Though best-known to television audiences for his roles in the sitcom Cheers and as the British Ambassador Lord John Marbury in The West Wing, the actor Roger Rees, who died at home in New York on July 10, made his reputation—and earned a cult status among his peers—for his work on the stage. He was 71.
Lanky, with a long, narrow and expressive face and floppy hair, Rees had a mellifluous voice honed over two decades with the Royal Shakespeare Company. On both stage and screen he excelled in patrician roles, and in conveying understated wit and intellectual complexity; it was precisely the unshowy way in which he could bring depth and range to the parts he played that won him the admiration of so many of his fellow actors. His boyish good looks and considerable charm were equally formidable assets.
He first came to fame with an RSC production, but of Dickens, rather than Shakespeare. In the title role in the company’s celebrated marathon production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Rees won both an Olivier award for the London run and a Tony for Best Actor for the Broadway transfer. When the show was televised, he also picked up an Emmy nomination.
It was an unlikely hit—and Rees, at first sight, an unlikely choice for the part, since he was in his mid-30s when he played the young hero of the story. The sprawling production, directed by John Caird and Trevor Nunn, was split between two performances, each running for more than four hours and staged on consecutive evenings, or in one afternoon and evening session with a dinner break between the two.
It had a huge cast, originally including Ben Kingsley, Timothy Spall and David Threlfall, who all, with the exception of Rees, were required to take on several roles. The stamina and experience required of the actor playing the central character were factors that led to Rees’s casting. “You needed someone in the middle who could be onstage for eight hours, carry things and lift people,” he explained.
He was just as comfortable, however, with contemporary characters, and followed the Broadway run of Nickleby by originating the role of Henry, a world-weary playwright, in Tom Stoppard’s comedy about adultery and the creative process, The Real Thing (1982).
On the small screen, he was entertainingly supercilious and duplicitous as the English tycoon Robin Colcord in NBC’s Cheers, in which he appeared intermittently from the late 1980s as the love interest of Kirstie Alley’s character Rebecca. Rees also enjoyed himself as The West Wing’s Lord John Marbury, a flamboyant diplomat who affects to think that the White House Chief of Staff is a butler and shamelessly flirts with the First Lady, Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing). Though he became an American citizen in 1989, he was often the first port of call when American television programs needed a supercilious Englishman, and popped up in guest parts in shows from Elementary to Grey’s Anatomy and Warehouse 13.
Roger Rees was born on May 5, 1944, in Aberystwyth, a market town in Ceredigion, West Wales, the son of a police sergeant and a shopworker, but spent most of his childhood in South London after his father transferred to the Metropolitan Police force. After school, which he described as “pretty rough,” he went to Camberwell College of Art to train as a painter. “I sketched so well that a year later I was sent to Slade School of Fine Art, one of the great art schools,” he told an interviewer.
Though he had done some acting in school productions, he had no particular ambition to tread the boards. But after his father’s death, he took a job painting scenery at Wimbledon Theatre in south-west London to bring some money into the household. One of the cast dropped out unexpectedly, and Rees found himself roped in. “And I suddenly was an actor. I played the lead,” he recalled. “I don’t remember being nervous. I learned to be nervous later.”
He joined the RSC in 1967, taking roles in The Comedy of Errors and as Malcolm in Nunn’s celebrated production of Macbeth (both 1976). The latter was later filmed for television. In 1979–1980, he was Posthumus in Cymbeline, at both Stratford and the National Theatre.
After Nicholas Nickleby, he was seldom out of work on either side of the Atlantic, on stage or screen. His appearances on the big screen were less remarkable than his stage and television work—though that was mostly a reflection on the pictures rather than his performances, which were never less than effective. His most memorable roles were in Bob Fosse’s last film, Star 80 (1983), as the director, camping it up as the Sheriff of Rottingham in Mel Brooks’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) and King Pheron in 2002’s The Scorpion King and as Owens the lawyer in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006).
Highlights of his other stage work included Indiscretions (1995), for which he was nominated for a Tony, and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot (2010) in both London and Adelaide, replacing Patrick Stewart in the role; the following year, he took over from Nathan Lane as Gomez in The Addams Family. He was impressive as the father in Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy (2013).
Roger Rees’s other work included a television adaptation of John Fowles’s The Ebony Tower, which also featured Laurence Olivier, and Sam Raimi’s sci-fi series M.A.N.T.I.S. He was artistic director of the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts between 2004 and 2007 and had other forays into writing and direction. With his husband, the playwright Rick Elice, the co-author of Jersey Boys, whom he met in 1982 and married in 2011, he wrote the comedy thriller Double Double. The pair received Tony nominations for Peter and the Starcatcher, a re-imagining of Peter Pan which Rees co-directed.
After meeting Elice, Rees also converted to Judaism, seeking a sense of community he felt he had lost with the death of the members of his immediate family, though he did not tell Elice of his decision beforehand.
Rees’s final Broadway role was in a musical, Kander and Ebb’s The Visit, which opened in April, and in which he played the former lover of Chita Rivera’s vindictive millionairess. He had to withdraw from the part in May due to an unspecified health problem. At the time, the show’s producer said that “the prognosis is bright” and that Rees would be “back on stage as soon as he can”. The show closed in June.