All Class: Alan Rickman Remembered

by: Michael Shields

Across the Margin bids farewell to a thespian whose talents were overshadowed only by the larger than life characters he portrayed…


As the tears from the devastating loss of one of the greatest artist of modern times, David Bowie, had yet to dry, news struck that another legend of the entertainment industry had exhaled his final breath in Alan Rickman. Alan Rickman was as endearing of an actor as he was talented. He was the sort of actor whose performances lingered with you far after the credits had rolled. Who stole the show from more prominent actors regularly. In this way, we might not have always gone to the theater to behold Rickman’s genius first and foremost, but we always left awed and inspired by his performance. His lure was undeniable and his on-screen performances are that of legend. He was a singular talent, whose hypnotizing charisma will be sorely missed.

Rickman’s charm oozed off the screen in all his roles, along with it a fierceness that defined so many of his more penetrating portrayals. He had the trusting face of an eagle, but the snarl of a serpent. One of the more consuming actors that Hollywood has had the privilege of hosting, Rickman was chameleon-like in his ability to bound from amiable and affectionate to ominous and cruel, sometimes within a single scene. Utilizing a unique deadpan-style and the ability to roll to a boil instantaneously, Rickman was the sort of character actor whose involvement immediately legitimized a film and was always reason alone to head to the theater.

While Rickman’s star had already shone bright on the screen and stage across the pond in the early 80s, American audiences weren’t introduced to Alan Rickman until, at the age of forty two, he redefined what the role of a villain in an action film could be in Die Hard. As Hans Gruber, Rickman was cold (“You’re just going to have to kill me” – Mr. Takagi  “Okay” – Hans Gruber), calculating and relentless. He was the sort of scoundrel we had yet to come upon, one whom we came to wholly respect, and whose motives weren’t entirely discernible. Rickman was offered the part of Hans Gruber after being in Hollywood for only two days and soon after astonished audiences that were chiefly in the theater for Bruce Willis. Hans was a unique threat who maneuvered with utter authority and a supernatural tranquility and was the ideal adversary to Willis’s John McClane.

Die Hard has gone on to become a treasured and unexpectant holiday classic, and Rickman’s portrayal of Hans Gruber is heralded as not only the finest villain in any action film ever made – imitated regularly unto this day – but one of the greater villains to ever grace the screen. In this role, Rickman offered what at the time was exceedingly scarce: first rate acting within a shoot ‘em up thriller. And because of this the genre, and all of the film world, owes him a debt of gratitude, as Hans Gruber was proof that exalted performances and nuanced characters could coexist with big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.

Although Alan Rickman did win a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Rasputin, and also received two Emmy Awards (Something the Lord Made and Rasputin), he was never so much as considered for an Oscar. But it is important to remember that trophies alone are not the measuring stick for talent. I have always wondered why Alan Rickman wasn’t more openly heralded, and though it surely has something to do with the roles he chose or that he wasn’t “leading man material” (exempting the wonderfully affecting, Truly, Madly, Deeply), I believe Rickman just made it all look to easy. He never let audiences see him sweat, and the confidence and grace exuded in his performances always seemed all too natural. But that’s how it is with the greats, they make the remarkable appear effortless.

Alan Rickman believed, as I do, that art is more than entertainment. He believed deeply that art can be a medium for change, a channel where knowledge and understanding could flow through. He is famously quoted as saying, “Actors are agents of change. A film, a piece of theater, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.” He believed this to his very core, and his performances – both in breadth and selection – prove this fully. He was gravely serious about performing, and the power that performance could have on a person, which in hindsight of his superb comedic roles exemplifying a man with a buoyant sense of humor, certify that Alan Rickman was one of the most dynamic actors of this or any generation.

I once was in the same room as Alan Rickman, an Italian restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He was there with fellow members of the cast and crew of “John Gabriel Borkman” which was performing nearby at The Harvey Theater. They were celebrating the final night of the run and the air about the table was ringing with boisterous exclamations and laughter. It was oddly thrilling just to be near him, and although there was no interaction personally – manifesting this story as one of the more bland I have yet to recount – I felt as if I was in the presence of royalty, and this palpable vibe was the sort of larger than life presence Alan Rickman emitted. A brilliant thespian who more than likely would have welcomed an earnest handshake from an ardent admirer, but I chose instead to take stock in his illustrious, often taken for granted, career. I thought about his Sheriff of Nottingham in Prince of Thieves, an ornery, conniving and wholly captivating variant of Hans Gruber (“No more merciful beheadings! And call off Christmas!”). I thought of Snape in the Potter films, altogether menacing with the slither of a snake in his voice. I thought of him as the passionate wine enthusiast, Steve Spurrier, in the charming Bottle Shock, uttering with affection the words of Galileo Galilei, “Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” I chuckled remembering him as the voice of Marvin the paranoid robot in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and in Galaxy Quest as the depressed thespian reluctantly cast in a Spock-like role for the money. I thought of  the dedicated scientist in Something the Lord Made, the confused middle-age man torn by lust in Love Actually, and the mad monk, Rasputin. And I smiled as I watched him hold the captive audience that were his fellow diners in the palm of his hand. All Charm. All Class.

Happy Trails Hans. Thank you….

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