Roger Rees in 'What You Will' at the Old Globe | Photo by David Allen
Earlier this in spring, I met with Roger Rees on a late afternoon in May to discuss his starring role opposite Chita Rivera in the musical The Visit. Chatter drifted down a long cheerless hallway lined with ready-made bouquets of flowers outside his dressing room at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater. Rees, the 71-year-old Welsh-born actor, had been recently diagnosed with cancer but had not revealed this publicly and showed no physical signs of undergoing treatment.
Best known to American audiences for his roles as the English industrialist Robin Concord on the sitcom Cheers and the British Ambassador Lord John Marbury on The West Wing, with notable appearances in Grey’s Anatomy and My So-Called Life, Rees was between shows for the Broadway musical. It had opened in April and was nominated for a Tony for best new musical and rounded out 50 years of Rees’s career on the stage also marked the 82-year-old Rivera’s return to Broadway. But after being snubbed at the Tony’s, the show closed promptly on June 14.
“It’s very eloquent,” Rees said that afternoon about what would be his final role and one of his final interviews with a reporter. He seemed distracted to me, with his tousled hair, full beard, as he sat legs crossed in jeans and a blue T-shirt, his shoes kicked to the side, next to a window overlooking a T.G.I. Friday’s, as he added, “the way the people in town barter someone’s life for money.”
Based on the 1956 tragic-comedy written by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmat and reimaged as a musical with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by the late Fred Ebb, and music by John Kander, the story followed the return of Claire Zachanassian (Rivera), one of the world’s richest women, to her economically-depressed European hometown to reunite with her first lover Anton Snell — scraggly, aging, working class father and husband — played by Rees, where she goes on to offer the villagers a billion dollars to kill him.
“What the play ends up being about is two old people talking about love. It’s nice. Very rare,” Rees explained.
Rees — puckish, wry, mild-mannered — married his husband, Rick Elice, the former ad man and Broadway writer, at the City Clerk’s Office in Manhattan, in 2011, followed by breakfast at Bubby’s. Six years ago, Rees put on a one-man show, titled What You Will, at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater where he talked much about Shakespeare and his relationship with his father. (It was later revived at the Old Globe theater in San Diego in 2014.)
Rees left Aberystwyth, Wales, “a seaside town with rows of hotels, supermarkets, and a university,” as he described it, to attend art school in London. He began painting sets and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company with Sir Ben Kingsley as spear carriers — supernumerary actors who fill the scenery — where both would go on to play Hamlet and a cadre of other prominent roles for decades to come.
“I think I was originally a juvenile character actor. I play whatever comes along, really. I don’t choose. They give me a part and I play it,” Rees said.
Those parts would go on to include Gomez Addams in Broadway’s The Addams Family, and Vladimir in London’s 2010 West End production of Waiting for Godot, opposite another famed British actor of his generation, Sir Ian McKellen.
Rees with Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot.
Rees was perhaps most famous for his role as Nicholas in the Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, which won him both an Olivier Award and a Tony in 1982. He won an Obie in 1992 for his role in the Off-Broadway play, The End of the Day.
His film career began in 1983 starring alongside Mariel Hemmingway in Star 80. He went on to play the sheriff of Rottingham in Mel Brooks’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights with another memorable appearance in 2002’s Frida.
For the better part of his 50 year career, Rees never felt obligated to hide his sexuality.
“It just becomes a natural thing. Most people know who you are and what you are, so it’s not really like moving a door or anything,” he said.
“Roger was inspirational. 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 am sure, into his directing, and gave him an aura of rare, generous spirited humanity,” Rees’s friend, the director Trevor Nunn, said in a statement.
He continued working until the very end and kept news of his illness mostly private. On Friday, Rees died at his New York City apartment in the Beresford, on Central Park West, where his husband, friends and family were by his side.
Roger Rees and husband Rick Elice (right) in Sept. 2014 | Getty Images