British actor Alan Rickman was often cast as the bad guy; with his rich, languid voice he could invest evil with wicked, irresistible relish. The classically trained actor died of cancer.
Alan Rickman, the classically trained English actor who excelled as tormented fiends and aristocratic weasels in films such as “Die Hard” and the “Harry Potter” franchise, and who also used his languid manner to surprising effect in romantic comedy, died Thursday in London. He was 69.
The cause was cancer, and the death was confirmed by Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of the London Guardian, with whom Mr. Rickman collaborated on the play “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” about the young activist from Olympia, who was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003.
A silky voiced stalwart of the British stage, Mr. Rickman drew a Tony nomination on Broadway in 1987 as the creepily seductive Valmont in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. That led to his screen breakthrough the next year as a debonair but violent criminal mastermind in the first and best entry in the “Die Hard” action franchise.
His pitch-perfect straddling of overconfident intellect and snakelike menace as his character Hans Gruber holds hostages in a Los Angeles office building made him a compelling nemesis for the blue-collar American police detective played by Bruce Willis, whose wit is limited to one liners like “Yippee ki-yay” and an expletive.
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Mr. Rickman stole the film from the nominal star, winning unanimous critical praise. Not alone in her assessment, The New York Times film reviewer Caryn James called him the “film’s best surprise.”
His sneering malevolence went full throttle in the “Harry Potter” films that spanned the 2000s and were based on J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy books about a schoolboy wizard.
Mr. Rickman played Professor Severus Snape with all the outward mannerisms of the villain — the acid manners, the flaring nostrils, the black pageboy cut — but brought to the role enigmatic depths that leave a viewer never entirely sure of whether he is Potter’s ally or tormentor or both.
“There was more to him than met the eye,” Mr. Rickman once said of Snape. “It’s something unnameable. He lives within very tight confines emotionally, physically. He lives a solitary kind of existence. Mysterious. He’s very focused. Eventually you get to find out who he is. Innocence. Lost. Resentful. It’s been a complete privilege.”
To paint Mr. Rickman as a specialist in villainy is to underestimate his range as a performer.
He was a cellist who comes back from the dead to comfort his former lover (Juliet Stevenson) in the romantic fantasy “Truly Madly Deeply” and was the cruel sheriff of Nottingham to Kevin Costner’s bland hero in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” He also played the shifty campaign manager in “Bob Roberts,” and appeared in the science-fiction spoof “Galaxy Quest,” in a role sending up classical British actors relegated to lightweight fantasy fare.
He won plaudits as the honorable Col. Brandon in “Sense and Sensibility” opposite Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant; as the Irish statesman Eamon de Valera in the IRA biopic “Michael Collins”; and as a married executive besotted with his secretary in the romantic crowd-pleaser “Love Actually.”
He also showed up as Ronald Reagan in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” the scruffy nightclub impresario Hilly Kristal in “CBGB” and was an unappealing angel in “Dogma,” director Kevin Smith’s irreverent comedy about Catholicism.
He was showered with superlatives for his lead performance in “Rasputin,” a 1996 HBO television movie about the infamous Russian “holy man” who ingratiates himself with the imperial Romanovs.
Though he was never nominated for an Academy Award, he shrugged off awards in general. “Parts win prizes, not actors,” he told IFC in 2008.
While the films and TV work brought Mr. Rickman a vast following, he continued embarking on stage roles that showcased his range and technical prowess. Among his standout performances was Mark Antony to Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra in a 1998 London staging of the Shakespeare tragedy “Antony and Cleopatra” and the title role in Henrik Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman” in a 2010 production at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.
American audiences, accustomed to his many screen roles of cunning in the service of evil, were pleasantly surprised to see how well he exhibited deft comic timing and sophisticated allure in a revival of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” on Broadway in 2002.
The Coward comedy brought Lindsay Duncan a best actress Tony and earned Mr. Rickman a nomination for best actor in a play. His final Broadway appearance was in 2011 as a haughty creative-writing professor in “Seminar,” a comedy by Theresa Rebeck.
His coming movies include “Eye in the Sky,” a thriller with Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul, and “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” as the voice of the Blue Caterpillar.
Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman was born in London on Feb. 21, 1946, and was the second of four children of parents of Irish and Welsh descent. He was 8 when his father, a painter and decorator, died of cancer.
After a peripatetic art career, including studies at different art colleges and a brief involvement in a graphic-design studio, he auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and was accepted in 1972.
He completed his RADA courses in 1974, performed in repertory theater and intermittently worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He came to prominence in England for his role in 1982 as the political manipulator and lady killer Obadiah Slope in the BBC-TV production of “The Barchester Chronicles.”
That opened the door for many high-profile roles. And with his movie-star leverage, he began branching out into directing small-scale films. They included “The Winter Guest,” a well-received Scottish-set drama starring Thompson, a longtime friend; and “A Little Chaos,” a 2014 film with Winslet and Jeremy Brock and set amid King Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles. Mr. Rickman gave himself a supporting role as the charismatic monarch known as the Sun King.
He was, like his wife, a politically active Labour Party supporter. His political engagement led him to direct “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” the show he compiled with journalist Viner from the writings and emails of Corrie, who was killed while protesting the Israeli occupation.
He is survived by his wife, Rima Horton, a university lecturer in economics and former councilor for the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and three siblings. The couple had lived together since meeting at college, when she was 18 and he was 19. They wed secretly in New York in 2012.
Talking about the wedding, Mr. Rickman told the German Bild newspaper: “It was great because no one was there. After the wedding in New York, we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and ate lunch.”