Alan Rickman achieved a vast and wonderful career that most actors would only dream of, but by far his longest running and most celebrated role was as Severus Snape in the "Harry Potter" franchise. Rickman might have been twenty years older than the character that J.K. Rowling described in her books, but he so embodied the essence of the sneering, impassive potions professor that he eventually became the fandom's all-time favorite character.
However, when I heard the news this morning that Rickman had passed away after a battle with cancer, my immediate reaction wasn't to mourn the loss of Snape; as Alan Rickman himself would have told you if given the chance, Severus' story had ended long ago and there was no more to tell. Instead I recalled a brief but intimate performance that he gave only once -- a gorgeous, sonorous reading of William Shakespeare's sonnet 130.
The audio comes from "When Love Speaks," a compilation album of notable British actors reciting Elizabethan love sonnets that Rickman co-produced in 2002. Obviously it goes without saying that Alan Rickman could have enthralled us by simply reading the phone book, but there's something about this single performance that always gets to me. Perhaps its the way he recites such ironic, scathing lines so tenderly, as if they're a secret just for the listener -- as if, even though he's telling us his mistress's breath "reeks," he truly believes these to be compliments because he loves her. Or maybe it's just his easy familiarity with the Bard -- how he takes iconic words, that were written hundreds of years ago, and makes you feel like they're his.
Ever since his breakout role as the fearsome, calculating Hans Gruber in "Die Hard," modern moviegoing fans have tended to applaud Alan Rickman for his appearances in genre films: as Snape; as Marvin the paranoid android in "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy;" as Metatron in "Dogma;" or as Alexander Dane in "Galaxy Quest." If you prefer a more romantic Rickman, his work in "Sense and Sensibility," "Love, Actually" or "Truly, Madly, Deeply" probably captivated you endlessly -- and if you just prefer him as a complicated ne'er-do-well, there was the Sheriff of Nottingham in "Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves," Judge Turpin in "Sweeney Todd," or Grigori Rasputin in the TV movie "Rasputin," which won him an Emmy in 1996.
But while he stole the spotlight and touched our hearts in every single one of those performances (and there's no doubt some clever fan artists will soon have us sobbing over touching tributes for every single one of those iconic characters), his career began in Shakespearean plays like "The Tempest" and "Love's Labour's Lost," and he first appeared on camera in a 1978 BBC production of "Romeo and Juliet." Although he achieved great success in film, he never strayed too far away from the theater, either -- a recent 2011 performance in the Broadway play "Seminar" earned him a Drama League Award nomination.
As a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Rickman was always interested in taking on the Bard in particular. "When you get older, you read Shakespeare in a different way and it opens itself up to you more because you'e got a few more life experiences to bring to it. It doesn't get easier, but it gets a little more available," he said in an interview with The Globe Theater's Muse Of Fire project. "It's a very clear, passionate, open, beautiful, thoughtful, profound, skittish, comedic, tragic, amazing language and you have to pit yourself against it as a person -- it's you as a person, it's not you as an actor. You've got to measure up to it as a person."
Rickman touched many of our lives for the first time as Professor Snape, true, but we're not just mourning the man who made us fall in love with an ill tempered professor we were supposed to hate. We're mourning a man who made the world laugh, cry, and walk away from the theater feeling fulfilled, whether it was on stage, in front of a camera or even behind one -- who, like Shakespeare himself, was always able to tap into something profound and human and personal, even in something as simple as a poem about a woman's cheek color not measuring up.
"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 once told a reporter for IFC in 2008. Rickman's own career certainly fits that description, and it's a tragedy to think that he'll never woo us with a sonnet again. But we'll always have his decades of work to fondly look back on -- and in those seeking out those roles that he measured him self up against, we'll have some small bit of him that will withstand the test of time.