Rickman is born into a working class family of Irish and Welsh descent in Hammersmith, London, on February 21, 1946. Rickman attends Derwentwater Primary School in Acton, and then Latymer Upper School in London through the Direct Grant system, where he becomes involved in drama. After leaving Latymer, he attends Chelsea College of Art and Design and then the Royal College of Art. After graduation, Rickman and several friends open a graphic design studio called Graphiti, but after three years of successful business, he decides that he is going to pursue acting professionally. He writes to request an audition with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), which he attends from 1972 until 1974.
Upon leaving the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Rickman becomes a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, performing in modern and classical theatre productions. His first big television role comes in 1982, but his big break is as the Vicomte de Valmont in the stage production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1985, for which he is nominated for a Tony Award.
Rickman’s first film role is as the German terrorist leader Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988). His other film roles include the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), for which he receives the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Elliott Marston in Quigley Down Under (1990), Jamie in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), P.L. O’Hara in An Awfully Big Adventure (1995), Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility (1995), Éamon de Valera in Neil Jordan‘s Michael Collins (1996), Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest (1999), Harry in Love Actually (2003) and Judge Turpin in the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim‘s musical of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). He gains further notice for his film performances as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series. He also stars in television films, playing the title character in Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny (1996), which wins him a Golden Globe Award, an Emmy Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award, and Dr. Alfred Blalock in the Emmy-winning Something the Lord Made (2004). His final film roles are as Lieutenant General Frank Benson in the thriller Eye in the Sky (2015), and the voice of Absolem, the caterpillar in Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016).
In August 2015, Rickman suffers a minor stroke, which leads to the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He reveals the fact that he has terminal cancer to only his closest confidants. He dies of pancreatic cancer on January 14, 2016 at the age of 69. His remains are cremated on February 3, 2016 in the West London Crematorium in Kensal Green. His ashes are given to his wife, Rima Horton. His final two films, Eye in the Sky and Alice Through the Looking Glass, are dedicated to his memory.