If Die Hard had been the only film Alan Rickman had ever made, today’s news that the actor has died at the age of 69 would still be sad. Thus is the power of Hans Gruber, quite probably the greatest villain Hollywood has ever given us. Cool and calculated, with a flair for the dramatic and also a noble sense of fair play, Gruber is the perfect foil for Bruce Willis’ desperate, flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants hero, and Rickman imbues him with intelligence and a sort of rational menace. The fact that it was his very first film is astounding, even considering he was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company prior, and his performance as Gruber will live on, one Christmas at a time, for eternity.
Of course, Die Hard wasn’t his only film, but rather the first in a long movie career that made good use of his stage-honed presence and memorably deep voice. Harry Potter‘s Severus Snape felt made of flesh and blood right on J.K. Rowling’s pages, but it was Rickman’s nuanced portrayal of the secretive, sad, not-so-villainous villain that made Snape iconic. Casting Rickman was a masterstroke. We expect him to be the bad guy, just like Rowling wanted us to, but once the inner layers underneath start revealing themselves in the later films, it turns into a deep and heart-breaking performance.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a solid film made great by Rickman’s insanely oversized (yet brilliant) performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham. He snarls, he raves, he tries to cancel Christmas, he attempts to rape Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the middle of a castle siege, and you still can’t take your eyes off of him because Rickman rebels against the preposterousness of a too-earnest Robin Hood in the late 20th century by chewing every square-inch of scenery in sight. Yeah, it’s another villain in the wake of Die Hard, but Rickman’s Sheriff is the exact opposite of Gruber — he’s always losing his cool — exposing the actor’s impressive range.
Know what else? Rickman was really goddamn funny. Watch Galaxy Quest, a fantastic Star Trek send-up featuring Rickman as a serious actor embarrassed by his most seminal work. Or Dogma, an all-over-the-place Kevin Smith religious comedy where it’s Rickman who surprisingly feels the most at home reciting Smith’s quirky dialogue. His comic timing was impeccable. DO NOT watch Love Actually but understand that Rickman manages to not embarrass himself in it. That’s the power of Rickman: he’s still really, really good in substandard movies.
It’s been a brutal last couple of weeks. Lemmy Kilmister, Angus Scrimm, David Bowie … all gone now. Losing Rickman, who was so beloved by movie fans while being, by all accounts, a perfectly pleasant and decent human being is almost too much to bear. At least we know that the Harry Potter films will be passed down in perpetuity from generation to generation and that Die Hard will continue to delight every action-film fan on the planet as it plays on TVs and in revival houses each holiday season. It’s the work that makes this news so terrible, but it’s also the work that will make Rickman immortal.