Alan Rickman, master of ambiguity, was more than good at being bad

A looming presence both on stage and screen, Alan Rickman, whose death was confirmed Thursday by his family, was perhaps best known to movie fans in recent years for his performance as the shifty, enigmatic Professor Snape in the Harry Potter film series. But his bracing wit and gift for emotional and moral complexity were evident in a variety of other parts, from the noble Colonel Brandon in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility to uber-villain Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

Rickman played other heavies memorably in the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, where he appeared as the malevolent Judge Turpin, and in the title role of the 1996 TV film Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny, for which he won Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards. He played Irish president Eamon de Valera, nemesis to Liam Neeson's title character in Neil Jordan's historical drama Michael Collins.

But Rickman also brought his erudition and nuance to more patently sympathetic characters. He was a witty, affecting romantic lead in Anthony Minghella's acclaimed Truly, Madly, Deeply, in which Rickman portrayed a cellist who re-emerges after dying. In Love Actually, he and Emma Thompson played a couple whose marriage survives his character's affair with his secretary.

On stage, Rickman, who attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and came to the attention of Broadway audiences as the scheming Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in which he co-starred with Lindsay Duncan. Rickman and Duncan were reunited in a 2002 revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives, and Rickman returned to Broadway as a once-celebrated, embittered novelist teaching a writer's workshop in 2011's Seminar.

Across the pond, Rickman appeared as Mark Antony to Helen Mirren's Cleopatra in a London staging of the Shakespeare play and, in 2010, played the title role in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman at Dublin's Abbey Theatre. He also directed the politically charged My Name Is Rachel Corrie, based on the writings (co-edited by Rickman) of a young American woman killed while aiding Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The play, which premiered in London, eventually found a home off-Broadway.

One of Rickman's final projects was directing the 2014 film A Little Chaos, featuring his Sense co-star Kate Winslet, in which he appeared as King Louis XIV. (He had also completed the upcoming Alice Through The Looking Glass, voicing the part of Blue Caterpillar.) Speaking to NPR about the film last year, he said, "One of the most, in a weird way, encouraging things a director can say to an actor - I know this as an actor - is, when you ask them a question, they say: I don't know. 'Cause it means, it means there's some space there for you to find out."

To the end, Rickman kept discovering and revealing characters who, while not always easy to figure out, were always worth getting to know.

USA Today