Obituary: Roger Rees, actor

Roger Rees. Picture: AP
Roger Rees. Picture: AP
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BORN: 5 May, 1944, in Aberystwyth. Died: 10 July, 2015, in New York, aged 71

Roger Rees was a leading actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company and played many of the leading classical roles there to great acclaim. But the part that brought him international fame was in the RSC’s famous production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980, for which he won awards both in Britain and America. When he relocated to America in the late 1980s Rees starred in the long-running TV series Cheers as a rather dotty English tycoon and as the British ambassador, Lord John Marbury, in the hugely successful The West Wing.

Rees was careful never to overdo the stereotypical English toff which the script often required. He admitted with a rueful smile that he had to say such lines as: “How are you, old sock?” but somehow always did so with credibility and a degree of humorous panache.

Rees came to the Edinburgh Festival as a member of one of the most prestigious visits made by the RSC. In 1978 the company played Twelfth Night and The Three Sisters to packed houses in Daniel Stewart’s and Melville College’s gym. The cast was first-class, led by Ian McKellen, Edward Pethebridge and Suzanne Bertish.

When the company arrived in the gym the seats had all been arranged in a manner that did not suit the production – simply in order to accommodate as many people as possible, such had been the demand for tickets.

The actors got busy and during the rehearsals rearranged the entire seating plan. It proved worthwhile as the plays were hailed as a triumph. Rees was a wonderfully foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the former and a soleful Nikolai in the latter. After the Festival the plays were presented in both Dunfermline and Paisley.

Roger Rees was the son of a Welsh policeman and went to London to study painting, initially, at the Camberwell College of Art and then at the Slade. While working back stage at the Wimbledon Theatre painting scenery he was asked to take over the lead role in a play. “And I suddenly was an actor,” Rees recalled years later. “I don’t remember being nervous. I learned to be nervous later.”

He joined the RSC in 1967 when he and Sir Ben Kinglsey were spear carriers in The Taming of the Shrew. “Ben and I did so well in those parts that we went on to be non-speaking huntsmen in almost every Shakespeare play,” Rees recalled.

He was in the historic production of Macbeth by Trevor Nunn at the RSC, with McKellen and Judi Dench as the Macbeths. Rees broke his foot during the run and had to perform the role of Malcolm from a wheelchair. Dench (who, along with Rees, is an inveterate on-stage joker) was heard to whisper: “It’s Macbeth set in Lourdes.”

He spent more than 20 years at the RSC and established himself as a major force in Nicholas Nickelby. The production was mounted to improve the company’s finances: it certainly did that and made Rees a star.

Spread over two nights, it was hugely demanding and Rees delivered a charming, intense and insouciantly comic performance which so suited the title role. He won Olivier awards in London and a Tony in America.

Also with the RSC he gave an unforgettable performance as Hamlet, full of dramatic heroics. The production ended with Rees swathed in the sail of the boat from England. He cut an emotional and thrilling figure on stage.

Rees delighted in telling the story of a matinee at Stratford. He came on and started the famous soliloquy: “To be or not to be.” A lady in the stalls burst out: “That is the question.” The audience slightly giggled. Rees was surprised but retained his composure and with remarkable sang-froid he calmly said: “That, madam, is indeed the question.”
In the US Rees established himself as an English tycoon in Cheers and then opposite Martin Sheen’s suave president in The West Wing. He also had a memorable role on My So-Called Life, playing Claire Danes’ substitute teacher Mr Racine, and as the Sheriff Of Rottingham in Robin Hood: Men In Tights, directed by Mel Brooks. Rees was also seen memorable as Gomez in The Addams Family.

In 2010 he joined McKellen in Waiting for Godot, when he replaced Patrick Stewart in London.

He was seen on stage in New York in Peter and the Starcatcher, written by his partner Rick Elice and then co-starred with Chita Rivera last year on Broadway in The Visit. Rees had to leave the run of the show early for health reasons. He was later diagnosed with cancer. Rees and Elice, who survives him, were married in 2011.

ALASDAIR STEVEN