Roger Rees, Star of 'The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,' Dies at 71

Roger Rees - H
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A veteran of the London and Broadway stage, he abruptly left 'The Visit' in late May. The actor also was known for playing stuffy Englishman Robin Colcord on 'Cheers.'

Roger Rees, the Welsh-born icon of the stage who gained fame for playing the title role in the original marathon Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, died Friday night at his home in New York after a brief battle with cancer, his representative said. He was 71.

Rees also famously played condescending English industrialist and Kirstie Alley suitor Robin Colcord on the NBC sitcom Cheers.

He is survived by his husband Rick Elice, the playwright whose credits include Jersey Boys and the Peter Pan prequel Peter and the Starcatcher, which Rees co-directed. (They each received a 2012 Tony Award nom for that 2012 production.)

Rees’ press representative, Rick Miramontez, confirmed the actor’s death.

In late May, Rees abruptly exited the Broadway production of the Kander & Ebb musical The Visit, in which he was starring opposite Chita Rivera

“Roger Rees is undergoing a treatment for a medical condition, and while the prognosis is bright, he’s currently unable to perform in the show,” producer Tom Kirdahy said in a statement at the time. “He’ll be back onstage as soon as he can, and we can’t wait to welcome him back.”

He was unable to return to the production, which closed June 14. However, his performance was captured on the show's original cast recording, released July 10 on Yellow Sound Label/Broadway Records.

Rees, who spent more than two decades with the RSC, captured the Tony for best actor in a play in 1982 for his work in the RSC production of Charles DickensThe Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

Each performance of the play was staged over 8½ hours and two nights (or an afternoon and evening separated by a dinner break). Nickleby reeled in five Tonys in all, including one for best play and another for director Trevor Nunn.

The lanky Rees, known for his mellifluous voice, earlier had accepted an Olivier Award for his work on the original 1980 London production, also staged by Nunn, and later picked up an Emmy nomination for the same role after Nickleby was shown on TV.

In a 2009 interview, Rees downplayed the idea that he was the obvious choice for Nicholas. When he first took on the role, he was a 36-year-old man playing someone of 19.

“There were lots of young men in the company who looked liked the original drawings of Nicholas,” he recalled. “I was just a juvenile character actor. I had a lot of stamina, Trevor Nunn thought. You needed someone in the middle who could be onstage for eight hours, carry things and lift people."

"Roger was inspirational," said Nunn in a statement following Rees' death. "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'm 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."

A native of Aberystwyth, Wales, Rees grew up in South London and studied to be a painter at the prestigious Camberwell College of Arts and Slade School of Fine Art. He became a U.S. citizen in 1989.

To earn money for his family after the death of his father, a policeman, he took a job painting scenery at the Wimbledon Theatre. “I suddenly was an actor. I played the lead,” Rees said in a 2013 interview with Playbill. “I don’t remember being nervous. I learned to be nervous later.”

The RSC first hired him for a small role in 1968. In addition to Nicholas Nickleby, his long association with the classical troupe notably included playing Malcolm in an acclaimed 1976 production of Macbeth, with Ian McKellen in the title role; and appearing with Francesca Annis, Judi Dench and Richard Griffiths in The Comedy of Errors the same year. Rees played the lead in Hamlet for the RSC in 1984.

He made his Broadway debut in 1974 in a revival of Dion Boucicault's London Assurance, going on to star on Broadway in Indiscretions (for which he received another Tony nom), Uncle Vanya and The Rehearsal. He replaced Nathan Lane as Gomez during the Broadway run of The Addams Family, the 2010 musical that featured a book by his husband Elice; and earned superlative notices for his moving performance in a 2013 revival of Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy.

In his review of that play, The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney wrote, "Rees’ Arthur is the heart of the production. Tempering his character’s starchy authoritarian manner with a dash of John Cleese-ish eccentricity, the actor has flawless timing, sniffing out humor in the oddest places. His physical transformation from an arthritic but determinedly dignified man walking with a cane to one doubled over in agony, enfeebled and ready to admit defeat, is enormously touching."

On the London stage, Rees originated the lead role of Henry in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing in 1982, and starred in the same playwright's Cold War thriller, Hapgood, in 1988. His final West End stage appearance was opposite his former RSC cohort McKellen in a 2010 production of Waiting for Godot, which they also toured internationally.

He also frequently acted and directed off-Broadway, winning acclaim in Jon Robin Baitz's The End of the Day, and in the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical, A Man of No Importance, which, like The Visit, has a book by Terrence McNally. From 2004-07, he served as the artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, a longtime Mecca for top-tier stage actors.

On the big screen, Rees played the Sheriff of Rottingham in Mel BrooksRobin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) and was King Pheron in The Scorpion King (2002). His film résumé also includes playing a fictionalized version of director Peter Bogdanovich in Bob Fosse's Star 80 (1983), as well as roles in Frida (2002), The Treatment (2006), The Prestige (2006) and The Pink Panther (2006), among others.

Rees co-starred opposite the great Laurence Olivier in the Granada Television/PBS miniseries The Ebony Tower (1984) and played founding father Thomas Paine in the 1997 PBS miniseries Liberty! The American Revolution. He made a memorable single-episode appearance on ABC's My So-Called Life, and played British ambassador Lord John Marbury on NBC’s The West Wing.

Rees also had recurring TV roles on the British sitcom Singles, Boston Common and M.A.N.T.I.S., and he recently popped up on Grey’s Anatomy, Warehouse 13, The Good Wife, The Middle and Elementary.

On Saturday, as news of his passing spread, friends and colleagues of the actor from the theater community and beyond — among them Rivera, James Corden, Harvey Fierstein, Craig Zadan and Jesse Tyler Fergusonexpressed their sorrow at the momentous loss. The lights on Broadway theater marquees will be dimmed for one minute in Rees' memory on Wednesday July 15 at 7:45pm ET.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4