Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991)
Rickman began his career in the early 1970s in theatre, initially behind the scenes but then establishing a good reputation as a performer. He moved into television in the early 1980s, playing Obadiah Slope in The Barchester Chronicles, based on Anthony Trollope's novels. Rickman's first big acting breakthrough came in Christopher Hampton's version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1985. He played the male lead, the Vicomte de Valmont, and was nominated for a Tony Award when the production moved to Broadway in 1987. This move also won the attention of some American casting directors and increased his profile in the UK.
In 1987 TV scriptwriters and producers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor began casting their SF comedy series Red Dwarf and wanted Rickman for the role of Dave Lister (having cast Alfred Molina as Arnold Rimmer, but he had issues with the character and soon departed). Rickman instead chose to investigate roles in Hollywood. Two days after arriving in Los Angeles, he was cast in the role of Hans Gruber in John McTiernan's action movie Die Hard. Released the following year, Rickman's performance was highly praised for bringing greater depth and complexity to the villain than was normal in Hollywood movies. In particular, he'd so impressed McTiernan with his American accent that a subplot where Gruber posed as a hostage to win the trust of hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) was added.
Rickman soon won a supporting role in the movie The January Man, but he achieved a second major career breakthrough in 1991. In the UK he appeared in the TV movie Truly, Madly, Deeply, playing the role of a ghost who is reunited with his former lover (played by Juliet Stevenson). The film - similar to the contemporary American movie Ghost but better - was hugely successful, boosting the careers of both Rickman and Stevenson and the director, Anthony Minghella, who went on to make The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain before dying (also before his time) in 2011. Truly, Madly, Deeply was important in showing Rickman playing the role of a sensitive romantic lead, very different to the villainous roles he was becoming known for in Hollywood. The following year he also won plaudits for a supporting role in the film Close My Eyes, which launched the careers of Clive Owen and Saskia Reeves.
However, this image was cemented the same year when he appeared as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Rickman won praise for his charismatic, vicious performance and was widely credited with stealing the spotlight away from Kevin Costner (something Costner was allegedly aware of on set).
Rickman continued to appear on stage, in film and (more occasionally) on television. Throughout the 1990s he was constantly the front-runner among SF fans to be the new Doctor Who, should the show ever return from its lengthy hiatus (which eventually lasted from 1990 to 2005, barring a single TV movie). He appeared in Sense and Sensibility (1995), which helped launch the career of Kate Winslet and cemented the reputations of Emma Thompson and Ang Lee. He played the title role in Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny (1996) for HBO, and played the historical character of Eamon de Valera in the Liam Neeson film Michael Collins the same year.
In 1999 Rickman played two of the three roles of greatest interest to SFF fans. He played the Metatron, the Voice of God, in Kevin Smith's religious satire Dogma, portraying him as a libertine who enjoys a drink. The same year he played struggling actor Alexander Dane, better known as Dr. Lazarus, on the Star Trek-spoofing Galaxy Quest. Modelled on Leonard Nimoy's Mr. Spock (with a few original elements thrown in), Rickman's brilliant, hilarious performance was heavily lauded by critics and SF fans alike.
In 2001 Rickman took on the role of Severus Snape in the movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling. According to Rowling, Rickman had been her first choice for the role (although the production team had previously offered the role to Tim Roth, who had turned them down). Rickman, a big fan of the novels, soon became friends with Rowling and Rowling revealed some of Snape's biggest secrets to Rickman to help his performance, years before readers would discover them in the novels. His role in Harry Potter won him immense praise and a multitude of new, young fans. The fact that Rickman approached the role with seriousness and respect - penning J.K. Rowling a public fan letter when the films were completed - also went over well with the fans.
Alan Rickman was a versatile and impressive performer, equally comfortable in Shakespeare, urban dramas, historical sagas, science fiction epics and children's fantasy movies. He was guarded, rarely giving interviews and apparently uncomfortable talking about his process and approach to the craft, but he was also good-humoured and respectful. He was certainly one of the leading lights of his generation of actors, and he was taken far, far too soon.