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Antony Sher, one of the most acclaimed Shakespearean actors of his generation, has died, the Royal Shakespeare Company said Friday. He was 72.
Sher had been diagnosed with terminal cancer this year. His husband, Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Gregory Doran, took leave from his job to care for him.
Born in 1949 in Cape Town, South Africa, Sher moved to Britain in the late 1960s to study drama. He joined the RSC in 1982 and had a breakthrough role in 1984 as the usurping king in Richard III.
He went on to play most of Shakespeare’s meaty male roles, including Falstaff in the Henry IV plays, Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Iago in Othello and the title characters in Macbeth and King Lear.
Non-Shakespearean roles for the company, based in the Bard’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, included Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and the title role in Moliere’s Tartuffe.
Sher also performed with Liverpool’s innovative Everyman Theatre and at many of London’s main theaters, getting his first West End starring role as a drag artist in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy. He won the 1985 best-actor Olivier Award jointly for Torch Song Trilogy and Richard III.
He gained a second Olivier, as well as a Tony Award nomination for playing artist Stanley Spencer in Pam Gems’ Stanley at the National Theatre and on Broadway.
After winning acclaim as a pillar of British theater, Sher began to explore both his Jewish and his South African heritage.
He adapted Primo Levi’s powerful Auschwitz memoir If This is a Man into a one-man stage show, Primo, that ran on Broadway in 2005.
He created the solo show despite being afflicted with debilitating stage fright. “If you suffer from stage fright, is it a good idea to perform a one-man show? The answer, surprisingly, turns out to be yes,” Sher told the Associated Press in 2005. “It is the best cure for stage fright in the world, because it’s make or break. There’s no middle ground.”
Sher’s last role for the RSC came in 2019 in South African writer John Kani’s Kunene and The King. Sher played a veteran actor diagnosed with cancer, looked after by a Black South African carer.
Kani, who starred opposite Sher, said the two men had been “comrades in the struggle for a better South Africa.”
On television, Sher starred as a memorably sleazy university lecturer in 1981 BBC series The History Man. His film roles included Dr. Moth in Shakespeare in Love, Benjamin Disraeli in Mrs. Brown and Adolf Hitler in Churchill: The Hollywood Years.
Sher also wrote several novels and theatrical memoirs, along with an autobiography, Beside Myself, and exhibited his paintings and drawings in galleries. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000, becoming Sir Antony Sher.
“I think he always felt like an outsider and his outsider’s vision was his strength,” said Harriet Walter, who starred opposite Sher in Macbeth and Death of a Salesman. “He had abundant creative energy and protean powers and an almost clinical curiosity about what makes people tick,” she said.
In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, Helen Mirren said “the theater has lost a brilliant light.” She continued, “I will never forget the moment I met the actor in Antony. We were doing the first reading rehearsal of the play Teeth and Smiles by David Hare. Antony was a comparatively unknown actor at the time. We were buried in our scripts.”
Added Mirren: “I read the first words of our scene together and he answered. I raised my eyes above the pages to look at him more precisely, as with simply those minimal words I immediately realized I was opposite a great actor. Of course he went on to become the celebrated artist he was, but the extraordinary ability was born in him, as natural to him as breathing: it was as clear as a summer sky.”
Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro said Sher’s performances “profoundly deepened my understanding of Shakespeare.”
“He was a brilliant actor and an incredibly kind and thoughtful person,” Shapiro said. “Hamlet put it best: “take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.'”
Sher and Doran were one of the first couples to have a civil partnership in Britain after same-sex unions were legalized in 2005. They married in 2015 when the U.K. legalized gay marriage.
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