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An Unmistakable Voice: Great Insights into the one and only Alan Rickman

Nancy Bilyeau
Alan Rickman, who played Snape. Getty Images
Alan Rickman, who played Snape. Getty Images

Three years after Alan Rickman died from pancreatic cancer at 69, his life and career are revealed to be those of contrasts. An actor of tremendous depth and range, capable of exuding a true aristocratic flair, he actually grew up in a London family with little money. And the performer of several iconic film villains, he was a warm and supportive mentor and generous friend to his fellow actors.

As director John McTiernan of Die Hard wrote, “For a guy who played probably the best bad guys of our generation, he was such a gentle man.”

Alan Rickman
Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen CC BY 2.0

For some fans, his defining role was as the cold, harsh Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series. After hearing of his passing, people gathered at Platform Nine-And-Three-Quarters in Kings Cross Station to leave flower and momentos. But what many people don’t know is that JK Rowling told Rickman the truth about Snape’s character before anyone else knew. She wanted Rickman to know Snape’s ultimate purpose to give him that extra edge and knowledge about his role. In fact she had told him Snape’s destiny before having written it herself. Rickman used this to give Snape that peculiar “I know something you don’t know” look and feel so central to the character.

Also, while Rowling always had Rickman in mind for the role of Snape, the studio’s first choice was Tim Roth. Luckily however Roth chose to do Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes instead and Rickman was cast as Snape, a role we now can’t consider anyone else playing.

Alan Rickman
Photo by Justin Hoch for Hudson Union Society CC BY 2.0

Daniel Radcliffe, who played Potter, contributed an emotional tribute, saying, “He was so encouraging of me both on set and in the years post-Potter…. People create perceptions of actors based on the parts they played, so it might surprise some people to learn that contrary to some of the sterner (or downright scary) characters he played, Alan was extremely kind, generous, self-deprecating and funny.”

Alan Sydney Patrick Rickman was born on February 21, 1946, in West London, England. He was one of four children born to Bernard Rickman, an Irish Catholic factory worker, and Margaret Doreen Rose Rickman, a Welsh Methodist housewife. Rickman said in a later interview that his early years were poor but happy, until his father died of lung cancer when Alan was just eight years old. His mother struggled to raise her children while they lived in housing west of Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

At age 26, after holding various jobs, Rickman applied to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. “There was an inevitability about my being an actor since about the age of 7, but there were other roads that had to be traveled first,” he later said.

Alan Rickman
Photo by Icaro Ferracini CC BY 2.0

Alan Rickman played many roles on stage, winning a Tony Award as Le Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, until his film breakthrough as the ruthless Hans Gruber in Die Hard in 1988, which was actually his first feature film role. Actor Sam Neill was first approached to play the role but refused. And again, serendipitous circumstances gave Rickman a role we can’t imagine anyone else playing. Rickman created a sensation as the sophisticated, well-tailored Gruber who sneered about the “benefits of a classical education” as he masterminded a murderous corporate mega-theft. In fact, it was Rickman’s own idea to make Gruber a more suave villain in a suit rather than a more traditional villain in tactical gear.

Another nugget of trivia is that Rickman was really dropped during his iconic last moments of Die Hard. We all remember the memorable face he makes in his last scene of the film. It is so convincing because it really happened. Rickman insisted on performing this crucial stunt himself. The deal was that he would be dropped from 25 feet on the count of three. However, director John McTiernan, going for total authenticity, had him dropped on the count of two, producing a truly shocked look from Rickman captured perfectly in that dramatic sequence.

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Rickman followed Die Hard with a scene-stealing Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1991, cementing his place as an A-list actor. For the next 25 years, he worked steadily, appearing in films such as Truly, Madly, Deeply, Sense and Sensibility, Love Actually, Quigley Down Under, and of course the Harry Potter series.

Rickman won a whole new group of fans in the 1999 film Galaxy Quest, a spoof of the Star Trek phenomenon. He won many of the film’s laughs and Galaxy Quest has become such a cult classic that a sequel was put into development. However after Rickman’s passing, it was canceled. Without his portrayal of Alexander Dane, the film wouldn’t be successful, said actor Sam Rockwell in an interview.

Alan Rickman
Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen CC BY 2.0

And what about that voice? One of Rickman’s trademarks is that unmistakable voice.  In 2008, linguist Andrew Linn and sound engineer Shannon Harris set themselves the mission to find out what truly makes the “perfect” human voice. They used the voice samples of 50 people, and their final determination was that a combination of Rickman and fellow actor Jeremy Irons made the perfect male voice. Actress Helen Mirren commented on Rickman’s iconic voice saying, “He was utterly distinctive, with a voice that could suggest honey or a hidden stiletto blade.”

Another thing you may not know about Alan is that it took him 50 years to marry his wife. While attending Chelsea College of Art and Design in 1965, 19-year-old Rickman met Rima Horton, who was 18 at the time. While Rickman was an actor, Horton was an economics lecturer at Kensington University. The two remained together for the next 50 years and finally got married in 2012 in a private ceremony in New York.

Alan Rickman was a unique talent who has devoted fans both young and old. His roles cross the spectrum of hero and villain, all with that trademark Rickman sophistication and biting wit.

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As Helen Mirren said after Rickman’s passing, “Alan was a towering person, physically, mentally, and as an artist. He was utterly distinctive, with a voice that could suggest honey or a hidden stiletto blade. He was also a great friend. He will be very missed by many.”

Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new book, The Blue, is a spy story set in the 18th-century porcelain world. For more information, go to