and decided to audition for the acceptance at the prestigious London Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, known as RADA. He was 26 at the time, which is considered a relatively old age to start up an acting career, nevertheless, Alan got accepted and was offered a scholarship. “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. A voice in the head saying, ‘It’s time to do it. No excuses.‘’, he said about that part of his life. Alan spent two years at RADA studying Shakespeare. Interestingly, during his time there, he worked as a dresser for actors Sir Nigel Hawthorne and Sir Ralph Richardson in order to support himself. Later in life, in 2003, RADA welcomed Rickman as its Vice-Chairman.
After graduation, specializing in theatre acting, Rickman joined few theatre groups. This led him to perform at the Royal Court Theatre, as well as at the Edinburgh International Festival, before making his way to Hollywood.
Alan Rickman’s first on-screen appearance was playing the role of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet for BBC Television Shakespeare in 1978, but his big breakthrough happened on stage. In 1987, playing the male lead of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Vincomte de Valmont, the production got transferred to Broadway where Rickman received two prestigious nominations: for the Tony Award and for the Drama Desk Award. The role also got him nominated back home for the Laurence Olivier award for the Best Role.
Just two days after arriving in LA, Rickman got offered a part in the movie Die Hard, now a classic, which came out in 1988. This can be marked as the moment his career took off, despite the fact that Rickman was 42 years old at the time. Rickman first thought to decline the role as he believed that was not the kind of a film he wanted to be a part of. Playing the antagonist got him into the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains list as one of the 46th best villain in film history. As his career progressed, Rickman continued to play anti-heroes, probably not wanting to specialize in this type of roles, but certainly earning the reputation of the best actor to be able to portray them. When asked about his antagonistic characters, Rickman replied: ‘’I don’t play villains, I play very interesting people’’, showing how much he engaged in understanding them. He didn’t allow them to become just simple and obligatory plot devices, he created heroes in their own stories and their own worlds.
Although he will be known for those roles of villains, during the career that spread through five decades Rickman played a wide range of parts for a wide range of media. Some that are memorable are Jamie in Truly, Madly, Deeply in 1991, Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that same year, Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility in 1995 and Rasputin in the HBO biopic Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny the following year, for which he won both a Golden Globe and an Emmy.
But it wasn’t until the Harry Potter series that Alan Rickman really got the praise he deserved. Portraying Severus Snape, the series second main antagonist, from 2001 all through its end in 2011, made him legendary. His quality as an artist shows in the following fact: he was one of the few, if not the only one, to whom J.K. Rowling revealed the whole story of Professor Snape, the fact that he was in love with Harry Potter’s mom, who chose another man. This helped Rickman create the complete character of Snape and convey the contradictory animosity and protectiveness over Harry. Evanna Lynch, a colleague from the series, said that it was scary bumping into Rickman when he was in Snape’s character, but that he was ‘so kind and generous in the moments he wasn’t Snaping about.’ When the director asked Rickman why we was doing a scene a certain way, Rickman would reply that he simply knew something others didn’t. It is also said that Rowling wrote the character having no other but Rickman in mind.
Another memorable Rickman role is the one in the iconic Love Actually. The film that is now a Christmas classic and is shown at least once every holiday in all celebrating countries of the world, had him portray a comic role of a husband, tempted to cheat on his wife. Apart from acting, Rickman also directed plays and the following films: The Winter Guest in 1997 (he also directed its stage version) and A Little Chaos in 2014.
His long filmography also includes a collaboration with the master of the dark tales, Tim Burton. He starred in the director’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and both parts of Alice, giving the voice to Absolem the Caterpillar. Alice Through the Looking Glass, which came out posthumously, was dedicated to him.
There is no doubt, however, that theatre was the place he loved the most, referring to it as ‘magical’. He turned down many film roles in favour of those offered to him to play on stage.
There is no doubt about it that Alan Rickman’s biggest legacy will be his portrayal of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter film series. Other films may be forgotten with time, but every new generation of children will find its way through to Harry Potter books and films. A proof of that is the fact that, not long after his death, his fans created a memorial underneath the symbolic Platform 9 ¾ sign that has been put up at London’s King Cross railway station.
He will also be remembered for the following quote, frequently shared on social media but without any proof that the actor actually ever said it: ‘When I’m 80 years old and sitting in my rocking chair, I’ll be reading Harry Potter. And my family will say to me, ‘After all this time?’ And I will say, ‘Always.’’
There are no major controversies connected to the actor’s name. He took part in charity work, was an active patron of the Saving Faces Research Foundation and an honorary president of the International Performer’s Aid Trust, helping artists around the world. He was also politically active, as a member of the Labour party.
In 2005, he directed a play My Name is Rachel Corrie, compiled from the e-mails of the student killed by a bulldozer while protesting against the actions of the Israel Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip. The play went on to win awards.
In 1995, he ranked 34 on the Empire magazine’s list of 100 Sexiest Stars in film history and number 59 in the ‘’The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time’’ list two years later.
His specific, smooth voice and calm delivery of his characters will also be remembered as one of his trademarks. Two researchers, a linguist and a sound engineer are said to have found the perfect male voice, which is a combination of Alan Rickman’s voice with the one of Jeremy Irons’.
Rickman met his future partner, Rima Horton in 1965. He was 19, she was 18 at the time. They spent their whole lives together but only decided to get married four years before his death, in a private ceremony. On his wedding, Rickman said: ‘It was great because no one was there.’
Rima became a Labour Party councilor on the Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council (from 1986 to 2006) and also worked as an economics lecturer at the Kingston University. The couple didn’t have any children, a decision they consciously made in favour of their lifestyle.
Rickman lived in both England and the United States. He admitted he felt more like himself in America, because it was a more laid-back country. ‘I love America, because, whenever I go home – there’s something about England and coming from England – but as soon as you walk down the steps of the plane you shrink.’
Rickman’s friends will remember him as a loyal, kind and a generous man. He never let anyone else pay for a meal in his presence, because even if they tried, he would already set things up so the bill was already paid. Emma Thompson, with whom Rickman often co-starred, said this about him: “What I remember most in this moment of painful leave-taking is his humour, intelligence, wisdom and kindness. The intransigence which made him the great artist he was his ineffable and cynical wit, the clarity with which he saw most things, including me, and the fact that he never spared me the view”.
In August 2015, Rickman found out he had pancreatic cancer. This happened after he suffered a minor stroke. He didn’t make his illness known publicly, only the closest people around him knew. On 14 January 2016, just over a month before his birthday, Rickman died in a hospital in London, in the year that will be known as the one that took away many cultural figures. He was 69 years old, which is as much as many credits he has as an actor.
Written by: Tamara Djordjevic