UPDATED with more details, Broadway to dim lights: Roger Rees, who won Olivier and Tony awards in the early 1980s for his performance as the title character in The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby, died Friday in New York of cancer. The Welsh-born actor, widely known for his recurring roles on Cheers and The West Wing, was 71. He had worked until just weeks ago, when declining health forced him to withdraw from his final role opposite Chita Rivera on Broadway in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical The Visit.
Broadway marquees will be dimmed for one minute Wednesday, July 15, beginning at 7:45 PM ET to honor and commemorate Rees, the Broadway League announced.
The handsome, sullenly boyish-looking Rees was already in his mid-30s when he soared to stardom for his performance in David Edgar’s epic adaptation of the 1839 novel by Charles Dickens. The show, with a huge cast versed in American “Story Theater” techniques where the actors portrayed multiples characters as well as set pieces such as a horse-drawn carriage, was an instant hit with audiences hungry for a meaty tale. Running time for the Royal Shakespeare Company version on London’s West End was something like 10 hours including intermissions, and was spread over two evenings or one full day with a dinner break in between. Airing in four episodes, an RSC recording of the stage production became Channel 4’s first drama.
The play moved to Broadway in 1981, winning multiple Tonys including Best Play and Best Director for Trevor Nunn in addition to the acting nod for Rees. It also made history as Broadway’s first $100 ticket. A production aired on U.S. TV in 1983, winning an Emmy for Best Limited Series and earning Rees his only Emmy nomination.
Rees later appeared on NBC’s Cheers as a snooty British millionaire by the name of Robin Colcord — the love interest of Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca Howe. He starred in the British sitcom Singles from 1988 to 1991. He also appeared in The West Wing as UK ambassador to the U.S. Lord John Marbury. Rees became a U.S. citizen in 1989.
Rick Miramontez, a spokesman for the Rees-Elice family, said that Rees “passed away last night at his home in New York City, after a brief journey with cancer. His husband Rick Elice, and family and friends were at his side.” As word spread of the actor-director’s death on Saturday, social media from the UK and across the U.S. filled with tributes and condolences from colleagues and fans, including this, from Nicholas Nickleby co-director (with John Caird) Trevor Nunn:
“Roger was inspirational. He had the perpetual boyishness and mischief of a Peter Pan, extraordinary wit combined with a gift for self-satire, and dauntless optimism coupled with deep-rooted belief. All these ingredients went into his acting, and I am sure, into his directing, and gave him an aura of rare, generous spirited humanity. He was always superb at being just ‘one of the gang’ in the company, while equally deft at leading by example, leading by commitment. All this was sublimated in his Nicholas Nickleby, the giant success of which led him to change his life by moving to America. I spent a magical evening with him in New York only a few months ago. He talked of his illness — with optimism, with wit, with self-satire, and with deep-rooted belief … and once again, to be in his presence was inspirational.”
Rees played actor-director Peter Bogdonavich in Bob Fosse’s Star 80, a movie about the tragic life and death of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten. Rees’ other movies included Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Frida and The Prestige.
Rees came to his life in the theater by way of his education in art. While painting scenery at Wimbledon Theatre, he was asked to fill what turned out to be the lead role in a play. He segued to the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967, performing in The Comedy of Errors, Three Sisters, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Twelfth Night and Cymbeline. He later worked with Tom Stoppard, beginning with the London world premiere of The Real Thing. He also appeared in Stoppard’s Hapgood as a Russian double agent.
Rees appeared on Broadway in a 1995 production of Jean Cocteau’s surrealistic comedy Les Parents Terribles, retitled Indiscretions and staged by Sean Mathias, with Kathleen Turner, Eileen Atkins, Cynthia Nixon and a young Jude Law. He won an Obie Award in Jon Robin Baitz’s The End of the Day.
“Kathleen Turner’s begoggled, failed inventor of a husband, George, is played with unnerving intensity by Rees [who is] nothing short of spellbinding as a husband whose twittiness barely masks a sinister egotism.” — Jeremy Gerard in Variety’s review of Indiscretions
From 2004 to 2007, Rees was artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the famed Massachusetts summer theater. He was a passionate theatergoer and a familiar presence in the audience off-Broadway as well as on. Rees met his husband, playwright Rick Elice, in 1982. After Rees turned to writing and directing, he and Elice collaborated on Peter and the Starcatcher, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Co-directed by Rees and Alex Timbers, the show debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse and traveled to Off Broadway then to Broadway in 2012. It earned several Tony noms, including directing nods for Rees and Timbers.
Rees replaced Nathan Lane as Gomez Addams in Elice, Andrew Lippa and Marshall Brickman’s Broadway musical adaptation of The Addams Family. In The Visit, he played the one-time lover of the world’s richest woman, who has returned to their ruined European village seeking brutal justice. His most memorable recent performance in a play was as a wealthy father who sacrifices everything in defense of his son’s honor, in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s stunning 2013 revival of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy.