With a mere look, whether withering or wistful, Alan Rickman could convey more than most performers could with a thousand words of dialogue.
It's a talent he put to brilliant use as one of the most versatile actors of his era: He gave bittersweet life to the dead in the "Ghost"-like romantic tearjerker "Truly Madly Deeply." He gave a soul to the outwardly reserved Colonel Brandon in "Sense and Sensibility." He gave us belly laughs as the sneering Leonard Nimoy-like pigeonholed actor in the durable comedy "Galaxy Quest."
Rickman, who died of cancer this week at age 69, forged a permanent place in movie history as Harry Potter's potions professor Severus Snape, whose pale-faced glare proved enough to send shudders through burgeoning wizards – as well as through young (and not-so-young) filmgoers.
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But Rickman's greatest feat of movie magic came in cloaking Snape in a dusky, slowly materializing cloud of ambiguity – marking the peak in the three-decade-plus career of the British actor, who, at his best, imbued his characters with far more depth than could be plumbed by the eye alone.
Even when he wasn't the star, Alan Rickman demanded attention, and not only for his gaunt good looks and commanding baritone. Part of his gift rested in drawing the viewer into attempting to unravel the inner thoughts of his characters.
Rickman lent a nuanced air of mystery even to the wonderfully over-the-top "Die Hard": His suave terrorist, Hans Gruber, smoldered in a compelling slow burn, going from controlled and calculating to an explosive, heartless killer.
Over the course of the eight "Potter" films, Rickman slowly and meticulously put the heart into Snape, echoing the character's progression in J.K. Rowling's great book series. Snape went from Harry Potter's hateful, mocking nemesis to a haunted figure, driven by selfless love, childhood hurt and his own sense of brave honor.
In the end, Snape emerged a good guy, on his own terms. Alan Rickman, whose knack for infusing deceiving complexity into his characters helped make Snape and the "Harry Potter" flicks movie icons, will be remembered simply as a great actor, by any definition.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.