Alan Rickman was an actor who could take even the blandest roles and spin them into something wonderful. But offered more to work with, he was unforgettable, portraying countless distinctive characters until his death on Thursday at the age of 69. Rickman defined villainy for multiple generations, playing the terrorist Hans Gruber in Die Hard, the tetchy Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Harry Potter’s sneering Professor Snape. He was also one of the finest stage actors of his generation, blessed with a silky, mellifluous voice that became his trademark.
Born in London in 1946, Rickman excelled in the arts but pursued a career in design, thinking it a more stable profession, before eventually giving in to his passion for acting and attending Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1972. He worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company not long after graduating, a connection he maintained throughout his career, and got his big break playing the manipulative Valmont in 1985’s Les liaisons dangereuses. The production moved to Broadway, and Rickman earned a Tony nomination for his role.
In 1988, he made his film debut in Die Hard, a mid-budget action movie starring the then-sitcom actor Bruce Willis. As Hans Gruber, the villainous German hijacking a building and matching wits with a lone New York City cop, he stole the show, avoiding the overacting the part cried out for, and instead using his magnificent voice to intimidate. Three years later, he played another iconic villain—the Sheriff of Nottingham—with much more theatrical flair, and won a BAFTA for it. “I’ll take this as a healthy reminder that subtlety … isn’t everything,” he deadpanned in his acceptance speech.