British actor Alan Rickman died on Thursday at age 69 after a battle with cancer, according to a statement by his family. He leaves behind an impressive legacy both on and off screen, and too many iconic roles to count.
Like many millennials, I first encountered Alan Rickman as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise — the role for which he is now best known, if headlines and Twitter are any indication. As Snape, Rickman was the horrible, acidic teacher we all hated, yet fixated on. Swooping around Hogwarts like a vengeful bat, sour face curtained by lank hair, Rickman nonetheless also showed how Snape’s rancor masked a tortured and disappointed heart.
As I grew older, I came to know him for other roles as well — starting with the uptight, sensitive, and unspeakably dreamy Colonel Brandon in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, opposite Kate Winslet. Then as the anatomically incomplete, tequila-spitting Metatron, Voice of God, in Dogma — and was it ever a voice for a god! Rickman’s signature rumble is, according to a 2008 linguistics study, one third of The Ideal Voice, along with his fellow (male, British) actors Jeremy Irons and Michael Gambon. His unique delivery was actually the result of a speech impediment — a too-tight jaw.
Though some of Rickman’s more iconic roles were villainous, none were stock characters: As the slimy and hilarious Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves Rickman delivered lines like “cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas” with aplomb, and explained why a spoon was so much more torturous than an axe — “Because it’s DULL, you twit. It’ll hurt more!” In Galaxy Quest, he steals the show as Alexander Dain, alias Dr. Lazarus of Tev’Meck, a Shakespearean actor trapped in a role as a Spockish alien in a cancelled, Star Trek-like TV series — a role for which he perhaps leaned on his own time in the Royal Shakespeare Company.
From a combination of his roles, his voice, and, according to one woman, his vocabulary, Alan Rickman was “somewhat of a heartthrob.” The Scotsman writes that a typical fan letter to the actor might have begun “I’m a feminist, but…” So, if Oscar Isaac is the internet’s new boyfriend, then Alan Rickman was the internet’s intellectual silver fox.
Offscreen, however, Rickman was a one-woman man. In April, he revealed that he had secretly wed his girlfriend of 50 years, Rima Horton — whom he once called in an interview the smartest person he’d ever met (feminists, continue swooning). Horton is an economist who served as a councillor for Britain’s center-left Labour party for 20 years; Rickman, likewise a life-long Labour party supporter, campaigned along with her. The Party’s current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was one of the first to mourn the actor’s passing on Twitter.
Very sad to hear that Alan Rickman has passed away. One of the greatest actors of his generation. My thoughts are with his family & friends
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) January 14, 2016
Privately, Rickman used his celebrity to advance philanthropic causes. Notably, he was active in the charity Saving Faces, which helps those with facial disfigurements and cancer, and in the International Performers Aid Trust, which seeks to help developing and poverty-stricken countries through art and artists.
He also carried his political sensibilities with him to his creative work. “Actors are agents of change,” he once said. “A film, a piece of theater, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.”
One particular example of Rickman’s melding of politics and art is the acclaimed play My Name is Rachel Corrie, behind which he was the driving force. The play, directed by Rickman and co-edited with Guardian Editor-In-Chief Katharine Viner, tells the true story of a 23-year-old American peace activist — Rachel Corrie — who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes in Gaza, 2003.
It is based largely on Corrie’s own writing. In Viner and Rickman’s hands, the play shows her as an intelligent, compassionate and courageous progressive — if, perhaps, also young and naive. The work doesn’t elevate Corrie to sainthood, but still counters the reductive demonization of Corrie that appeared on the internet after her death. Rickman was fiercely protective of Corrie’s parents throughout the adaption and portrayal.
“When asked recently about his proudest Royal Court moment, his answer was not about him: he said it was when he took Rachel Corrie’s parents outside the front of the theatre to show them their late daughter’s name in neon lights,” Viner wrote in her touching tribute to her friend and colleague.
“This isn’t a play about Palestine or Israel, it’s about being a citizen of the world,” said Rickman.
By me: Alan Rickman: the most loyal, playful and generous of friends https://t.co/kTOwyA1vj4
— Katharine Viner (@KathViner) January 14, 2016
Rickman also had turns directing for The Winter Guest, with Emma Thompson and her mother, Phyllida Law, and A Little Chaos, which tells the story a female gardner working in the gardens of Versailles. But while Rickman will be remembered for his directing, his philanthropy, and his politics, his most immediately obvious legacy will still be his work as an actor.
He may have been introduced to an entire generation as Severus Snape, but his total body of work is unfailingly multifaceted, from the whole list of titles to the portrayal of each character. Some may remember him — or come to know him — for Die Hard, others for The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy , and others for his award-winning turn in Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny. Regardless of the size of his role or the moral compass of his character, his scenes are the ones to which you look forward, every time.
“Talent is an accident of genes, and a responsibility,” Rickman once said.
His talent made his every role a work of art, and, a true artist, he took it as his responsibility to illuminate as well as entertain.