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.
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.
His 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 cult classic the 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.