LONDON—Alan Rickman made wickedness delicious.
Reviewing Rickman’s breakout role as a scheming hedonist aristocrat in the play “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” Guardian newspaper critic Nicholas de Jongh likened the actor to “a cat who knows the way to the cream.”
Rickman, who died of cancer Thursday aged 69, went on to become one of the great Hollywood villains of the last 30 years. With his rich, languid voice and subtly expressive face, Rickman could invest evil with irresistible relish. His performances helped elevate films including “Die Hard” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” to the status of cult classics.
“Nobody plays irony like Alan Rickman,” comedian Ruby Wax told the BBC on Thursday.
Emma Thompson, Rickman’s frequent co-star, said “I couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do with his face next.”
As Hogwarts professor Severus Snape the “Harry Potter” saga, Rickman maintained the character’s core ambiguity—is he evil or his he good?—across eight films.
Potter star Daniel Radcliffe said Rickman was “undoubtedly one of the greatest actors I will ever work with.”
Rickman was born to a working-class London family on Feb. 21, 1946, and studied art and worked as a graphic designer before auditioning successfully for the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
After graduating, he worked with stage companies including the Royal Shakespeare Company, which cast him as Le Vicomte de Valmont in Christopher Hampton’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” The 1985 show was a smash, transferring to London’s West End and to Broadway, where Rickman was nominated for a Tony Award.
He made an indelible mark onscreen as Hans Gruber, the psychopathic villain who tormented Bruce Willis in “Die Hard” in 1988, and went on to play a deceased lover who consoles his bereaved partner from beyond the grave in 1990’s “Truly Madly Deeply”; the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” in 1991; and a wayward husband in 2003 romantic comedy “Love Actually.”
Millions know him from the Potter films, in which his Snape was either a nemesis or an ally—possibly both—to the titular teenage wizard.
Radcliffe, who played Harry, said Rickman “was one of the first of the adults on Potter to treat me like a peer rather than a child. Working with him at such a formative age was incredibly important and I will carry the lessons he taught me for the rest of my life and career.”
Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling tweeted that “there are no words to express how shocked and devastated I am to hear of Alan Rickman’s death. He was a magnificent actor (and) a wonderful man.”
Thompson, who starred alongside Rickman in films including “Sense and Sensibility” and “Love Actually,” praised Rickman’s “humour, intelligence, wisdom and kindness” and called him “the finest of actors and directors.”
Mohammed Saghir, the present-day Sheriff of Nottingham—now a ceremonial role in the English Midlands city—paid tribute to Rickman’s version of Robin Hood’s famous foe.
“His sheriff was a gloriously nasty character who it was easy to love to hate and who he appeared to have great fun playing,” Saghir said.
Rickman’s villains were memorable, and included an Emmy-winning turn as “mad monk” Rasputin in a 1996 TV biopic.
But his screen roles were remarkably varied, and included the upright Col. Brandon in Ang Lee’s 1995 film version of “Sense and Sensibility” and Irish politician Eamon de Valera in 1996 historical drama “Michael Collins.”
He had a sideline in comic sci-fi, bringing knowingness and fun to the spoof “Galaxy Quest” in 1999 and delivering existential ennui as the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in 2005.
He appeared frequently onstage, earning Tony Award nominations for “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” in 1987 and Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” in 2002.
Rickman was also a filmmaker, directing and co-starring opposite Kate Winslet in 2014 costume drama “A Little Chaos.” Seventeen years earlier, he’d directed Emma Thompson and her mother Phyllida Law in “The Winter Guest.” He said he would have directed more movies had a decade of “Harry Potter” work not intervened.
In 2005, he directed “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” a play based on the diaries of an American pro-Palestinian activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip.
Sigourney Weaver, who starred with Rickman in “Galaxy Quest” and the 2006 film “Snow Cake,” said the project was an example of the way Rickman “used his talent always to make a difference.”
Charming in person, Rickman was, by his own account, uncompromising as an actor. During the filming of “Harry Potter,” he maintained Snape’s air of haughty disdain even off-camera.
“The animal in me takes over,” Rickman told The Associated Press in 2011 when he appeared on Broadway in Theresa Rebeck’s play “Seminar.”
“You’re as polite as possible, but it’s not always possible.”
Rickman is survived by his partner of 50 years, Rima Horton, whom he married in 2012. Funeral details weren’t immediately available.