Although he made his name playing ruthless, genteel villains like Die Hard's Hans Gruber and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' Sheriff of Nottingham, Alan Rickman proved himself equally remarkable in romantic, comic, and good-guy dramatic roles. An actor of brooding charisma who intones his lines in a deep, milky baritone, Rickman began his career on-stage, building up a sizable résumé before embarking on a film career.
Of Irish and Welsh parentage, Rickman was born in London's Hammersmith district on February 21, 1946. His father, who was a painter and decorator, died of cancer when the actor was eight, leaving behind Rickman, his mother, and three siblings. After winning a scholarship to West London's Latymer Upper School, Rickman began acting at the encouragement of his teachers. He also developed an interest in art, and he went on to study graphic design at the Royal College of Art. He founded a Soho-based design company, but after deciding that his heart was in acting, he abandoned the company when he was 26 to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He spent three years there, serving as a dresser to such actors as Ralph Richardson and Nigel Hawthorne. After leaving RADA, Rickman began to make his name on the stage, first appearing in repertory and then landing lead roles in London productions. He gained particular acclaim for his portrayal of Valmont in a West End production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, eventually reprising his role for the Broadway production and winning a Tony nomination.
In 1988, Rickman got his first dose of big-screen recognition with Die Hard. After the film's huge success, and praise for his delightfully nasty portrayal of the film's villain, he went on to make a couple of poorly received features, including 1989's The January Man and 1990s Quigley Down Under. Success greeted him again in 1991: playing Kevin Costner's nemesis, the vile and loathsome Sheriff of Nottingham, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Rickman proved to audiences why being bad could be so much fun. The same year, he endeared himself as a markedly more sympathetic character in Truly, Madly, Deeply. As a deceased cellist who reappears to comfort his lover (Juliet Stevenson), Rickman proved himself adept at romantic comedy, and began to accrue a reputation as a thinking woman's sex symbol (something he vocally resented).
The actor spent the remainder of the decade turning in solid performances in a number of diverse films: he could be seen as an actor with a troubled past in An Awfully Big Adventure (1994), a very sympathetic Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility (1995), Eamon de Valera in Michael Collins (1996), a has-been sci-fi television star in Galaxy Quest (1999), and a grumpy angel in Dogma (1999). In 1997, Rickman branched out into directing, making his debut with The Winter Guest. Starring real-life mother and daughter Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson as an estranged mother and daughter, the film won a number of positive notices, further establishing Rickman as a man of impressive versatility, both in front of and behind the camera.
Though Rickman's voice would be featured on the animated television series King of the Hill in 2003, he wasn't truly absorbed into mainstream pop-culture among the kid circuit until after starring in the movie adaptations of author J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Rickman played the sinister Professor Snape in the films, one of the few post-pubescent constants in the franchise.
In 2005, just months before the fourth installment in the Potter series, Rickman showed up in the first big-screen adaptation of another literary series with a rabid fan base, lending his voice to the character of Marvin the neurotic robot in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
He went on to appear in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and in 2007 he played Judge Turpin in Tim Burton's adaptation of Sweeney Todd. E reteamed with the director for Alice in Wonderland in 2010, and the next year saw the final installment of the Harry Potter franchise hitting screens. In 2013, he played President Ronald Reagan in Lee Daniels' The Butler and club owner Hilly Kristal in CBGB. The following year, Rickman directed his second feature film, A Little Chaos, and also appeared in the film as King Louis XIV. Rickman died in 2016, at age 69.