Roger Rees dies at 71; Welsh-born actor starred on TV and in theater

Television audiences knew actor Roger Rees as the hilariously condescending Robin Colcord on "Cheers," the glib British ambassador Lord John Marbury on "The West Wing" and numerous other characters in a four-decade small-screen career.

But the Welsh-born Rees' first love was the theater, and he had the title role in the epic 8 1/2-hour stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" that was a landmark hit in London and on Broadway in the early 1980s.

Though the production, which won him a Tony, featured nearly 40 actors, it had little in the way of traditional scenery. Through movement and simple props, the players created structures and even coaches in Dickens' London.

"Suddenly, people realized there is nothing more exciting to the imaginative spirit of human beings than live theater," Rees said in a 1986 Miami Herald interview. "Tiny actions can achieve epic proportions.

"I like theater where you're forced to use your imagination."

Rees, 71, died Friday at his home in New York. The cause was cancer, said publicist Rick Miramontez.

In May, Rees left his last stage role, opposite Chita Rivera in the Broadway musical "The Visit," because of health problems.

"Nicholas Nickleby" co-director Trevor Nunn said in a statement Saturday that Rees "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."

Rees was born May 5, 1944, in Aberystwyth, Wales, and grew up in South London, aiming to become an artist. After high school he enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Art, but after his father died, he dropped out to help support his mother and brother.

Finding a job as a scene painter, Rees was at work 40 feet above a stage when a theater manager, needing to fill a part, called up to him, "Would you like to be in a play the week after next?" he told the New York Post in 2011.

Suddenly Rees was an actor. "I've never, ever painted since," he said in a 1992 Newsday interview.

He got parts in numerous productions in London and Scotland, learning the craft, and in 1968 was accepted at the esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), where he performed with other young actors such as Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench and Ben Kingsley. It was hardly glamorous at first, as he was confined to walk-ons with a sword and shield.

"In 'Julius Caesar,' I died early in the scene and used to fall asleep under the shield until I was waken up by applause," he said in the New York Post interview. "You didn't have any lines, other than 'The Queen!' or 'Ah, my Lord!' for four years."

But he got increasingly substantial parts in a variety of RSC plays in the 1970s, finally leading to his role as the young Dickens hero. The show was a smash, setting off a scramble for tickets at the then-unheard of price of $100. Though critic Frank Rich's review in the New York Times was mixed, he wrote that "Roger Rees bring so much flaring sensitivity and intelligence" to a role that could have been maudlin.

Rees went on to more RSC roles and branched out, starring in Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" when it debuted in London in 1982. His first role in a major feature film, the gritty "Star 80," directed by Bob Fosse, came in 1983.

In Los Angeles for a production of Stoppard's "Hapgood" in 1989, Rees auditioned on a brutally hot day for the role of the effete Robin Colcord on "Cheers."

"We were sitting around in shorts when Rees came in with his dark Armani suit," casting director Jeff Greenberg told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. "The producers knew right away that they had their Robin. Robin would not wear shorts."

Rees leaped at the chance to have a recurring role on a U.S. sitcom. "The classical actor in England," he said in the 1990 Times article, "makes roughly the equivalent of a bus driver."

Roles followed in "Boston Commons," "Oz," "Grey's Anatomy," "The West Wing" and others. Rees was also in several movies, including Mel Brooks' "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" and "Frida."

On stage projects, he sometimes collaborated with his longtime boyfriend, writer Rick Elice (they were married in 2011).

Elice wrote and Rees co-directed the Peter Pan prequel "Peter and the Starcatcher," which played at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2009 and went to Broadway in 2012.

As in "Nicholas Nickleby," much of the scenery was imagined. And although one of the characters flew during the production, it was not done with wires but rather "just by jumping and trusting his friends," Rees said on the TV show "Theater Talk."

"Jumping and trusting your friends," he added, "is the history of the theater of all time."

Rees is survived by his husband.

david.colker@latimes.com

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