In the passing of Roger Rees the world has lost an immeasurably talented Shakespearean and a theatrical talent that lit up audiences on either side of the Atlantic.
His corkscrew journey from bit-part player at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), to leading man, to US TV sensation is a well-trodden one, but no less remarkable for that. Born the son of an Aberysthwyth policeman and his shop-clerk wife, Rees rose from humble beginnings as a set painter in 1963 to become a leading actor at the RSC, after a sudden casting vacancy during a run of Hindle Wakes at the Wimbledon Theatre in 1964 propelled him into a life treading the boards.
His breakthrough arrived in the role of Malcolm in Trevor Nunn’s 1976 interpretation of Macbeth, starring alongside two future titans of the stage and screen – Judi Dench and Ian McKellen. This heralded the start of a dazzling run at the RSC: later that same year, he starred as Antipholus in The Comedy of Errors, a role in which the playwright David Edgar said he was “unmatchably brilliant,” so much so that he cast him in the leading role in his adaptation of The life and adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980.
This proved the making of Rees, who received an Olivier award for best actor in London and a Tony for best actor on Broadway when the production transferred stateside. In 1984 he conquered the leading role in Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon, starring alongside Kenneth Branagh as Laertes. In his obituary, critic Michael Coveney praised his “vibrancy and emotional fizz” in this and other outings on the well-worn Stratford boards.
By this time Rees was also generating interest as a television star, making the leap in a 1982 version of his star turn in Nicholas Nickleby, and a 1984 adaptation of the John Fowles’ novella The Ebony Tower where he performed alongside Laurence Olivier. Thence followed a run in the British sitcom Singles, which laid the groundwork for the role of Robin Colcord in Cheers, a part that introduced him to the living rooms of millions of Americans for the first time.
Rees’ affinity for the states led to him relocating to New York in the late 1980s and taking US citizenship in 1989, where he became a stalwart of the small screen. I am particularly fond of his turn as the eccentric British ambassador Lord John Marbury in The West Wing, the multi-Emmy award winning political drama starring Martin Sheen.
Yet Rees never abandoned the stage. In 2010 he returned to London to play opposite McKellen as Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, and in 2012 won hearts and minds across the US and UK with his one-man show What You Will – a retrospective on his career interspersed with highlights from the Shakespearean canon.
He performed right up to the point where the viciousness of the cancer that took root in his brain robbed him of his ability to do. His last turn was as Anton Schell in a musical version of The Visit on Broadway, which he starred in until May 2015.
Roger Rees died on 10 July 2015. He is survived by his partner Rick Elice, whom he married in 2011.