Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman was born in the Acton area of London on 21 February 1946, the son of Welsh housewife Margaret Doreen Rose (Bartlett) and English factory worker, house painter and decorator, and former Second World War aircraft fitter Bernard William Rickman. He also had Irish ancestry through his paternal grandmother and would later say in April 2015, « I was talking to Sharleen Spiteri about being a Celt, how you smell each other out, because my mother’s family is Welsh. There’s not a lot of English blood in me. » His father was Catholic and his mother was a Methodist. He had two brothers named David and Michael and a sister named Sheila. Rickman was born with a tight jaw, which resulted in the deep, languid tone of voice for which he would become famous. When he was eight years old, his father died of lung cancer, leaving his mother to raise him and his three siblings mostly alone. According to biographer Maureen Paton, the family was « rehoused by the council and moved to an Acton estate to the west of Wormwood Scrubs Prison, where his mother struggled to bring up four children on her own by working for the Post Office ». She married again in 1960, but divorced Rickman’s stepfather after three years.
Before Rickman met his longtime partner Rima Horton at age 19, he stated that his first crush was at 10 years old on a girl named Amanda at his school’s sports day. As a child, he excelled at calligraphy and watercolour painting. Rickman attended West Acton First School followed by Derwentwater Primary School in Acton, and then Latymer Upper School in London through the Direct Grant system, where he became involved in drama. After leaving Latymer with science A Levels, he attended Chelsea College of Art and Design from 1965 to 1968 and then the Royal College of Art from 1968 to 1970. His training allowed him to work as a graphic designer for the Royal College of Art’s in-house magazine, ARK, and the Notting Hill Herald, which he considered a more stable occupation than acting; he later said that drama school « wasn’t considered the sensible thing to do at 18 ». After graduation, Rickman and several friends opened a graphic design studio called Graphiti, but after three years of successful business, he decided that he was going to pursue acting professionally. He wrote to request an audition with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), which he attended from 1972 until 1974. While there, he supported himself by working as a dresser for Sir Nigel Hawthorne and Sir Ralph Richardson.
After graduating from RADA, Rickman worked extensively with British repertory and experimental theatre groups in productions including Chekhov’s The Seagull and Snoo Wilson’s The Grass Widow at the Royal Court Theatre, and appeared three times at the Edinburgh International Festival. In 1978, he performed with the Court Drama Group, gaining roles in Romeo and Juliet and A View from the Bridge, among other plays. While working with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), he was cast in As You Like It. His breakthrough role was in The Barchester Chronicles (1982), the BBC’s adaptation of Trollope’s first two Barchester novels, as the Reverend Obadiah Slope.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Alan Rickman is the only actor to make it onto this Greatest Villains list twice—he does bad deeds with such gusto. Legend has it he kept refusing the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham until it was agreed he could do whatever he liked with it—which, to Kevin Costner’s rumoured chagrin, included stealing the whole damn show. Every sneer, every eye-roll, every flourish of splenetic exasperation is a joy to behold. Whether he’s cancelling Christmas or cutting your heart out with a spoon, Rickman’s crowd-pleasing pantomime villainy is downright heroic.
—Empire on Rickman, ranking his portrayals of the Sheriff of Nottingham (number 14) and Hans Gruber (number 4) on their list of the greatest villains.
Rickman was given the male lead, the Vicomte de Valmont, in the 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, directed by Howard Davies. After the RSC production transferred to the West End in 1986 and Broadway in 1987, Rickman received both a Tony Award nomination and a Drama Desk Award nomination for his performance.
In 1988, Rickman played the antagonist Hans Gruber in the action thriller Die Hard in what was his first feature film. Starring opposite Bruce Willis, Rickman’s portrayal earned him critical acclaim and a spot on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains list as the 46th best villain in film history. Rickman later revealed he almost did not take the role as he did not think Die Hard was the kind of film he wanted to make.
Rickman’s performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)—which garnered him the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role—also earned him praise as one of the best actors to portray a villain in films.
He starred in romantic leads including Jamie in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991) and Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility (1995); played the Australian Elliot Marston opposite Tom Selleck in Quigley Down Under (1990), and starred as the « mad monk » Rasputin in the HBO biopic Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny (1996), for which he won a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy Award.
Rickman directed The Winter Guest at London’s Almeida Theatre in 1995 and the film version of the same play, released in 1997, starring Emma Thompson and her real-life mother Phyllida Law. Rickman’s stage performances in the 1990s include Antony and Cleopatra in 1998 as Mark Antony, with Helen Mirren as Cleopatra, in the Royal National Theatre’s production at the Olivier Theatre in London, which ran from October to December 1998. Rickman appeared in Victoria Wood with All the Trimmings (2000), a Christmas special with Victoria Wood, playing an aged colonel in the battle of Waterloo who is forced to break off his engagement to Honeysuckle Weeks’ character.
Rickman took issue with being typecast as a villain, even though he was known for playing « unsympathetic characters ». During his career, Rickman played comedic roles, including as Sir Alexander Dane/Dr. Lazarus in the cult classic sci-fi parody Galaxy Quest (1999) with Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Sam Rockwell, and Tony Shalhoub. He also played the angel Metatron, the voice of God, in Kevin Smith’s Dogma (also 1999).
His portrayal of Severus Snape, the potions master in the Harry Potter series (2001–2011), was dark, but the character’s motivations were not clear early on.
In 2002, Rickman performed onstage in Noël Coward’s romantic comedy Private Lives. After its successful run at the Albery Theatre in the West End it transferred to Broadway and ended in September 2002; he reunited with his Les Liaisons Dangereuses co-star Lindsay Duncan and director Howard Davies in the Olivier and Tony Award-winning production.
With Katharine Viner, Rickman compiled the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie and directed the premiere production at the Royal Court Theatre, which opened in April 2005. He won the Theatre Goers’ Choice Awards for Best Director. Rickman befriended the Corrie family and earned their trust, and the show was warmly received. But the next year, its original New York production was « postponed » over the possibility of boycotts and protests from those who saw it as « anti-Israeli agit-prop ». Rickman denounced « censorship born out of fear ». Tony Kushner, Harold Pinter and Vanessa Redgrave, among others, criticised the decision to indefinitely delay the show. The one-woman play was put on later that year at another theatre to mixed reviews, and has since been staged at venues around the world.
In 2003, Rickman starred in the ensemble Christmas-themed romantic comedy Love Actually (2003) as Emma Thompson’s character’s foolish husband Harry. The film was written by Richard Curtis and has been called « a modern classic » by The Independent, In 2005, he lent his voice to Marvin the Paranoid Android in science fiction comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) starring Martin Freeman, Sam Rockwell, and Zooey Deschanel. In 2007 he played the egotistical, Nobel Prize-winning father in the black comedy Nobel Son (2007).
Rickman was nominated for an Primetime Emmy Award for his work as Dr. Alfred Blalock in HBO’s Something the Lord Made (2004). He also starred in the independent film Snow Cake (2006) with Sigourney Weaver and Carrie-Anne Moss, and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (also 2006), directed by Tom Tykwer. He appeared as Judge Turpin in the critically acclaimed Tim Burton film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) alongside Johnny Depp, and his Harry Potter co-stars Helena Bonham Carter and Timothy Spall.
In 2009, Rickman was awarded the James Joyce Award by University College Dublin’s Literary and Historical Society. In October and November 2010, Rickman starred in the eponymous role in Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin alongside Lindsay Duncan and Fiona Shaw. The Irish Independent called Rickman’s performance breathtaking.
In 2010, he starred in the BBC television production The Song of Lunch alongside Emma Thompson. That same year he provided the voice of Absolem the Caterpillar in Tim Burton’s film Alice in Wonderland (2010).
Rickman again appeared as Severus Snape in the final instalment in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011). Throughout the series, his portrayal of Snape garnered widespread critical acclaim. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said Rickman « as always, makes the most lasting impression », while Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine called Rickman « sublime at giving us a glimpse at last into the secret nurturing heart that … Snape masks with a sneer. » Media coverage characterised Rickman’s performance as worthy of nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His last appearance as Snape saw him receive award nominations in 2011, including at the Saturn Awards and the Scream Awards.
Rickman and Kate Winslet at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival
In November 2011, Rickman opened in Seminar, a new play by Theresa Rebeck, at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway. Rickman, who left the production in April, won the Broadway.com Audience Choice Award for Favorite Actor in a Play and was nominated for a Drama League Award. Rickman starred with Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz in Gambit (2012) by Michael Hoffman, a remake of the 1966 film. In 2013, he played Hilly Kristal, the founder of the East Village punk-rock club CBGB, in the CBGB film with Rupert Grint.
In 2014, he directed and starred in the costume drama film, A Little Chaos starring Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, and Stanley Tucci. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film received mixed reviews with its critics consensus reading, « The site’s consensus states that « Stylish and well-acted without ever living up to its dramatic potential, A Little Chaos is shouldered by the impressive efforts of a talented cast. » The following year he starred in Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky (2015) starring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and Barkhad Abdi. This would be Rickman’s final onscreen performance. The film debuted at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival to great acclaim, receiving a Rotten Tomatoes score of 95%, based on 175 critics, with the consensus being, « As taut as it is timely, Eye in the Sky offers a powerfully acted – and unusually cerebral – spin on the modern wartime political thriller. »
Rickman was chosen by Empire as one of the 100 Sexiest Stars in film history (No. 34) in 1995 and ranked No. 59 in Empire’s « The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time » list in October 1997. In 2009 and 2010, he was ranked once again as one of the 100 Sexiest Stars by Empire, both times placing No. 8 out of the 50 actors chosen. He was elected to the council of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in 1993; he was subsequently RADA’s vice-chairman and a member of its artistic advisory and training committees and development board.
Rickman was voted No. 19 in Empire magazine’s Greatest Living Movie Stars over the age of 50 and was twice nominated for Broadway’s Tony Award as Best Actor (Play); in 1987 for Les Liaisons Dangereuses and in 2002 for a revival of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. The Guardian named Rickman as an « honourable mention » in a list of the best actors never to have received an Academy Award nomination.
Two researchers, a linguist and a sound engineer, found « the perfect [male] voice » to be a combination of Rickman’s and Jeremy Irons’ voices based on a sample of 50 voices. The BBC states that Rickman’s « sonorous, languid voice was his calling card—making even throwaway lines of dialogue sound thought-out and authoritative. » In their vocal range exercises in studying for a GCSE in drama, he was singled out by the BBC for his « excellent diction and articulation ».
Rickman featured in several musical works, including a song composed by Adam Leonard entitled « Not Alan Rickman ». Credited as ‘A Strolling Player’ in the sleeve notes, the actor played a « Master of Ceremonies » part, announcing the various instruments at the end of the first part of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells II (1992) on the track « The Bell ». Rickman was one of the many artists who recited Shakespearian sonnets on the album When Love Speaks (2002), and also featured prominently in a music video by Scottish rock band Texas entitled « In Demand », which premiered on MTV Europe in August 2000.
In 1965, at age 19, Rickman met 18-year-old Rima Horton, who became his girlfriend and would later be a Labour Party councillor on the Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council (1986–2006) and an economics lecturer at Kingston University. In 2015, Rickman confirmed that they had married in a private ceremony in New York City in 2012. They lived together from 1977 until Rickman’s death. The two had no children.
Rickman was an active patron of the research foundation Saving Faces and honorary president of the International Performers’ Aid Trust, a charity that works to fight poverty amongst performing artists all over the world. When discussing politics, Rickman said he « was born a card-carrying member of the Labour Party. » His last recorded work prior to his death was for a short video to help Oxford University students raise funds and awareness of the refugee crisis for Save the Children and Refugee Council.
Rickman was the godfather of fellow actor Tom Burke. Rickman’s brother Michael is a Conservative Party district councillor in Leicestershi
In August 2015, Rickman suffered a minor stroke, which led to the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He revealed that he had terminal cancer to only his closest confidants. On 14 January 2016, he died in London at the age of 69. His remains were cremated on 3 February 2016 in the West London Crematorium in Kensal Green. His ashes were given to his widow. His final two films, Eye in the Sky and Alice Through the Looking Glass, were dedicated to his memory, as was The Limehouse Golem, which would have been his next project.
Soon after his death his fans created a memorial underneath the « Platform 9¾ » sign at London King’s Cross railway station. His death has been compared to that of David Bowie, a fellow English cultural figure who died at the same age as Rickman four days earlier, also from cancer, and also kept private from the public.
Tributes from Rickman’s co-stars and contemporaries appeared on social media following the announcement; since his cancer was not publicly known, some—like Ralph Fiennes, who « cannot believe he is gone », and Jason Isaacs, who was « sidestepped by the awful news »—expressed their surprise. Sir Michael Gambon told BBC Radio 4 he was a « great friend », and on his ability to write, direct and star in plays « he was a real man of the theatre and the stage. » At a West End performance of the play that made him a star (Les Liaisons Dangereuses), he was remembered as “a great man of the British theatre”.
Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling called Rickman « a magnificent actor and a wonderful man. » Emma Watson wrote, « I feel so lucky to have worked and spent time with such a special man and actor. I’ll really miss our conversations. » Daniel Radcliffe appreciated his loyalty and support: « I’m pretty sure he came and saw everything I ever did on stage both in Britain and America. He didn’t have to do that. » Evanna Lynch said it was scary to bump into Rickman in character as Snape, but « he was so kind and generous in the moments he wasn’t Snaping about. » Rupert Grint said, « even though he has gone I will always hear his voice. » Johnny Depp, who co-starred with Rickman in two Tim Burton films, commented, « That voice, that persona. There’s hardly anyone unique anymore. He was unique. »
Kate Winslet, who gave a tearful tribute at the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards, remembered Rickman as warm and generous, adding, « And that voice ! Oh, that voice. » Dame Helen Mirren said his voice « could suggest honey or a hidden stiletto blade ». Emma Thompson remembered « 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 … I learned a lot from him. » Colin Firth told The Hollywood Reporter that, as an actor, Rickman had been a mentor. John McTiernan, director of Die Hard, said Rickman was the antithesis of the villainous roles for which he was most famous on screen. Sir Ian McKellen wrote, « behind [Rickman’s] mournful face, which was just as beautiful when wracked with mirth, there was a super-active spirit, questing and achieving, a super-hero, unassuming but deadly effective. » Writer/Director Kevin Smith told a tearful 10-minute story about Rickman on his Hollywood Babble On podcast. Rickman’s family offered their thanks « for the messages of condolence ».