British actor and filmmaker Alan Rickman, known to millions around the world as the delectably nasty Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, has died at the age of 69. The much-loved figure’s death was confirmed Thursday by his family. He had been suffering from cancer. Already an esteemed figure on the London stage during the 1980s — his 1986 performance as the seductive schemer Valmont in Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses was hailed as an all-time West End and Broadway great — Rickman achieved global success as a film actor relatively late in life, following his memorable turn as terrorist Hans Gruber in 1988’s Die Hard opposite Bruce Willis. It was his first film role, at the age of 41, and a part he was offered within two days of his arrival in Los Angeles.
He was typically self-effacing when recounting how he won the part. “I was extremely cheap,” quipped Rickman about what made the newbie thesp attractive to Die Hard producer Joel Silver, before remembering he almost turned the role down: “I read it and said, ‘What the hell is this? I’m not doing an action movie.” Thankfully for Rickman, and audiences, he was persuaded by friends to take that first role even though it might also have proven his last. Recalling how he had to perform his own stunt in the climactic fall from the top of the skyscraper — this was in the pre-CGI days — Rickman was given one afternoon’s training to prepare for the scene, “which was the very last shot — just in case.”
The one-two punch two years later of the late Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply and his iconic performance as the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham in the 1991 Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (for which he received a BAFTA) firmly established him as one of Britain’s most versatile actors. His rich and eclectic career saw him work with some of the film industry’s most talented and eclectic directors including Neil Jordan, Alfonso Cuaron, Tim Burton, Ang Lee as well as Minghella.
The decade he spent working on the blockbuster Harry Potter adaptations as the mysterious Severus Snape further endeared him to an entirely new, and global, audience of fans. “To be perfectly honest, having a film career is a bit of a surprise,” said the RADA alumni last April at his onstage talk on receiving his BAFTA Fellowship.
His illustrious filmography is notable for great films and even better performances: opposite Liam Neeson in Michael Collins; in Dean Parisot’s hit comedy Galaxy Quest; Lee’s Sense And Sensibility with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet; Richard Curtis’ Love, Actually and most recently with Helen Mirren in Gavin Hood’s Eye In The Sky.
He also turned his hand to directing, proving himself a sensitive and subtle filmmaker. He directed Emma Thompson and her mother, Phyllida Law, in his directorial debut, the acclaimed drama The Winter Guest. Last year, he made A Little Chaos with Kate Winslet, in a charming period drama set in Versailles in which he also starred as a grieving Louis XIV.
The theater remained a great love, and he stayed faithful to it, even with the lure of big studio paydays in film. He starred as Mark Antony opposite Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra and on both the West End and Broadway in 2002 for Noel Coward’s Private Lives with Lindsay Duncan and director Howard Davies. His three memorable performances on Broadway ended most recently in 2012 with his starring role in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, in which he played a lecherous self-important writer past his prime giving lessons to high-paying young students.
In 2005, he directed the award-winning play My Name Is Rachel Corrie about the American student who was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer while protesting against the actions of the Israeli Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip.
Speaking at last year’s BAFTA Fellowship, he was effortlessly charming, articulate and endearingly humble. Summing up the appeal of cinema- and art- in general, Rickman found a typically eloquent way to encapsulate it. “It’s the act of giving yourself over to once upon a time.”
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