Roger Rees: Actor who made his name in 'Nicholas Nickleby' then took memorable roles in 'Cheers' and 'West Wing'

His mercurial Hamlet for Ron Daniels in 1984 moved from sartorial elegance to near-naked fury

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The Independent Online

A slick, elegant actor, with a febrile, boyish dynamic, Roger Rees, who has died of stomach cancer, came to the stage by chance and went on to craft a classy career, at the centre of which were 22 years with the RSC, followed by a lucrative period in American theatre and television, the latter on prestigious shows such as Cheers and The West Wing, ending with a triumphant return home.

The pivotal moment in his career was his performance as Nicholas Nickleby in David Edgar's dramatisation for the RSC in 1980; that eight-and-a-half hour production, directed by John Caird and Trevor Nunn, transferred from the Aldwych Theatre to Broadway, where seats fetched prices of up to $100. Rees won both an Olivier and a Tony for his performance: after a long apprenticeship, he had become one of the most fêted actors in New York.

The son of an Aberystwyth policeman, Rees was born in 1944; the family moved when he was young to South London, where he attended Balham County Secondary Modern and quickly "retreated to the art room". He spent three years at the Camberwell School of Art then won a place at the Slade, but his time there was curtailed by the death of his father.

To support his mother and younger brother, he found work washing Venetian blinds at Simpson's of Piccadilly, then painting sets at the Wimbledon Theatre, which was at the time being run by one of the last of the actor-managers, Arthur Lane. A casting crisis led to Rees being offered a part in Murder at the Vicarage that saw his weekly salary rise from £3 to £4.

In no time he was a fully fledged member of the company, touring in pantomime with Arthur Askey and Roy Castle (he was fond of calling himself "a little vaudevillian in the body of a leading man"), and auditioning for the RSC, only to be turned down because his voice was not considered strong enough. Lane coached him during his remaining months at Wimbledon, from where he moved to Pitlochry as a stage manager. Then fate struck again: one of the cast was struck down with an ear infection and Rees was drafted in to play Yasha in The Cherry Orchard, then Bruno in Dear Charles.

More parts followed, and with a decent repertoire under his belt, and a good deal of confidence, he auditioned for the RSC again in 1967, and this time he was successful. He was on the cusp of an exciting era, but his first three years were spent spear-carrying and understudying – he only went on once in that time, as Billy the Kid in Arthur Kopit's Indians (1969).

Soon however, under Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands, Rees flourished. The new blood heralded a full-blooded era for the company: he was Malcolm in the nightmarishly stark Macbeth starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in 1978, Tuzenbach in an equally celebrated The Three Sisters the same year, and a ditzy Antipholus in a slapstick musical version of The Comedy of Errors in 1976. His mercurial Hamlet for Ron Daniels in 1984 moved from sartorial elegance to near-naked fury in a production which made a clear distinction between the Court before the death of Hamlet's father and what came after, personified by Brian Blessed's loutish and bombastic Claudius.

After Nicholas Nickleby, on a return visit to the States touring another notable success, Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, he was asked to audition for a role in Cheers. He knew nothing of the show, "although I was aware of a dark brown programme late at night", but won the part of Kirstie Alley's love interest. His move to the US was shrewd: it came at a point in the late 1980s, when many British actors at the suave end of the spectrum were finding lucrative work there on television. In Rees's case, Cheers, and his role as the British ambassador in The West Wing, made millions aware of him.

After being granted American citizenship in 1989 he ran a leading theatre festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and directed many times on Broadway, often shows written by his partner Rick Elice, whom he married in 2011. Their Peter Pan prequel, Peter And The Starcatcher (2011), was the most-nominated new US play in the history of the Tony Awards.

His television career in Britain was never that exciting; with the exception of Channel 4's recording of Nicholas Nickleby (1982), his most high-profile role was alongside Olivier in the ponderous The Ebony Tower (1984). His films included playing (allegedly) Peter Bogdanovich in Bob Fosse's Star 80 (1983) and a very silly Sheriff of Nottingham in Mel Brooks's Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). Twenty-six years on, he returned to the London stage (and those old vaudeville tendencies) for an unexpectedly jolly Waiting for Godot (Haymarket, 2010), reuniting him with McKellen and hinting that he would have made a fine Archie Rice.

Although not intended to be his last bow, his one-man show, What You Will (Apollo, 2012), will serve as a fine epitaph, blending his love of theatrical anecdote with musings on the father he never knew for long enough, and allowing him to indulge in the fantasy that he never left Stratford, and "could sit by the banks of the Avon and be in Shakespeare plays for the rest of my life; I would be happy because one's curiosity is never satisfied."

Roger Rees, actor and director: born Aberystwyth 5 May 1944; married 2011 Rick Elice; died New York 10 July 2015.

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