The world became fully aware of the sly, languid and villainous charms of Alan Rickman, who has died aged 69 of cancer, as the self-parodying Sheriff of Nottingham pitted against Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991).
However, the actor had already established himself as a star name at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the mid-1980s and as the hilarious German terrorist, Hans Gruber, in the action thriller Die Hard (1988) with Bruce Willis.
Rickman appeared as the cello-playing, dearly departed ghost in Anthony Minghella’s sensual, taut and wonderfully muted Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), with Juliet Stevenson as his grieving partner. At the RSC, he had been sensational as the predatory, dissolute Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Christopher Hampton’s brilliant adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s 18th-century epistolary novel that started small in the RSC’s Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon and trailed clouds of glory to the West End and Broadway in 1987; Rickman was a pivotal figure in a company that included, at that time, and in that production, Lindsay Duncan, Stevenson and Fiona Shaw.
Having first trained and worked as a graphic designer, Rickman was a late starter as an actor, attending Rada between 1972 and 1974, and winning the Bancroft gold medal, before working in rep and the RSC in small roles at the end of the 70s. He began making waves as Anthony Trollope’s devious chaplain Obadiah Slope in BBC television’s The Barchester Chronicles in 1982.
Then he was, for a new generation entirely, the sinister potions master Severus Snape in the eight Harry Potter movies, for a decade from 2001. Snape had secrets, and this inner life infused one of the outstanding performances in the series as he stalked the corridors and back passages at Hogwarts like the ghost in Hamlet, smelling a rat at every turn, his noble face contorted with mysterious loathing and curious motivation.
However, it would be wrong to typecast Rickman as a villain. He was an outstanding Hamlet at the Riverside Studios and on tour in 1992, a mature student whose rampant morbidity masked an intense, albeit perverse, zest for life. And in Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre in 1998, he was fabulous opposite Helen Mirren’s voluptuous serpent of old Nile – shambolic, charismatic, a spineless poet of a warrior. It was his misfortune to have both these great classic performances displayed in productions that met with considerable critical hostility and public indifference.
Tall, commanding, extremely funny when required, he was never above sending himself up either on stage or in the movies. He had talent to burn, a glorious voice that sometimes blurred in slack-jawed articulation, if only because everything he did seemed to come so easily to him. He was a central figure in the life of the little Bush theatre on the London fringe, at the Royal Court in the Max Stafford-Clark era of the 80s, as well as at Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands’s RSC, and he was a continual source of inspiration, and practical support, to his colleagues. He proved also to be a fine stage director, and directed two films. In the second of them, A Little Chaos (2014), a handsome 17th-century costume drama of love among the landscape artists at the newly constructed palace of Versailles, Rickman himself presided in his bewigged pomp as Louis XIV, the Sun King.
Letters: ‘A glass of red wine please,’ he said, in a tone that sounded like he was delivering a speech from a play by Shakespeare
The son of a factory worker, Bernard (who died when Alan was eight), and his wife, Margaret (nee Bartlett), he was of Irish and Welsh descent, raised on a council estate in Acton, west London, with three siblings (he was the second child), and educated at Derwentwater primary school in Acton, a Montessori school, and Latymer Upper. He studied graphic design at Chelsea School of Art – where he first met, aged 18, his future life partner, Rima Horton – and the Royal College of Art. With three friends, he ran a graphic design studio for three years in Notting Hill before going to Rada at the age of 26.
Rickman made his first impact with the Birmingham Rep, the first regional company to visit the new National Theatre’s home on the South Bank, when he played the upright Wittipol, disguised as a Spanish lady, in Ben Jonson’s The Devil Is an Ass in 1976, and also at the Edinburgh festival. Small parts in the RSC season of 1977-78 were followed, in 1980, by leading roles as a distraught sponsor of a pop concert in Stephen Poliakoff’s The Summer Party at the Crucible in Sheffield, with Brian Cox and Hayley Mills, and in Dusty Hughes’s anatomy of the Trotskyite left in Commitments, at the Bush. Rickman was a lifelong Labour party activist, while Rima, an economist, with whom he lived from 1977, was a Labour councillor in Kensington and Chelsea for 20 years from 1986.
In the early 80s, he was an ideal, doggedly English Trigorin in Thomas Kilroy’s otherwise Irish version of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Royal Court; a coruscating Grand Inquisitor in Richard Crane’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov at the Edinburgh festival; and a cheerfully stoned pragmatist on a Californian dope farm in Snoo Wilson’s The Grass Widow, also at the Royal Court, laying bare the capitalism of the drugs world as a sort of displaced Howard Marks, alongside Ron Cook and Tracey Ullman.
Everything about his acting came into sharp focus in the 1985-86 RSC season, when Les Liaisons Dangereuses was in repertory with three other plays. In As You Like It, he was the perfect “Seven ages of man” Jaques with Stevenson as Rosalind and Shaw as Celia; in Troilus and Cressida, Achilles never sulked so mightily in his tent; and in Ariane Mnouchkine’s superb version of Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker, he nailed the dilemma of a creative artist in the censorious climate of the Third Reich: “What can I do? I’m only an actor.” He took the next big job.
He was both rooted in his own theatre world and internationally curious. Guided by the producer Thelma Holt, he played a reclusive, abandoned actor in a derelict cinema in Kunio Shimizu’s Tango at the End of Winter, a beautiful poetic drama of memory and illusion directed by the Japanese maestro Yukio Ninagawa, at the Edinburgh festival in 1991; and buckled down to Hamlet with Robert Sturua, the great director of the Rustaveli theatre in Georgia who had made waves in western Europe.
In the earlier part of his career, Rickman had supervised several shows with the comedian Ruby Wax, whom he had met at the RSC, and had recommended a play by Sharman Macdonald to the Bush; he expanded his directing work with Wax into a new play he commissioned from Macdonald, The Winter Guest (1995, West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Almeida in London), a tone poem in a Scottish seaside town, with no plot, for the superb quartet of Phyllida Law, Sheila Reid, Sian Thomas and Sandra Voe; he also directed a film version (1997) with an overlapping cast.
But film had begun to take precedence, Robin Hood leading to big roles and billing in Tim Robbins’s satirical Bob Roberts (1992), about a rightwing folk singer running for the US Senate; as Colonel Brandon in Ang Lee’s fine version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1996), with a screenplay by Emma Thompson; and as Eamon de Valera in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996), starring Liam Neeson as the IRA founder.
Even with the Harry Potter franchise under way, Rickman managed a triumphant return in 2001 to the West End and Broadway in Noël Coward’s Private Lives, displaying what the New York Times called a virtuosity of disdain as the squinting, wounded egomaniac Elyot Chase opposite Lindsay Duncan’s blonde ice queen of an Amanda Prynne; this was the best pairing in the roles since Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith 30 years earlier. His last stage roles, both critically acclaimed, were as Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at the Abbey in Dublin (with Duncan and Fiona Shaw) in 2010 and as a celebrity teacher in a writing workshop in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar on Broadway in 2011.
In between, he directed My Name Is Rachel Corrie at the Royal Court, the West End, the Edinburgh festival and on Broadway in 2005-06. He compiled the show with Katharine Viner, now editor-in-chief of the Guardian, from the writings and emails of the American activist Corrie, who was killed by a bulldozer operated by the Israeli army in Gaza in 2003 while protesting against its occupation. This sense of political justice and civic responsibility informed his life as a citizen, too.
Rickman will be remembered latterly as Thompson’s husband in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003), the voice of Marvin the paranoid android in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005), as Judge Turpin in Tim Burton’s wacky movie version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (2007) and as (another voice) Absalom the Caterpillar in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010).
But he was a committed vice-chairman of Rada, a patron of the charity Saving Faces, dedicated to helping those with facial disfigurements and cancer, and honorary president of the International Performers Aid Trust, which works to alleviate poverty in some of the world’s toughest areas.
He married Rima in 2012. She survives him, as do his siblings, David, Michael and Sheila.
• Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman, actor, born 21 February 1946; died 14 January 2016