Magnificent actor with a sensuous voice

Alan Rickman in the Tricycle theatre in London in 2010.
Alan Rickman in the Tricycle theatre in London in 2010. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • In an acting career of more than 40 years, Alan Rickman, with his sensuous, shadowy purr of a voice and often an enigmatic grin, played a panoply of characters whose outward villainy often concealed more complicated emotions and motivations.

The accomplished British stage actor brought an erudite dignity to film roles such as Hans Gruber, the nefarious mastermind of Die Hard (1998), and Severus Snape, the dour master of potions in the Harry Potter series (2001-2011) adapted from J.K. Rowling's novels. He died of cancer on Thursday in London. He was 69.

On Twitter, Rowling called him a "magnificent actor". Daniel Radcliffe, who played Potter, wrote in a social media post that Rickman was "one of the first of the adults on Potter to treat me like a peer rather than a child". Whatever people concluded about Rickman from his screen roles, Radcliffe wrote, "Alan was extremely kind, generous, self-deprecating and funny. And certain things obviously became even funnier when delivered in his unmistakable double-bass".

Rickman, who attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, had his early successes in stage works such as the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1985 production of Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in which he played the manipulative Vicomte de Valmont. He was nominated for a Tony Award after the show moved to Broadway in 1987.

He gained a worldwide audience the following year in Die Hard, the first of the Hollywood action franchise, playing Gruber, the well- spoken terrorist whose takeover of the fictional Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles is foiled by the resourceful police officer John McClane, played by Bruce Willis.

Rickman wrung every malevolent drop from Gruber's boastful lines. ("Who are you?" he asks McClane. "Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne?")

Later, Rickman brought nuance to the role of Professor Snape, a sarcastic, cutting instructor at the Hogwarts school. The character was introduced onscreen in 2001's Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone. He seemed at first to be a traditional foil for the title protagonist, but through Rickman's increasingly intricate performances over eight films, he would be revealed as having had a more crucial role in the young hero's life.

Though Rickman was never nominated for an Oscar, he shrugged off awards in general. "Parts win prizes, not actors," he told the network IFC in 2008. "You always know a part that's got 'prize winner' written all over it and it's almost like anybody could say those lines and somebody will hand them a piece of metal."

Rickman was born on Feb 21, 1946, into a working-class family in London. He auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and was accepted in 1972.

After leaving the academy, he worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, appearing in acclaimed 1980s productions of Troilus And Cressida and As You Like It.

He made his television debut in 1978, playing Tybalt in a BBC version of Romeo And Juliet.

Following his success in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Rickman travelled to Los Angeles, where he was offered Die Hard by producer Joel Silver.

As he would recall, at a celebration of his career held by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, he was not initially impressed by the movie or its screenplay, credited to Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza. He said he had never made a film before, but his reaction to the script was: "What the hell is this? I'm not doing an action movie."

He said: "I got Joel saying, 'Get the hell out of here, you'll wear what you're told.' But when I came back, I was handed a new script. It showed that it pays to have a little bit of theatre training."

His many other film roles included the dastardly sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991).

Pointing to more upstanding figures he played, such as the suitor Colonel Brandon in Sense And Sensibility (1995), Rickman said it was a mistake to associate him only with corrupted characters. "The label gets written because of a very small amount of work that's had a lot of publicity," he told The Times in 2011.

He is survived by his wife, Rima Horton. They secretly wed in 2012, but had been together for more than 40 years, People magazine reported.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2016, with the headline 'Magnificent actor with a sensuous voice'. Print Edition | Subscribe