The British-born actor was a worthy opponent for Tom Selleck in "Quigley Down Under."
Many folks always will remember Alan Rickman best for his portrayal of Hans Gruber, the impeccably attired terrorist who sneered at Bruce Willis' heroics, then paid dearly while the good guy had the last laugh, in Die Hard. Others will always associate him first and foremost with the character of Professor Severus Snape, the demanding educator of wizard-in-training Harry Potter.
But for Cowboys & Indians readers, Rickman — the revered British actor who passed away Thursday at age 69 — will likely remain a favorite primarily because of his villainous turn in Quigley Down Under, an offbeat cult-fave 1990 action-adventure film, directed by Simon Wincer (Lonesome Dove), that placed a Wild West hero in the Australian outback.
Tom Selleck starred to perfection as Matthew Quigley, a sharpshooter hired by Elliott Marston (Rickman), a rich cattle rancher, to rid Marston's land of troublesome aborigines. But Quigley refused to shoot at innocent bystanders, a moral distinction that eluded Marston.
“I think you could say Marston's fairly single-minded, and pretty childish, really,” Rickman reported with a hearty chuckle when we chatted prior to the Quigley Down Under premiere. “And that was what was fun to play — the fact that I don’t think you could put his IQ in double figures. He certainly has very strong wants. He's used to stamping his foot and getting his way, I think. Like a lot of rich Englishmen. It's kind of a tradition back home.”
At the time, Rickman seemed set on establishing his own tradition, as his list of screen credits began to resemble a rogues’ gallery. The next role on his agenda: the villainous Sherriff of Nottingham opposite Kevin Costner's Robin Hood in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. So I had to ask: Did doing the wrong thing come easily for him as an actor?
“Oh, I think it comes easily to anybody if they're given the opportunity,” Rickman replied. “Seriously. I think if anybody kind of puts a witch's costume on for a fancy-dress party, they enjoy it — don't they? Wearing black masks, and being naughty, and not getting a smacked bottom for it.”
Even before he made his movie debut in Die Hard, Rickman wore more than his fair share of black masks, and performed any number of dark deeds, as a versatile stage actor at London's Royal Court, Hampstead, and Bush theaters. “And just before I did Die Hard,” Rickman said, “I'd spent the previous two, three years with the Royal Shakespeare Company. And a large amount of that time was spent doing Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” playing the lecherous Vicomte de Valmont. “And everything that that role required was to do it with a kind of wicked pleasure.”
Even so, as Rickman saw it, there was more to Quigley Down Under than just another chance to get down and dirty. While playing Cowboys and Indians, or Ranchers and Aborigines, he could relive those days of his youth when he spent weekends “going to the corner shop, and buying a box of caps for a penny. And putting them in the gun, and then wondering why they weren't going around, because you had such a cheap gun. You'd flick the thing and they didn't bang.
“That's my memory of playing cowboy. That, and the hat that didn't fit.”
Rickman grew up to find more expensive toys to play with, on movie sets.
“But I wouldn't want anybody to see too many of the outtakes of me trying to use a pistol in [Quigley Down Under],'' Rickman said. ''They finally managed to get one that looked as if I knew what I was doing. Vaguely.
“But it took them a while.”