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Alan Rickman - Biography

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Alan Rickman

Personal details

Name: Alan Rickman
Born: 21 February 1946 (Age: 69)
Where: London, England
Height: 6'1"
Awards: Won 1 BAFTA, 1 Emmy, 1 Golden Globe

All about this star


People in the UK often complain that the finest British thespians seldom get opportunities to succeed in Hollywood pictures. Often the reason is simple - most great British actors are just SO damned British they're considered only for the occasional role. A butler, perhaps, or a dastardly villain, more often Queen Elizabeth I. And, in the case of Alan Rickman, there is a further problem. To most top-line stars, the man is a positive menace. Absolutely explosive in his work, he's not only ideally suited to cinema but he's a scene-stealer of the highest and most dangerous order. Take his Sheriff Of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Kevin Costner famously cut many of his scenes, and STILL the movie's remembered for Rickman's hilarious outbursts.

His path to prominence has been long and hard. He was born Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman, on a council estate in Acton, West London, on the 21st of February, 1946, to a Welsh mother and Irish father. He had one older brother, then a younger brother and sister. Sadly, his father, a factory worker, died when he was just 8, leaving him to be raised by his mum who, he's said, instilled in him both a sense of decency and a respect for women. As a child, he was bright, and artistic, capable of excellent calligraphy and watercolour painting. Eventually, he won a scholarship to Latymer School (later alumni including Hugh Grant and Mel Smith), and quickly became involved in drama. Latymer was fairly radical in this department. Both pupils and teachers acted alongside each other, an approach that demanded the boys mature rapidly.

Rickman loved acting, but his other artistic talents led him towards graphic design - certainly a safer occupation. "Drama school," he says "wasn't considered the sensible thing to do at 18". So he enrolled at the Chelsea College Of Art And Design, later spending a year at the Royal College Of Art. It was at Chelsea that he met Rima Horton, still his partner today. Both keen to continue acting in some shape or form, they founded an amateur troupe, the Brook Green Players. Rima, sharing Alan's liberal beliefs, would eventually become a politician, serving for many years on the council of Kensington and Chelsea.

Alan continued at the day job, on graduation forming a design company, Graphiti, with some friends. He'd continue taking design work till well into the Seventies. But closer and closer he came to professional acting. He played with another amateur troupe, the Court Drama Group, performing in the likes of Romeo And Juliet and View From A Bridge. Then, at the relatively late age of 26, wrote to RADA, hoping for an in. He got one. Delivering a speech from Richard III at his audition, he was accepted, spending the next three years studying and performing Shakespeare and facing such emotional and technical challenges as Uncle Vanya and Ghosts. For his efforts, he was awarded the Emile Litter Prize, the Forbes Robertson Prize and the Bancroft Gold Medal.

After leaving RADA, Rickman threw himself into any acting jobs going. Though he is, of course, renowned as an extremely serious actor, he played all manner of roles over the next four years, as he gained experience in weekly repertory theatre. With the Library Theatre Company in Manchester he took on farce and light comedy, performing in the likes of Babes In The Wood, Lock Up Your Daughters and There's A Girl In My Soup. He did Romeo And Juliet in Leicester, he was King Rat in Dick Whittington in Bristol, Sherlock Holmes in Birmingham where he also appeared in The Devil Is An Ass, he played the lead in Nijinsky, Laertes in Hamlet. There were musicals too, Rickman touring with both Guys And Dolls and Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. There were serious plays, naturally, like St Joan, but Rickman was grounding himself in every stage discipline - he could be still and desperately intense, magnetic and sexy, outlandish and larger than life.

From 1976, his cohort in all this - and this will seem monstrously peculiar to most of the British public - was Ruby Wax. They met at the Sheffield Crucible, where Rickman was a visiting player and Wax a member of the local troupe, and they became firm friends and something of a comedy double act, Rickman playing the straight man. Together, they gigged around the country, playing in Man Is Man and Ubu Rex at Bristol's Old Vic (both directed by Adrian Noble), then moved back to Sheffield in 1977 for As You Like It.

A year later, inevitably really, Rickman would join the Royal Shakespeare Company. Not so inevitably, Wax would join him there, as would a young actress with whom he'd later twang violently on the heart-strings of the nation - Juliet Stevenson. In this single season with the RSC he'd appear in The Tempest (starring Michael Hordern and Ian Charleson), Love's Labour's Lost (Michael Pennington and Jane Lapotaire), Antony And Cleopatra (Glenda Jackson, Jonathan Pryce, Patrick Stewart) and, in Stratford studio theatre The Other Place, he'd star in Captain Swing alongside Zoe Wanamaker.

Unfortunately, it wasn't really working out. Given his age and his rootsy experience, he found the RSC elitist, their traditionalist structures too limiting. He stuck it for only a year, before returning to rep. Wax, too, encouraged by Rickman, was now branching out, particularly into writing , and would put on two shows with her RSC colleagues. The Johnson Wax Floorshow would star Rickman, Lapotaire, Charleson, Wanamaker, Pryce and David Suchet, while Juliet Stevenson, directed by Rickman, would perform in Desperately Yours. After leaving the RSC, Rickman would continue a working relationship with Wax, in 1986 directing her Live Wax show at the Edinburgh Festival, then overseeing 1992's Wax Acts on tour and in the West End.

Back in rep, in 1979 he'd play the title role in Antonio at Nottingham, then in Glasgow he'd play seven roles in Brecht's Fears And Miseries Of The Third Reich The same year, he debuted on TV in a BBC production of the savage and haunting Therese Raquin (well, his debut if you don't count a televised production of Romeo And Juliet). In 1980, he'd take on The Summer Party at Sheffield, The Devil Himself at Hammersmith and Commitments at the Bush. 1981 would bring The Seagull at the Royal Court, The Last Elephant at the Bush and The Brothers Karamazov at the Edinburgh Festival and on tour in Russia.

Now came his rise to prominence. In 1982, Rickman raised his stock with his performance as Brownlow, opposite Alec Guinness in John Le Carre's spy series Smiley's People. He also caused a stir in a TV adaptation of Anthony Trollope's The Barchester Chronicles. As the Reverend Obadiah Slope, a slimy, ladykilling politico, he'd provoked a near-unheard-of stream of fan mail, much of it from women. And it was this sex appeal, combined with his fierce intelligence, that now made him a stage star too. Having in 1983 played in Bad Language at Hampstead, then moved on to the Royal Court for Grass Widow and The Lucky Chance, 1985 saw him return to the RSC, where he was reunited with Juliet Steveson and director Adrian Noble. This time his parts were more substantial. He was Jaques in As You Like It, Achilles in Troilus And Cressida and Hofgen in Mephisto. More importantly, he created the role of the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, playing the arch seducer warring with Lindsay Duncan's Marquise de Merteuil and ruining both Stevenson's Madame de Tourvel and Lesley Manville's sweet young virgin. Between 1985 and 1987, the show was taken to London and then on to Broadway, where Rickman found himself Tony-nominated. Unfortunately, not only did James Earl Jones take that prize, but Rickman was also denied the film role, given instead to John Malkovich.

But Hollywood soon beckoned anyway. Producer Joel Silver had noted Rickman as Valmont, and asked him to play super-terrorist Hans Gruber, leader of a gang who take a bunch of hostages in an LA office block in Die Hard. Rickman recognised that the producers had spent so much on Bruce Willis they needed actors who'd work for next to nothing, but he went for it anyway, and was magnificent - casually vicious, hilariously merciless and masterfully irritated as Bruce foiled his best-laid plans. So effective was his performance that Hollywood would now habitually cast Brits as major villains.

The next couple of years continued his rise. He was notable as Kevin Kline's oddball sidekick in serial killer flick The January Man, and excellent as mean-spirited ranch owner Elliott Marston in Quigley Down Under, hiring gunfighter Tom Selleck to shoot aborigines then going after his reluctant employee. Now two killer roles. First, Anthony Minghella's Truly, Madly, Deeply, where Rickman was Jamie, the dead cello-playing lover of Juliet Stevenson (she'd move the entire nation with her deeply upsetting breakdown scene). Then came Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, with Kevin Costner. Here Rickman was incredible - smarmy, callous, cowardly and flamboyant, storming through every scene with captivating ebullience This was not simple scene-stealing, it was grand larceny, with so many memorable moments. Swearing he's going to cut someone's heart out with a spoon, he's asked by a minion why a spoon. "Because it HURTS!" he screams. In the final sequence, where he's trying to marry Maid Marian before the Merrie Men take over the castle, it was Rickman himself who came up with the notion of prizing open Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's legs, as if he were hoping to consummate the marriage with the priest still present. All those years in rep were coming in useful - Rickman won a hugely deserved BAFTA.

Next came the controversial Close My Eyes, where Rickman played the tortured husband of Saskia Reeves as she conducts an incestuous affair with her brother, played by Clive Owen. Then there was the extraordinary, and hard-to-find Closet Land, a movie with a cast of only two. In it, Rickman played a Secret Police interrogator, grilling children's writer Madeleine Stowe on the subversive messages supposedly hidden in her stories. Perhaps even better, now Rickman once again brought his experience in comedy to bear, as the magnificently manipulative spin doctor Lukas Hart III, in Tim Robbins' political spoof Bob Roberts. In one memorable scene, Rickman disengages himself from one sticky situation with a fabulously insincere "Excuse me, I have to go pray". In the same year, Rickman would provide narration for Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells 2.

Rickman's next major role was brilliantly cast. In Mesmer, he played the title role as the 18th Century Viennese physician who touted some thoroughly controversial healing practices, based on his concept of "animal magnetism". The film should have launched him as a leading man, but there were problems. Rickman and director Roger Spotiswoode (Air America, Tomorrow Never Dies) made changes to Dennis Potter's script, with the financiers feeling the completed movie was not the one they'd paid for. Litigation reared its ugly head and Mesmer, pulled from theatrical release, was not aired till 1999, and then on the Romance Channel. A terrible shame for allconcerned.

But Rickman persisted and 1995 brought rewards. Onscreen, he was sexy and terribly devious in Mike Newell's theatrical romp An Awfully Big Adventure, set in Liverpool in 1947. Then he was the brave and tortured Colonel Brandon, loving Kate Winslet from afar in Ang Lee's surprise hit Sense And Sensibility. Rickman also directed his co-star from that movie, Emma Thompson, in The Winter Guest at London's Almeida Theatre. The next year, Rickman would make a big screen version of the play - a deep tale of youthful hopes and intergenerational struggles - again starring Thompson, with her mother played by her real-life mum Phyllida Law. Though not a big money-spinner, The Winter Guest would win prestigious prizes at the Venice and Chicago film festivals.

In the meantime, Rickman had made up for disappearance of his hypnotic Mesmer by taking on the equally transfixing role of Rasputin. Of course, Christopher Lee had been superb in Hammer's earlier version of the mad monk's rise to power in the court of the last Tsar of Russia, but Rickman, matching Lee for intensity and outdoing him for intelligence, was magnificent, taking both an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Then, having played such a ferocious libertine and open-hearted zealot, he took on the demanding role of the quiet, complicated and mercilessly pragmatic Eamon De Valera in Neil Jordan's Irish revolutionary epic, Michael Collins. By now, Rickman was confident in his abilities, yet this confidence was tested to its limit when he discovered his first scene involved making a speech to 5,000 Dubliners - with no rehearsal.

Now the offers were rolling in. He played alongside Thompson again, in the New Orleans-set kidnapping drama Judas Kiss. He was suitably angelic as the seraph Metatron in Kevin Smith's hilarious Dogma. And, perhaps best of all, he was side-splitting as Dr Lazarus in the excellent Galaxy Quest, taking the rise out of himself as an arrogant thespian who despises the undying fame he's found as a Spock-like character in a trashy TV show. Oh, and he provided some much-needed class to the video for Texas's In Demand though, unfortunately for the band, he made singer Sharleen Spiteri seem very small and uncharismatic by comparison.

Like many great stage actors, Rickman stays true to his roots. Though he failed in a bid to buy the Riverside Theatre in Hammersmith, he remains committed to the British stage. 1992 saw him in Hamlet at the Riverside, then he reunited with Anthony Minghella and Juliet Stevenson for Samuel Beckett's Play. In 1998 he was Antony to Helen Mirren's voracious Cleopatra, then from October 2001 to January 2002, he'd play Elyot in a revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives at the West End's Albery Theatre, opposite his former RSC co-star Lindsay Duncan, then went with the production to Broadway, where he'd earn a Tony nomination to add to the Olivier nomaination he'd received in London. In 2003, in recognition of his class, his efforts and his motivational power, he was made Vice-Chairman of RADA.

He stays true to his principles too. A keen supporter of the Labour party, he makes many appearances for charity, notably appearing onstage at the Royal Court with Glenda Jackson, at a public birthday party for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese freedom fighter who's spent so many years under house arrest. In 2005 he'd be back at the Royal Court, directing the provocative My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a work he and Katharine Viner had adapted from the personal diaries of a 23-year-old American protestor killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza.

Onscreen, he played the hurt and abandoned hairdresser husband of Natasha Richardson in the Brit comedy Blow Dry. After this came the contemporary comedy The Search For John Gissing, once more featuring Stevenson, where he played a crusty jobsworth attempting to foil corporate do-gooder Mike Binder. For Richard Curtis's Love, Actually, he joined a terrific ensemble cast to tell various tales of affection. passion and tolerance. His story-line saw him as a magazine editor who's hit upon at work by a lusty young co-worker, an affair that sends his comfy marriage to Emma Thompson into freefall. There'd also be the critically acclaimed American TV movie Something The Lord Made, involving the true story of Dr Alfred Blalock (Rickman) and his black, self-taught assistant (Mos Def) as they struggle against the prejudices of post-Depression society and, with handmade tools, discover a way to cure a congenital heart defect that causes babies to turn blue and die. Rickman would be Emmy nominated for his efforts.

Aside for these, of course, he was to find a worldwide fame way beyond the reach of most when he was chosen (after Tim Roth had pulled out) to camp it up as the sly and sickly Professor Severus Snape, head of Slytherin house in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and its follow-ups, The Chamber Of Secrets, The Prisoner Of Azkaban (directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who a decade before had worked with Alan on an episode of Fallen Angels) and The Goblet Of Fire. How brilliant he was there, undermining Potter's confidence with a glance of profound disdain or a viciously barbed question then, with a swish of black cape, suddenly gone.

And still there was more. When The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy finally made it to the Silver Screen in 2005 he was a natural choice to voice Marvin the Paranoid Android. Next he would reunite with his Galaxy Quest co-star Sigourney Weaver for the infinitely more hard-hitting Snow Cake, wherein Rickman played a man traumatised by a fatal car crash, forming a relationship with Weaver's high-achieving autistic. 2006 would bring more glory. First there'd be Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer, set in 18th Century France, where Ben Whishaw played a fellow with an amazing sense of smell, who becomes a famous perfumer, endlessly trying to recreate the scent of brass door-knobs, fresh-cut wood etc. But then, seeking the scent of a beautiful young virgin he turns sociopath and collides with Rickman, playing the merchant father of the young perfumer's obsession. It was elegant, erotic, decadent stuff, unlike the black comedy Nobel Son where Rickman, the head of a dysfunctional family, wins the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, making life even more difficult for his forensic scientist wife Mary Steenburgen and a son struggling to finish his own thesis. When the son's kidnapped, everyone seems to have their own devious plot, with Rickman hilariously arch and flamboyant throughout.

These productions would allow Rickman freedom in his theatrical life, and he'd use it to continue pushing his production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, in 2006 taking it to London's Playhouse Theatre, as well as the Edinburgh and Galway festivals. Of course, more freedom, and more prestige, would be obtained through Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, with franchise newcomers Imelda Staunton and Helena Bonham Carter. Rickman would stay with Carter for his next production, Sweeney Todd, directed by her husband Tim Burton. Based on Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical, this would see Johnny Depp as the titular barber, back in London after being transported to Australia and seeking revenge on Rickman's Judge Turpin, the dreadful cad who framed him, raped his wife and stole his daughter. With murder and mincers, Deep versus Rickman, it could only be delightful carnage all the way.

Judge Turpin was another substantial role, but Rickman does not really need a substantial role to make things happen. He can change a scene, even your perception of an entire movie, with a single look. We should be so grateful that the original plan to cast Rickman and Alfred Molina as the leads in the limp comedy series Red Dwarf was not carried through. For now, it would be wonderful to see him tear the screen up as a Roman Emperor in Gladiator 2 or maybe take on Depp again as the ghost of Blackbeard in Pirates Of The Caribbean 4. He's the best we've got - arguably, the best ANYONE's got.

Dominic Wills


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