Alan Rickman, the British actor who brought an erudite dignity to film roles like Hans Gruber, the nefarious mastermind of “Die Hard,” and Severus Snape, the dour master of potions in the “Harry Potter” series, died Thursday. He was 69.
A spokesman for the London-based Independent Talent Group confirmed his death. A family statement published by the BBC said the cause was cancer. At the end, “He was surrounded by family and friends,” the statement said.
In an acting career that spanned more than 40 years, Rickman, who was born in London and spoke with a sensuous, shadowy purr and often bore an enigmatic grin on his face, played a panoply of characters whose outward and seemingly obvious villainy often concealed more complicated emotions and motivations.
Rickman, who attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, had his early successes in stage works like the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1985 production of Christopher Hampton’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” in which he played the manipulative Vicomte de Valmont. He later earned a Tony Award nomination for the role when the production transferred to Broadway in 1987.
He gained a worldwide audience the following year in “Die Hard,” the Hollywood action thriller, playing Hans Gruber, the devious, well-spoken terrorist whose takeover of the fictional Nakatomi Plaza building in Los Angeles is foiled by the resourceful police officer John McClane, played by Bruce Willis.
As Gruber, Rickman wrung every malevolent drop that he could from the character’s boastful dialogue. (“Who are you?” he asks McClane, who is constantly frustrating his plans. “Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne?”)
Some 13 years later, Rickman would bring more nuance to the role of Severus Snape, a sarcastic and cutting instructor at the Hogwarts school in the “Harry Potter” franchise, adapted from J.K. Rowling’s best-selling novels.
Though Professor Snape, introduced on screen in the 2001 film “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” seemed at first to be a traditional foil for the titular protagonist, he would be revealed, over the span of eight films and Rickman’s increasingly intricate performances, to have played a more crucial and courageous role in the young hero’s life.
In an interview with The New York Times in 2012, Rickman said the mysterious Professor Snape was an unusually complex character, and he signed on without a clear idea of how the character would evolve over the course of the movies.
“With the last film it was very cathartic because you were finally able to see who he was,” Rickman said. “It was strange, in a way, to play stuff that was so emotional. A lot of the time you’re working in two dimensions, not three.”
On Thursday, fellow actors recalled Rickman as a talented actor of depth. Chris Rankin, an actor who had worked with Rickman in the “Harry Potter” movies, said on Twitter that he was “utterly devastated” by the news.
Stephen Fry, the British actor and a narrator of the “Harry Potter” series for audiobooks, said on Twitter that Rickman was a man of “wicked charm” with a “stunning screen and stage presence. He’ll be sorely missed.”
Alan Rickman was born Feb. 21, 1946, in the Acton area of London, into a working-class family. After a peripatetic art career, including studies at different art colleges and a brief involvement in a graphic design studio, he auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and was accepted in 1972.
After leaving the academy in 1974, he worked with the Royal Shakespeare Co. and made his television debut in 1978, playing Tybalt in a BBC version of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Following his success in “Liaisons Dangereuses,” he traveled to Los Angeles, where he was offered the role in “Die Hard” by the producer Joel Silver.
As Rickman would later recall, at a celebration of his career held by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, he was not initially impressed by the movie or its screenplay, credited to Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza.
“I didn’t know anything about L.A. I didn’t know anything about the film business,” Rickman said, according to The Guardian. “I’d never made a film before, but I was extremely cheap.” He said his reaction to the script was: “What the hell is this? I’m not doing an action movie.”
Rickman said: “I got Joel saying, ‘Get the hell out of here, you’ll wear what you’re told.’ But when I came back, I was handed a new script. It showed that it pays to have a little bit of theater training.”