May 5, 1944 – Roger Rees
“More people saw me in one episode of Cheers than would ever see me in a play.”
In the summer of 2015, my heart sank when I read that he had died, and I was so sad, especially for his husband, Rick Elice. They were a couple for 33 years, partners in life and in art.
Rees was a handsome, sublimely talented, Tony Award-winning Welsh actor of film, television, but most notably of stages large and small. He was working right up to the end, appearing in the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical The Visit with Chita Rivera until just a few weeks before he left this mortal coil at 71 years old.
He was my favorite sort of actor, working constantly in different media, giving smart, witty, skilled, eccentric performances in leads and supporting roles, as well as writing and directing.
Rees was an associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He became especially famous when he played the title role in The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby, a 1980 nine-hour adaptation of the novel by Charles Dickens, winning an Olivier Award in London and a Tony Award in Manhattan. He moved to New York City in the late 1980s, and became an American citizen in 1989, and then he became known to millions in two top-rated television series.
On the immensely popular American sitcom Cheers (1982-1993) on NBC, he plays the love interest of neurotic, insecure, and sexually frustrated Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley), as the millionaire industrialist Robin Colcord. On Aaron Sorkin’s political drama series The West Wing, he is the British ambassador to Washington, Lord John Marbury. He became the go-to Brit on various American television series, but he returned briefly to Britain in 1988 for the sitcom Singles, a sort of low-rent English Cheers set in a singles bar.
None of these roles showed the vibrancy and emotional fizz Rees had on stage. He had a long stretch of successes at the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing Malcolm in the famous, celebrated Trevor Nunn 1976 stage and 1978 television production of Macbeth with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. He also starred in the original production of The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard in London in 1982. He received raves in 1984 as Hamlet in the same Stratford-upon-Avon season as Antony Sher’s Richard III and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (Branagh was Laertes to his Hamlet). Like Ben Kingsley, he played small parts at the RSC when he first joined in 1967, but both he and Kingsley became stars, and associate directors.
There was always a feverish intensity about Rees, a quickness and charm that could move an audience to tears or laughter. The only time I saw him live, he was superb and swoon-worthy in a brilliant 1978 production of Anton Chekhov‘s Three Sisters.
In 2010, Rees played Vladimir in Sean Mathias‘ much-praised production of Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting For Godot; taking over the role, opposite Ian McKellen, from Patrick Stewart. He remained close friends with his old RSC colleagues McKellen, Stewart, and Dench. With Dench, Rees had a decades-long ritual of exchanging sushi by special delivery at unexpected and inconvenient hours.
Rees was the son of a policeman. His family moved to London, where he attended school and studied at the Camberwell School of Art. His drawing skills brought him entrance at Slade School of Fine Art, the art school of University College London. He was hired to paint scenery at the Wimbledon Theatre in 1964 when a crisis of casting had him going on as the juvenile lead in a production on short-notice.
His other roles at RSC included Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, Roderigo in Othello, Gratiano in The Merchant Of Venice and Posthumus in Cymbeline. He toured as Fabian in Twelfth Night and Young Marlowe in She Stoops To Conquer.
Rees’s move to New York City was not so much for acting work, but rather romantically motivated. He met his future husband, an American, in 1982. He married Elice in 2011, but his Broadway and television work were increasingly shared with commitments as a director.
Elice is a playwright. Among his many shows, he wrote the book for the Tony-winning musical based on the early life and career of Cher, The Cher Show in 2018. He is currently writing the book to match a score by Tony-winner David Yazbek, for a musical adaptation of William Goldman‘s revered novel and cult film, The Princess Bride, for a future Broadway production.
Rees won an Off-Broadway Obie Award for his portrayal of a narcissistic doctor in gay writer John Robin Baitz‘s The End Of The Day (1992) and in 1995 he starred alongside Kathleen Turner, Eileen Atkins and Jude Law in Jean Cocteau‘s Les Parents Terribles (1995) on Broadway. He co-directed a Peter Pan prequel, Peter And The Starcatcher, written by Elice, in 2012, and played the father in a 2013 revival of gay playwright Terence Rattigan‘s The Winslow Boy.
Rees was appointed artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts in 2004, where he workshopped Kander and Ebb’s last musical, The Visit. When the show finally came to Broadway in spring 2015, Rees played the doomed ex-lover of Rivera’s extravagant millionaire.
Rees made films also, although nothing ever matched the television version of Nicholas Nickleby, but he made an impression in Mel Brooks‘ Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993), as the ludicrous, not so dastardly Sheriff of Rottingham; in Julie Taymor‘s gorgeous Frida (2002), starring Salma Hayek as painter Frida Kahlo and Alfred Molina as artist Diego Rivera; and in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006), starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.
He replaced Nathan Lane in the role of Gomez Addams in the Broadway musical adaptation of The Addams Family (written by Elise). In 2012, Rees took his one-man Shakespeare show, What You Will, to London’s West End. In 2014, Rees directed Dog And Pony, a musical written by Elice, at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
Rees was to have directed a new musical written by Elice in the fall of 2016 at MCC Theater in New York City. He was also scheduled to do What You Will on Broadway, and had hoped to return to the Royal Shakespeare Company to play, but instead, Rees took a final bow.
After being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014, Rees focused his energy on his commitment on Broadway in The Visit. While undergoing two brain surgeries, two courses of radiation and ongoing chemotherapy, Rees managed to rehearse, preview and open in The Visit in April 2015. By the middle of May, it had become too difficult for him to speak, and he left the show. Rees died at his home in New York City in July 2015. The marquee lights at all the theatres on Broadway were dimmed in his honor. His ashes were scattered into the Atlantic Ocean. Two months later, there was a memorial service for him at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre.
Elice wrote a memoir of his life with Rees, entitled Finding Roger: An Improbably Theatrical Love Story (2017).