Alan Rickman, who passed away at age 69 on Thursday, Jan. 14, was oft-quoted as saying, “Talent is an accident of genes — and a responsibility.” Rickman took that responsibility seriously and leaves behind a lasting legacy of memorable characters that showcased his tremendous talent.
I have been trying to think of the best way to describe his distinctive way of speaking. Deliberate doesn’t seem right. Carefully modulated dulcet tones is closer. There was a soothing quality to his voice that could become menacing with just a slight change of inflection and emphasis.
It is this quality that made him the ideal actor to play Professor Severus Snape in the “Harry Potter” series. It comes as no surprise that author J.K. Rowling wrote the character with Rickman in mind. It is hard to imagine anyone else in the ambiguous role. It isn’t until the final book that we fully understand Snape, and Rickman perfectly captures the tragedy of the character in his final moments on screen.
Part of what fed into the ambiguity of Snape was Rickman’s association with playing villains. Outside of Snape, the role with which Rickman is most associated is Hans Gruber in “Die Hard.” Gruber was his film debut, and what a way to introduce yourself to the cinematic world.
Rickman took what could have been a generic villain and infused the part with a steely charm that made him the kind of bad guy you (almost) want to see win. It is his cat-and-mouse banter with Bruce Willis that makes the film work so well. The sequels tried to replicate the dynamic with other actors, but it is the sort of magic you can only capture once.
“Die Hard” was followed up with more villainous roles, including Rickman’s hilariously over-the-top sheriff of Nottingham in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” Rickman took the role because he was given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, and he did just that.
It is wide-eyed frothing at the mouth villainy with a distinctly modern attitude. It may be a completely anachronistic performance but is absurdly entertaining and easily the best thing in this not-so-warmly remembered version of the Robin Hood legend.
Years later, he would play the loathsome Judge Turpin in Tim Burton’s adaptation of “Sweeney Todd,” which afforded the actor the opportunity to sing, and features one of my favorite Rickman line readings with “You gandered.” There’s a way in which he lingers on the word “gandered” that I just adore.
Rickman’s droll demeanor also made him wonderfully adept at comedy. This is perhaps best displayed in the under-appreciated “Galaxy Quest,” in which he played a self-proclaimed serious actor who has nothing but disdain for the “Star Trek”-esque show he is most associated with. When the cast of the show is thrust into a real space adventure, Rickman mines great humor and even pathos from the character.
In “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Rickman’s dry line delivery was the perfect choice for the voice of Marvin, the depressed android. It is another example of struggling to imagine anyone else in the part.
There’s a lot more that could be said about Rickman. He was a unique talent whose presence will be greatly missed.
I want to end with an exchange from Kevin Smith’s “Dogma,” in which Rickman played Metatron, the voice of God. It seems an oddly fitting way to honor Rickman:
Bethany: What’s he like?
Metatron: God? Lonely. But funny. He’s got a great sense of humor. Take sex, for example. There’s nothing funnier than the ridiculous faces you people make mid-coitus.
Bethany: Sex is a joke in heaven?
Metatron: The way I understand it, it’s mostly a joke down here, too.
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