Alan Rickman Had Never Acted In A Movie Before This Action Classic

By Rick Gonzales | Published

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It has been over seven years since we tragically lost Alan Rickman to cancer. Rickman was a true treasure, not only in Hollywood but also in his home country of England, where he got his training as an actor and his start as an actor, performing in classical and modern theatre productions. It was Rickman’s first feature film role, the one that ultimately defined his career, that was a complete surprise to him, and one that he almost didn’t take.

While it might seem crazy now, Alan Rickman’s first real acting job on the big screen was actually in Die Hard, the movie he might be most remembered for even after his lengthy career. It was something that came along almost by accident considering what he was doing with his acting career.

Alan Rickman’s Life Before Die Hard

Before Alan Rickman found his calling as an actor, his interest lay in another form of art – graphic design. For a while, Rickman followed that passion for art by first attending the Chelsea College of Art and Design, following that up with a three-year stint at the Royal College of Art.

For three years, he found success in a graphic design studio he and a few friends opened. But acting was something he had done while attending school and as his business continued with its success, Rickman was beginning to have second thoughts about his career. With that in mind, he ended up attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which led to him becoming a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Alan Rickman was in stage performances of Romeo and Juliet and A View from the Bridge, long before he ever landed on the big screen

Alan Rickman’s early stage career included productions of Chekhov’s The Seagull and Snoo Wilson’s The Grass Widow. He was also seen in Romeo and Juliet as well as A View from the Bridge. While he was gaining recognition on the stage, making movies was not on his priority list. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his 1987 performance in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which led him to Los Angeles and a very surprising offer.

Alan Rickman Becomes Hans Gruber

To hear Alan Rickman talk about it, the idea for him to play Hans Gruber in the classic Christmas film, Die Hard opposite Bruce Willis, was a massive surprise. Rickman says he was only in Los Angeles two days before he was offered the part.

Alan Rickman was offered Die Hard while visiting Los Angeles to meet some casting directors

“We finished six months in New York and, I don’t know how any of this happened,” Rickman explained while talking about his early career. “I didn’t know anything about LA, I didn’t know anything about the film business. I went to meet some casting directors, I went to meet some producers, and I think it was two days after I got there, I was offered Die Hard. Never made a film before.”

Alan Rickman then went on to explain that when he first read the script he asked himself, “What the hell is this?” He could not see himself in an action film. Then he was told that he needed to understand that his getting this offer is not something that happens too often, seeing as that he had never been in a film and was in Los Angeles for only a couple of days. So, he began to consider the role.

As he read through the script again, he questioned why his character would have to be in the terrorist gear if he had people already dressed like that. “So, I was just thinking that if I was wearing a suit and not all of this terrorist gear then maybe there could be a scene where, um, I put on an American accent and he thinks that I am one of the hostages.”

At first Rickman didn’t think they listened to him, that is until he got the “new” script. In it was the scene he had described.

From there Hans Gruber was born. One of the most iconic villains ever to grace the big screen, Gruber sits on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains list at number 46. British film magazine, Empire, has Alan Rickman listed twice on their greatest villains list with his portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham ranking number 14, while they have Hans Gruber sitting at number 4.

You can see Alan Rickman talk about his career and, more specifically, Hans Gruber starting around the 2-minute mark in the interview below.

He Was Very In Demand As An Actor

Alan Rickman’s performance as Hans Gruber opened many a Hollywood door for him. Die Hard led to The January Man, Quigley Down Under, Truly Madly Deeply, and Closet Land, before he reached back into his villain bag as the Sheriff of Nottingham opposite Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Although Rickman had signed on to play the role, he didn’t feel the script was up to par. In fact, he took the script to a playwright friend, asking him to look at the script because in Rickman’s words, the script “was terrible.”

This friend gave him suggestions to beef up his lines as did another scriptwriting friend. Rickman used these suggestions and turned a fairly tame Sheriff of Nottingham into one of the more memorable characters of his career.

Alan Rickman continued to perform on the stage while also building his feature film resume. Sense and Sensibility, Rasputin, and Michael Collins were added to his calling card as were Judas Kiss, Dark Harbor, and Dogma.  Then came another big role in his career, that being the role of Alexander Dane/Dr. Lazarus in the wonderfully funny sci-fi comedy, Galaxy Quest.

alan rickman
Alan Rickman As Professor Snape in the Harry Potter franchise

The film had co-star Sam Rockwell saying that it was Rickman who kept the film from falling into chaos, which was hard to stop with Tim Allen on board.

“There were a couple rehearsals where we rewrote some things sitting around the table,” Rockwell said to The Hollywood Reporter. “Alan Rickman was very instrumental in making sure the script hit the dramatic notes, and everything had a strong logic and reason behind it. He wanted the Grabthar’s hammer moment to be set up perfectly, so it had that emotion when he delivered it to Patrick Breen, who is a fantastic actor.”

Of course, it wasn’t just Hans Gruber or the Sheriff of Nottingham or even Dr. Lazarus that made Alan Rickman’s career. It was his performance as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series. It was his role as the philandering husband in the romantic comedy Love Actually. It was his performance as Judge Turpin in the horror musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

All of it, though, came from that very first feature film role as Hans Gruber. Who knows where Rickman’s career would have gone if he hadn’t accepted the role? With his talent, he undoubtedly would have been just as successful, but it was Gruber that laid the foundation. We lost an immensely talented man when Alan Rickman passed away in 2016, but we certainly still have his great catalog of films to enjoy.