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Remembering Roger Rees (1944–2015), consummate man of the theater

By David Cote
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This weekend came terrible news that many in the theater community hoped not to hear: the passing of beloved actor and director Roger Rees. There had been warning signs: An unspecified sudden illness caused him to suspend performances in the Broadway production of The Visit in May (the show closed June 14). According to a press release, on Friday night he “passed away…at his home in New York City, after a brief journey with cancer. His husband, Rick Elice, and family and friends were at his side.” Our thoughts go out to Elice and Rees’s other family members, as well as everyone in the entertainment industry who worked with Rees.

This is one of those occasions where I regret never interviewing the man. The kind of connection one makes in an interview may be brief and superficial, but at least you get a sense of each other and share mutual interest in the art or excitement over the process of creation. From all accounts—which I’m happy to believe—Rees was a lovely man: friendly, considerate, humble and loyal.

And, of course, hugely talented. As other articles have noted, Rees shot to transatlantic prominence in 1982 in the title role of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, winning both the Olivier and the Tony Award. To TV fans he is familiar as haughty English millionaire Robin Colcord on Cheers, and later as eccentric UK Ambassador Lord John Marbury on The West Wing.  Along the way he racked up more stage credits on Broadway and Off, and ran the Williamstown Theatre Festival from 2004 to 2007. He co-directed the whimsical Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway. Two years ago, my colleague Adam Feldman praised his “superb performance” in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of The Winslow Boy. I am happy also to have seen him in A Man of No Importance at Lincoln Center in 2002, as Astrov in the Roundabout’s revival of Uncle Vanya with Derek Jacobi and his last, painstakingly crafted performance opposite Chita Rivera in John Kander & Fred Ebb's The Visit.

Broadway will dim its lights in his honor on Wednesday July 15 at 7:45pm.

He had a unique quality as an actor: wistful, winsome and plucky, yet shaded with melancholy. His voice was a fine instrument, able to span high piping notes and lower velvety tones. He remained lean and handsome into older age. He was not tall but his thin, wiry frame was notably limber and animated. He gave an overall sense of being pensive and held back, but ready to burst out with joy and abandon. He seemed naturally lovable and decent, but could slip easily into playing cads, fops or dastards. Moreover, Rees had that special quality which attracts the eye of even the most jaded playgoer: an internal fire, an invisible engine that turned faster and burned hotter than most around him. The fire never goes out, as long as we remember him on stage and off.

As for regretting never meeting him: He’s an actor. If you saw him work then you know him intimately.

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