The sadly missed Alan Rickman was among the most beloved British actors of his generation. From his early roles in theatre to his film breakthrough in Die Hard and later appearances in Love Actually and the Harry Potter series, Rickman was a unique and compelling screen presence – and a huge part of this was his voice.
According to a 2008 scientific study, Alan Rickman literally had the perfect voice, thanks to his immaculate balance of tone, frequency, intonation and speed. Rickman owed his unique voice to a speech impediment – a result of him being born with a tight jaw – and an accent that mixed Irish and Welsh parentage, a working-class London upbringing and training at Britain’s toughest acting school.
From working-class to upper crust
Given his well-spoken, somewhat upper class manner as an actor, it may come as a surprise that Alan Rickman came from thoroughly working-class beginnings. Born in Acton, London on February 21, 1946, Alan was the second oldest among four siblings (with elder brother David, younger brother Michael and younger sister Sheila).
From his early years, Rickman’s voice was unlike that of his siblings. He was born with a condition that left him unable to properly move his lower jaw, as a result of which he grew up with a speech impediment. Despite this, Rickman always had an ear for accents, owing in part to the different accents he was exposed to as a child: Rickman (who described himself as a “full-blooded Celt”) would remark in 1986, “My mother was Welsh and my father was Irish and I can speak both accents like a native, yet in my whole career I have never been asked to.”
When Rickman was eight years old, his father (a painter and decorator) died of lung cancer, leaving mother Margaret to raise the four children alone. Young Alan’s fortunes took a turn, however, when his academic prowess at primary school landed him a place at Hammersmith’s prestigious Latymer Upper School. It was here, Rickman explained, that he came to develop a received pronunciation accent.
Training the voice at RADA
Rickman was interested in acting from his teens, though this was a completely alien world from his upbringing, as his parents “didn’t have anything to do with the theatre. I’m some kind of accident.” After completing his secondary education, Rickman attended art college and briefly pursued a career in graphic design. In 1972, a then 26-year-old Rickman pivoted again: he began studying at London’s famed Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) with a view to pursuing acting for a living.
Here, Rickman’s unusual voice proved a sticking point: “At drama school, it was the subject of a great deal of criticism and a lot of hard work. They said I had a spastic soft palate.” He would later remark of his distinctive tones, “It’s to do with having a high roof of the mouth apparently. I should be a good singer, but a teacher at drama school wasn’t too encouraging.”
This didn’t keep Rickman from later singing on film, in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, but in an interview for that film in 2007, Rickman recalled one memorably cutting comment on his delivery while at RADA: “Alan, you sound as if your voice is coming under the back end of the drain pipe was one review from my voice teacher.”
After RADA successfully ironed out his delivery and flattened his working-class accent, Rickman joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. There the somewhat aloof, sneering quality of Rickman’s voice made him a natural fit for darker, less clean-cut characters, such as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (which became his first televised work in 1978).
Movie debut at 42
The shady role that really launched Rickman was Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a 1985 stage adaptation of the Pierre Choderlos de Laclos novel. A Royal Shakespeare Company production, the play proved popular enough in London’s West End to later be sent across the Atlantic to New York’s Broadway, where it garnered even more acclaim, including Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for Rickman.
Rickman’s performance as Valmont also caught the eye of Joel Silver, a Hollywood producer who was starting work on a new feature, action movie Die Hard. Despite the fact that Rickman had never made a film before, Silver felt he would be ideal for the role of debonair criminal mastermind Hans Gruber, and would provide the perfect counterpoint for leading man Bruce Willis.
Silver’s first choice for Gruber, Sam Neill, turned the part down, and Rickman – who found himself offered the movie almost immediately after coming to Hollywood – also came close to declining: “I read it and I said ‘what the hell is this? I’m not doing an action movie!’ And agents and people said ‘Alan, you don’t understand, this doesn’t happen. You’ve only been in LA two days and you’ve been asked to do this film.'”
Eventually Rickman saw sense and signed on to play Gruber, which proved to be the best start possible to his film career. Die Hard opened in 1988, giving Rickman his movie debut aged 42. A huge success, the film made tremendous use of Rickman’s distinctive voice, as well as his aptitude for accents.
As he plays a German character, Die Hard sees Rickman give the bulk of his performance in a dry German accent; one memorable sequence, though, sees Rickman adopt an LA accent when Gruber meets Bruce Willis’ John McClane face-to-face for the first time, as Gruber attempts to conceal his true identity.
Accounts vary on the genesis of this scene: Rickman claimed to have suggested it himself, but in Netflix series The Movies That Made Us, screenwriter Steven E de Souza claims he had the idea after hearing Rickman put on a stereotypical Californian voice. Either way it proved a key scene in the film, in which Willis’ McClane remarks to Gruber, “you oughta be on f***in’ TV with that accent.”
The critical and commercial success of Die Hard saw Rickman transformed overnight from respected stage actor to fully-fledged movie star. Many more major roles came in the years that followed, including supernatural romance Truly, Madly, Deeply, Jane Austen adaptation Sense and Sensibility and cult sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest.
A voice for villain roles
However, Rickman’s raspy line delivery and droll manner saw him most closely associated with bad guy roles. Upon his death, the BBC wrote that Rickman’s “sonorous, languid voice” made “even throwaway lines of dialogue sound thought out and authoritative” – a sound that made the actor perfect for playing baddies.
While his villainous turn opposite Tom Selleck in Quigley Down Under is largely forgotten, Rickman memorably played a melodramatic Sheriff of Nottingham opposite Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a performance which won him his only BAFTA award (one of Rickman’s few major screen acting accolades; he was never Oscar-nominated). Later, he took on the role of complex antagonist Severus Snape in all eight Harry Potter movies.
Still, while the cinema-going public adored Rickman’s villain performances (which could also include his turn as Emma Thompson’s unfaithful husband in Love Actually), this never created a perception of him being a bad guy in reality. Rickman did a good job keeping his private life out of of the spotlight, most likely because there was nothing remotely scandalous to report.
The actor spent the bulk of his life as the partner of politician Rima Horton, the couple having met in their teens. They had no children, and only wed in 2012, four years before Rickman passed away from pancreatic cancer. (This was the second time Rickman battled the disease, having previously suffered prostate cancer in 2005.)
“I don’t hear what anybody else hears”
The 2008 study to find the perfect voice gave some indication of how well thought-of Rickman was. Professor Andrew Linn, the linguist behind the study, remarked of the results: “As humans we instinctively know which voices send shivers down our spine and which make us shudder with disgust… The emotional responses panellists had to the voices were surprising and go some way to explaining how voiceover artists or radio DJs are selected, or why particular celebrity voices appeal.”
The study also found that actors Jeremy Irons and Michael Gambon sport ideal masculine voices, whilst on the female side those most highly regarded included actresses Judi Dench and Honor Blackman and journalist and presenter Mariella Frostrup. Rickman, though, came out on top.
While he spent his career being questioned about his voice, Rickman seemed largely indifferent on the subject. In a 1991 interview with The Telegraph, he rejected suggestions that his voice was cold: “There is a certain warmth, I would have thought… This is me. I have a certain pitch to my voice, a certain way of framing my sentences.” Elsewhere, he shrugged, “I don’t hear what anybody else hears. I’m six-foot-one, I wear size 11 shoes, and I have this voice.”