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Alan Rickman, master of the sly, conniving British villain

By Geoffrey MacNab

Alan Rickman, who has died at the age of 69 after a short battle with cancer, was the most mellifluous of actors, with a voice that had a wonderful mellowness of sneer about it. That was why he was such a prime candidate to play villains in Hollywood movies.

As critic Roger Ebert said after seeing Rickman as German terrorist Hans Gruber opposite Bruce Willis's hero in Die Hard (1988): "He is really the most interesting character in the movie, kind of an intellectual guy with delusions of superiority."

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Nobody could do superciliousness or clammy nastiness quite like Rickman. He was natural casting as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Kevin Costner vehicle, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991).

It was his role as the scheming seducer Valmont in the 1985 RSC production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that brought him to the attention of Hollywood agents.

"Having a film career at all was a bit of a surprise," Rickman acknowledged in a Bafta interview last year. If it hadn't been for Liaisons, he might have stayed a British stage actor. As it was, his career veered off in a very different direction.

You can see hints of Valmont in all Rickman's screen villains: a calculating quality, an elegance and a capacity for cruelty. That, though, was only part of what he offered.

He is easily best known to a mass audience for playing potions guru Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films - and that was a role of surprising complexity. His lank-haired Severus was anguished, emotional and with an unlikely dark romantic quality. Given the chance, Rickman was a skilled (very dry) comic actor. He was very funny as Alexander Dane, the self-important Shakespearean actor who has been slumming it as a Dr Spock-like alien in sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest (1999). "It's a bit too close for comfort," he later joked of a role that seemed to have been written with him in mind.

Rickman also had the presence to play major historical figures. He was a memorably scheming Eamon de Valera opposite Liam Neeson's Michael Collins in Neil Jordan's biopic Michael Collins (1996).

A little incongruously, he played US President Ronald Reagan in Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013).

Belying his reputation as a British classical actor, he was cast recently as legendary New York music impresario and club owner Hilly Kristal in CBGB (2013). The film may not have been especially well received but it showed how bold and off-beat Rickman often was in his choice of roles.

On TV, this seemingly most self-contained of actors had a notable success (and won a Golden Globe) as the gimlet-eyed Russian monk in Uli Edel's Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny (1996).

One of his best-loved films was as the "ghost" in Anthony Minghella's debut feature Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), a recently deceased cellist carrying on his relationship with his bereaved girlfriend Nina (Juliet Stevenson). Some British critics moaned about the sentimentality, but others adored it.

What Truly, Madly Deeply underlined was both Rickman's natural charisma and his ability to play a romantic lead.

Look through Rickman's credits and you realise just what a restless, unpredictable figure he was.

At the same time he was appearing in Harry Potter movies, he was continuing to work on stage. He performed in Shakespeare, Noel Coward and Samuel Beckett.

There was a political side to his work, evident in My Name Is Rachel Corrie, the play he edited and directed, based on the diaries and emails of an American activist who was killed in Gaza in 2003.

Rickman also directed feature films. His debut feature was The Winter Guest (1997), an ensemble piece based on Sharman Macdonald's play and starring Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson.

Rickman leaves behind his wife Rima Horton, an arts patron and former Labour councillor.

The couple had lived together for 50 years before deciding to marry in secret in 2012.

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