It is well over a month since the world said goodbye to the fabulous Alan Rickman, but social media posts commemorating his birthday five days ago reignited my sense of loss. This was an actor who not only won my heart as Colonel Brandon in the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility, but he is also the man who perfectly portrayed my most beloved Harry Potter character, Severus Snape (Luna Lovegood comes in a very close second, but that is a conversation for a different fan site). Anyway, I got to thinking about which other actors who have immortalized Austen’s characters on screen might have died with a lot less fanfare, inspiring many hours of reading IMDd listings. It seems a fitting tribute to Mr. Rickman and those other fallen stars to share my findings here, but please do not think it is my intention to be morbid, dwelling on loss. The actors mentioned below played their roles magnificently and will live forever in my mind and those of countless other Janeites everywhere. This post is intended as a celebration of their Austenian achievements.
Of course, the older the adaptation, the more likely its cast has bit the bucket. Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, as well the bulk of the cast of the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, have been dead for decades (though the lady who played Mary Bennet, Marsha Hunt, is apparently still kicking it at age 99 – you go girl!). About half of the actors were born in the 19th century, so what else is to be expected? But that’s exactly what is so amazing about film: Garson and Olivier continue to spar it out with as much vibrancy as ever, decades after their passing. This first couple to portray Elizabeth and Darcy remain many a Janeite’s favorite. Despite all the old Hollywood trappings of the film (and there are many), both actors shine in their roles. In tribute, here is the first proposal scene. It is a bit genteel by modern standards, but do look at Darcy’s posture when Elizabeth mentions Wickham, as he paces the room and leans against a pillar in agitation. Surely this moment was the inspiration for both the actors who later played Darcy and also countless of writers like myself, who love to pose him staring broodingly out a window or into a fireplace.
Moving into the second half of the 20th century, the heroes and heroines of the BBC mini-series adaptations of Austen’s novels have proved remarkably hale. A few of the supporting actors have died, and I would be remiss not to mention two particular losses amongst the stars of the 1972 version of Emma: Donald Eccles, who I think is the best Mr. Woodhouse EVER, and the fabulous Mollie Sugden, who portrayed Mrs. Goddard, but is best known for her role as Mrs. Slocombe in the British TV comedy Are You Being Served?. Also noteworthy is Anna Massey, who played Aunt Norris in the 1983 Mansfield Park to perfection (you might also recall her as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest).
Mrs. Norris might be an unhealthy role to portray. Sheila Gish, who played the part in the 1999 version of Mansfield Park, passed away only six years later. In the same cast and of equally villainous status in this particular adaptation, Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize winning playwright, performed the role of Sir Thomas Bertram. For some of us (me!), his horrifying version of Sir Thomas might be happily forgotten, but his death in 2008 of liver cancer was undoubtedly a blow to the entire literary world.
Particularly hard hit, the cast of Persuasion (1995) has lost three members: Susan Fleetwood (Lady Russell), Corin Redgrave (Vanessa and Lynn’s brother/Sir Walter Elliot), and Roger Hammond (Mr. Musgrove), who gave his final performance in The King’s Speech.
It seems ironic that the only actors playing Austen heroes (since the 1940’s) that have died are those that portrayed Colonel Brandon. Behold the efficacy of the flannel waistcoat! The heroines are all alive and flourishing. Robert Swann, who passed away in 2006, performed the role of the Colonel in the 1981 BBC version of Sense and Sensibility. Born on March 18, 1945, he had a long career, primarily in television. Interestingly, his first performance was in the classic 1960’s film If … staring Malcolm McDowell. Other contributions to the big screen include a small role in The Madness of King George. He appeared fairly regularly on television until two years prior to his death. His one leading man role other than Colonel Brandon was as Levin in the 1977 mini-series version of Anna Karenina. I wish I could find more information on him and make this a more informative eulogy. Rest in peace, Mr. Swann.
Far more plentiful is information on Mr. Rickman, whose resume includes fewer credits than Mr. Swann, but whose memory will be far better preserved in his startlingly diverse and spectacular performances. Born February 21, 1946, he began acting in the theater at the relatively late age of 26. His first Hollywood performance was no bit part but as the villain Hans Gruber in Die Hard. He first came to the attention of my young eyes as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I don’t think I recognized him as the same actor when I first saw the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility. His Colonel Brandon is so gentle and romantic: reserved, as he should be, but nonetheless deeply passionate. I love this scene, in which he doesn’t utter a word in his iconic voice, yet conveys so much emotion, all while maintaining a military stoicism so befitting the character.
His abilities transversed genres: from action, to romance, to comedy, and onto musicals with Sweeney Todd. Still, how can he not be best remembered as Severus Snape, the tragic hero of Harry Potter? He was PERFECT as Snape. In a film franchise filled with impeccable casting decisions, his is possibly the very best (runners up: Luna Lovegood, Belatrix Lestrange, and Delores Umbridge – see how easy I get distracted by Potter?) I am eternally grateful he had the opportunity to complete the series, as I am that he finished reprising his role at the caterpillar in the upcoming Alice Through the Looking Glass, his final performance. Mr. Rickman died on January 21, 2016. He was 69 years old. Rest in peace, Mr. Rickman. You were much beloved.