When Your Story Becomes a Movie Starring Alan Rickman and Mos Def

By  Katie McCabe
The death of British actor Alan Rickman has evoked tributes for his portrayals of an extraordinary range of characters: villains as chilling as Rasputin or Hans Gruber, at one end, and at the other the noble, diffident Colonel Brandon of Sense and Sensibility, the enigmatic Sevarus Snape of the Harry Potter series, who turns out to be more hero than villain after all, and Jamie, the irresistible ghost with a heart so large he serenades his grieving girlfriend back into life in Truly, Madly, Deeply.

My own Rickman favorite is a quiet, affecting, painfully honest HBO film called Something the Lord Made, about the complex segregation-era partnership between world-famous heart surgeon Alfred Blalock, played by Rickman, and his African-American lab assistant-turned-research-partner Vivien Thomas, played by Mos Def. As the author of the Washingtonian story on which the Emmy-winning movie was based, I was the person most likely to hate the film. What author is ever happy with a screen adaptation of his or her work?

When Hollywood producers began surfacing in the wake of the story’s publication in 1989, I regarded them with skepticism, doubting that any filmmaker could abjure the industry’s predilection for racial stereotyping and do justice to the nuances of Blalock and Thomas’s relationship. They’d make Thomas either a victim or an Uncle Tom, and Blalock a unidimensional racist. They’d trash the truth of both men’s characters.

During the 15 years it took the project to reach fruition, my worst fears were realized. The story was optioned and re-optioned, scripted and re-scripted, dying any number of deaths before producer Arleen Sorkin got it into the hands of her friend, HBO president Chris Albrecht, who snapped it up.

Even when writer Peter Silverman’s marvelous script appeared on my doorstep, I questioned whether any of the A-list actors HBO was considering for the leads could capture the essence of the two human beings who’d lived in my writer’s mind for so long. Both men eluded easy classification: the quiet, self-assured ex-carpenter Vivien Thomas, who survived in a white man’s world by compromising, without ever losing his sense of self; Blalock, the ambitious, volatile, imperious Southern aristocrat who dared to challenge the medical establishment but clung to the social mores that relegated his brilliant assistant to janitor’s pay. These were two men whose characters would tax the capacity of any actor. And their relationship defied easy classification, with its mix of distance and closeness, respect and resentment, affection and exploitation.

In 2003 I walked onto the movie set—an abandoned mental institution in Sykesville, Maryland—to consult on the film. Of the 30-year-old Mos Def I knew nothing except what my son had told me, that he was a rapper. And the classically trained Alan Rickman unsettled me from the moment we were introduced by producers Robert Cort and Eric Hetzel. My little nieces, agog that I was to meet the man inside the Sevarus Snape costume, charged me with determining the true size of his nose, a point of some dispute, apparently, among Harry Potter fans. His nose, though somewhat less than Snapish in its dimensions, was large and crooked, I reported, but I remained uncertain about the rest of him. Rickman was as standoffish and condescending as Mos Def was warm and friendly, and he intimidated just about everyone on the set. There was that damned accent that dripped with British superiority, and an air of dismissiveness that made me feel small.

I can’t recall the moment when that feeling changed. Somewhere in between the laboratory drinking scene between Blalock and Thomas that Rickman and Def played to perfection with the help of real-live Jim Beam—a scene, I’m sorry to say, that was ultimately cut—and the “swearing scene” in which a hung-over Alfred Blalock curses out Vivien Thomas for some small error and is forced by his outraged assistant to apologize, I saw that something extraordinary was happening. I’d heard actors talk about “inhabiting” roles but until I watched Mos Def and Alan Rickman become Vivien Thomas and Alfred Blalock I hadn’t understood what they meant. I couldn’t figure out how they slipped, with no apparent effort, into those roles when the camera began rolling, but they did, and they carried all of us along with them.

Mos Def exuded the dignity that defined Thomas even in the most humiliating situations. And Rickman glided into the character of Blalock. One second I’d be listening to that British accent, and the next to the Georgia drawl that morphed into a whine. “He’s nailed it,” dialect coach Howard Sameulsohn said, explaining that British actors do better with Southern accents than Americans, adding that Rickman was the best of the best. Rickman really was the Georgia aristocrat who demanded, and got, his own way. Rickman made Blalock as overbearing and demanding as he was in real life. And he also made him deeply human, because he managed to capture Blalock’s pain, his vulnerability, his self-doubt.

The pain seemed to come from within Rickman. I am certain of this because I saw that he himself was a person of great sadness. It hung about him like a cloak, and once I caught that sadness, I found him less frightening and more human. From time to time, during the waiting that takes place on movie sets, we’d talk a little bit—about London theater and his recommendations and warnings about what to avoid; about America’s peculiar brand of racism, which puzzled him greatly. But the conversation that stands out had to do with art, and its capacity to express pain.

In response to my “How are you killing time in Baltimore?” query, he dove into a description of what he’d seen the preceding day at the American Visionary Art Museum, a strange-looking waterfront edifice with a giant neon eye that houses art by non-artists, ordinary people, most of whom had survived personal trauma. Rickman clearly knew art, and loved it, maybe more than he did theater, he said, because that’s where he’d started, at art school, when he was 18. What moved me was his feeling about these anonymous artists who had created out of their pain. He seemed to be talking about himself.

Every night we’d watch the dailies in the producers’ trailer and I’d stay until midnight and beyond, unable to leave, captivated by what Mos Def and Alan Rickman were bringing alive. I’d drive home in the blackness and meditate on what they were managing to do, melding themselves on camera in a way that I felt sure was analogous to Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas’s partnership in the lab.

But it wasn’t until I saw the film in its entirety, at the New York premiere, that I fully appreciated the genius of the acting. Let it be said, first, that Alan Rickman did not, as he has in so many films, upstage the lead actor. Mos Def dominated from beginning to end. What Alan Rickman did, in his supporting role, was to enrich and enlarge the sense of the partnership, humanizing a character who in lesser hands would have been simply an entitled, racist aristocrat. Rickman’s Blalock had passion for his patients, and he had the capacity to regret his shortcomings.

The New York premiere audience barely breathed when Rickman spoke Blalock’s final line in the film: “I regret…I have regrets.” He conveyed the haunted quality of Blalock, his ability to admit that he had, in a profound way, failed Vivien Thomas. When the camera panned the portraits of the real Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas, which hang in the lobby of the Alfred Blalock Clinical Sciences Building at Johns Hopkins Hospital, there weren’t many dry eyes in the house. Everyone in that audience came away with a sense of having actually known these two men.

“Rickman brought to every part he played, an unwavering Rickman-ness,” wrote the Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan in his January 15 tribute to Rickman. “If his peers hid behind masks, Rickman threw his away and stepped into the spotlight.” I know this to be true, because, for six weeks, on the set of Something the Lord Made, I was privileged to watch him do that, and am grateful for the humanity and depth and intelligence that he brought to the portrayal of a complex and enigmatic man—a man who was remarkably like himself.
Katie McCabe’s Washingtonian story, Like Something the Lord Made, won the 1990 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. The film was nominated for nine Emmy Awards (including acting nominations for both principals) and won three, including one for Outstanding Made for Television Movie. It also won a Peabody Award. The American Film Institute, which named Something the Lord Made the Best Television Movie of the Year for 2004, called it “a revelation…a bittersweet story [that] is an important tool for America as it continues to search for a public vocabulary to discuss issues of race.”


  1. Sharon Gretzinger says

    Dear Katie McCabe
    Thank you for your writing, both the original story and the one here that lets us see you and how you dealt with being part of the making of the movie.

    It is for me one of the top movies in my 76 years.
    I got to see the movie with old and dear friends, in the comfort of their home.

    I was stunned by the truth. It was sheer delight to have the truth of the characters spoken out loud. The true beauty of truth. The story as it unfolded was gripping, it was impossible to know where it would go next. Where it went I will never forget. It went from honest to way more honest. Then it would hang on the
    brink before being as honest again.

    Again thank you for writing both your story and the original story.
    I am glad to have both in my mind.

    Sincerely, Sharon Gretzinger

  2. This is a wonderful tribute to Alan Rickman – and Katie McCabe the author. Ms. McCabe gives us that rare glimpse of such a genius as Alan Rickman clearly was, and in doing so, captures the very quintessence of how the ensemble that created “Something the Lord Made” was able to touch us all so profoundly.

    Of course, knowing Katie McCable and much of her work as I do, I have come to expect nothing less . . . Genius has a way of attracting other rarities, often replicating itself into other forms and arenas, which are equally brilliant and captivating. It doesn’t surprise me that Alan Rickman was attracted to the role of Alfred Blalock, or the person who brought him to life in “Something the Lord Made.” This film, and Rickman’s role in it, will clearly stand the test of time, never to be forgotten!

  3. Adina Gewirtz says

    As a lover of the written word, I’ve seen very few movies that capture the power of the original story. And when a story is as beautiful as the one first told by Katie McCabe, that’s doubly true. But Something The Lord Made broke that rule because the two lead actors brought Vivien Thomas and Alfred Blalock to life, complete with all the contradictions and complexities of their partnership and the anger, pain and joy that was part of it. A remarkable story, told by a group of remarkable storytellers.

  4. Marla Fogelman says

    In this lovely tribute, Katie McCabe gives us a rare view of Alan Rickman as a fully complex human in all his pain and brilliance. There is no doubt that Rickman’s performance in Something the Lord Made illuminated this rich and important story, as did Mos Def’s, and made it all the more moving and powerful. A beautiful story within a story within a story.

  5. Anne Milijic says

    Thank you Katie McCabe for your thoughtful insight into the collaborative process behind Something the Lord Made and your considered observations about the complex character that was Alan Rickman. It is too easy to believe that we know someone who we see on screen so frequently and simply see them as the role, but Rickman wanted us to know Blalock through him, not as him – as you say, ” humanizing a character who in lesser hands would have been simply an entitled, racist aristocrat”. Rickman was never just the evil foil. Your article gently reminds us that a first impression is frequently just one facet of the diamond.

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