That Alan Rickman was one of our great screen actors was really brought home to me in the underrated British classic Truly, Madly, Deeply – a movie that still make me mist up – due to his tender performance as the recently deceased Jamie who has returned to ‘live’ with his distraught wife.

Playing against the equally wonderful Juliet Stevenson, it is a rich performance full of wit and pathos as we begin to understand Jamie is back, but only to use his increasing outrageous behaviour that finally help his one true love  let go of her debilitating grief.

In other less skilled hands the whole premise would have unbearably mawkish but all those years at the RSC and the National paid off as Rickman used all his sardonic tics to make us see ourselves in those two lost souls. It didn’t do much at the box office, but well worth tracking down on Netflix or online.

Sure, I’d seen Rickman’s breakout screen role in the mighty action flick Die Hard playing evil German terrorist Han Gruber and setting himself up for a lifetime of playing slightly camp villains. His cat and mouse battle with Bruce Willis as they fight it out in a tower block is both knowing and utterly believable. Like all great actors he even manages to get a lesser talent like Willis to raise his game.

It seemed natural then that he would return home to play the Sheriff of Nottingham providing the only touch of class in an otherwise utterly risible movie starring a miscast Kevin Costner. Only a Brit, who had in his RADA days been a dresser for Nigel Hawthorne and Sir Ralph Richardson, could have produced a charming performance that verged on OTT but as with all his work was beautifully judged.

You always sensed that working class lad Rickman was well aware of the absurdity of being a movie star as he exercised his comedy chops as the voice of God in Dogma and the pretentious luvvie actor Alexander Dane in the amusing Galaxy Quest.

All these roles were leading to the Harry Potter franchise where he played the seemingly evil Severus Snape in eight movies. Looking back it is a genuinely inspired piece of casting, and Rickman clearly realises it is a gift of a role turning on his full sneer as this troubled man makes Harry’s life a misery.

It can’t be easy playing against an actor as bad as Daniel Radcliffe but like always Rickman brings out the best in all the child actors. Once again he almost effortlessly wipes the floor with a vertible who’s who of British actors who appear in different guises across eight movies.

Yes, his trademark sneery voice and many variations of the arch raised eyebrow are fully deployed under the hideous black fringe, but Rickman’s generous performance makes him a man who is not an irredeemable human or cardboard cut-out villain – especially in the final movie when he reveals the weight he has carried in secret to protect Harry and his friends.

Away from the screen this hugely successful man remembered his roots as the product of a single parent and remained a card carrying Labour supporter all his life when fame and wealth could have turned his head.

If you want a real measure of his talent he even managed to wade his way through Richard Curtis’ turgid words and direction in Love Actually to give Harry something resembling human reactions.

So farewell to one of the truly greats, and unlike me, who had to wait until his twenties to recognise his greatness, a new generation will see just how he good he was at a far earlier age as Rickman’s Snape is a timeless character that will shape countless childhood memories.