When I heard of the passing of the great actor Alan Rickman at 69 from cancer, I thought of his excellent and memorable work in Die Hard, one of my favorite films. Rickman’s sly and slick performance as Hans Gruber in that film, a huge hit that made Bruce Willis an action hero, brought Rickman into the spotlight.
The game of cat and mouse played by terrorist leader Hans and New York City cop John McClane (Willis) is entertaining as they trade one-liners over handheld radio. Cop Willis is stuck in an LA office building the terrorists have seized to pull off a Christmas Eve heist. McLane’s wife (Bonnie Bedelia) is trapped on the 30th floor with lots of other hostages. All that stands between the terrorists and these innocents is McClane. Let the games begin!
Rickman is a revelation as a German terrorist who has a sense of humor, albeit a deadly one. Who can forget the scene with company CEO Takagi (James Shigeta) where Hans is trying to get a passcode for the computer? “Nice suit,” he tells Takagi, “It would be a shame to have to ruin it.” McClane watches in horror as Hans executes the man (so do we).
While I have always associated Rickman with Hans, my children would know nothing about that. For them Rickman was and always will be Severus Snape, the slimy villain from the Harry Potter films.
Having watched all the films with my kids a few times over, I was impressed by Rickman’s indelible portrayal of Snape, whose every inflection is chilling and yet hilarious. It is not until the very end of those films that we understand some of Snape’s machinations, his hesitations, and reactions to Harry. In the end Snape dies a hero, something we could never say about Hans as McClane sends him to his death from the top of the office building.
One thing remains consistent in Rickman’s work – an extreme intelligence and dry wit that glows on the screen. Throughout Die Hard no matter how much you detest what Hans and his crew are doing, Hans remains remarkably likable. You can imagine going out and having a beer with the guy if not for the fact that he is a ruthless, cold-blooded killer.
That was Rickman’s gift. His delivery impeccable, his facial reactions astounding, the man was truly a gifted actor who inhabited a role as well as any actor of any generation.
One of Rickman’s performances that I loved perhaps most of all was that of Alexander Dane/Dr. Lazarus in the sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest. Here we have the perfect part for the man – a serious thespian stuck in a role in a second rate TV series. When the cast of the show gets involved with actual aliens, Rickman’s actions and reactions shine. Even as his Lazarus makeup starts disintegrating, Dane sticks with the old theater adage that the show must go on.
His penchant for comedy – evident in all roles he played – really seeped through the cracks and made him always enjoyable to watch. While I know that he appeared in many other films and remained involved in the theater, I will forever remember him as Hans with his deadpan delivery, quick wit, and a pernicious eye on the ultimate prize.
The film and theater world has lost a truly gifted and talented actor, and fans of all ages will mourn his passing.
Rest in peace, Alan Rickman.
Photo credits: warner brothers, 20th century fox, dreamworks