Alan Rickman: A Character Actor and Director With the Presence of a Movie Star

Alan Rickman in one of his most iconic roles, Die Hard's Hans Gruber
Alan Rickman in one of his most iconic roles, Die Hard's Hans Gruber

Alan Rickman has died at the age of 69. To Americans of a certain generation, he'll always be Hans Gruber from Die Hard; to those of a slightly fresher vintage, he'll never not be Severus Snape. But it was his ability to transcend the typecasting of those iconic roles that made him that rarest of creatures: an immensely talented character actor with the presence of a movie star.

He was never a Daniel Day-Lewis–type chameleon who disappeared into his roles; Rickman's Ronald Reagan in Lee Daniels's The Butler was probably the least Reagan-y screen Reagan ever, for one. In the 1990s in particular, he was as immediately recognizable as Kevin Costner or Tom Cruise or any other leading man, but he also proved himself to be a boundless talent who improved any film lucky enough to have him. Take his first high-profile post–Die Hard role, as the manic Sheriff of Nottingham in Kevin Reynolds's 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

At the time, word about the movie was that you simply had to see Hans Gruber as the shaggy-haired Sheriff, spitting out killer gags that he almost certainly improvised ("You, my room, 10:30 tonight! You, 10:45 — and bring a friend!"). The role confirmed that not only was Rickman charismatic and easy on the eyes, he also possessed another important quality that doesn't get mentioned much: perfect comic timing. This also served him well in his dramatic roles, including his villain in Simon Wincer's underrated Quigley Down Under from the year before. (Rickman was more capital-F Fun in Robin Hood, but Quigley was a much better movie.)

Rickman's most important post-Gruber/pre-Snape year was 1999, when he appeared as the archangel Metatron in Kevin Smith's Dogma (my personal favorite Rickman role) and actor Alexander Dane in Dean Parisot's Galaxy Quest.

Playing full-on comedy roles in stories with dire dramatic stakes, he always showed rare commitment to his characters — and a corresponding lack of ego on the set. Not many actors would agree to wear the smooth crotch of a genital-free angel, as he does in Dogma, and at no point does Rickman take off the intentionally silly alien-head prosthetic in Quest, no matter how tattered it gets, which just makes it funnier as the film progresses.

Let no one doubt Rickman's commitment to his craft.
Let no one doubt Rickman's commitment to his craft.
Courtesy of Lions Gate

That's a downright British devotion to comedy, appropriately enough.

Rickman was less known for his directorial work, probably because he only directed two movies, 1997's The Winter Guest and 2014's A Little Chaos. He also co-wrote and appeared in the latter, which can perhaps now be viewed as his last grand artistic statement. At first glance it appears to be a stuffy costume drama — in 1862 France, ace landscape designer Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet) is brought on to work on an aqueduct at Versailles for King Louis XIV (Rickman) — but Rickman kept the tone light. Everyone seems to be having a ball playing dress-up, particularly Stanley Tucci, who steals every scene in a way not unlike Rickman's in Prince of Thieves, and to an extent that a less secure actor-director might have curtailed.

Further evidence that A Little Chaos was made by a class act is the fact that not only is leading lady Winslet in her late thirties, her hunky romantic interest André (Matthias Schoenaerts) is two years her junior. Alan Rickman was a true gentleman, and he will be missed.


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