Roger Rees, the Tony Award-winning Welsh actor best known to American audiences as millionaire industrialist Robin Colcorde on Cheers and British ambassador Lord John Marbury on The West Wing, has died at age 71 after a brief illness.
Although he was born in Aberystwyth, Wales, Rees grew up in London and performed in a number of amateur plays and productions as a youth, but before making a proper go of it as an actor, his love of painting took him first to the Slade School Of Art, leading him to his first real work in the theater: painting scenery. By the mid-1960s, Rees’ interest in acting took center stage, as it were, leading him to pursue it as a full-time profession, and although it reportedly took him four auditions to earn acceptance in the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1968, his admission cemented his chosen career path.
During the 1970s, Rees did a bit of TV work in the U.K., including the 1976 series Bouquets Of Barbed Wire, but his predominant focus remained the theater, a decision which paid off handsomely when he played the title role in David Edgar’s London stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby. Rees’ performance earned him not only an Olivier Award for Best Actor but also a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play when he reprised the role on Broadway, and he additionally played the role in a television adaptation of Dickens’ novel, one which took home the 1983 Emmy Award for Outstanding Limited Series.
Rees’ initial efforts to expand his career beyond the stage were tentative, but while his small role in Star 80 did not result in big-screen stardom, his status as a formidable onscreen force was established when he held his own alongside Laurence Olivier in the 1984 TV adaptation of John Fowles’ The Ebony Tower. Meanwhile, he continued his theater work, appearing in the original London production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing the same year.
It took until the late 1980s for Rees to truly make the jump to small-screen success, starting the U.K. with Singles, but thanks to his role on Cheers, where he sparred with Ted Danson while being mooned over by Kirstie Alley, Rees was transformed into one of TV’s go-to guest stars when a series needed a character with a British accent. Over the course of his career, Rees would turn up as a teacher on My So-Called Life and The Middle, a doctor on Grey’s Anatomy, a recurring villain on Warehouse 13, and—most memorably—as Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. on The West Wing.
Rees’ work on Cheers also aided him on the big screen, earning him the plum role of the Sheriff Of Rottingham in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men In Tights and, perhaps less memorably, J. Parnell in the Sylvester Stallone/Estelle Getty classic, Stop! Or My Mother Will Shoot. Beyond his comedic work, however, which continued in The Pink Panther and Garfield: A Tale Of Two Kitties, Rees also had strong dramatic turns in Frida and The Prestige.
Rees never neglected the theater, however, tackling the role of Vladimir in Waiting For Godot in 2010 productions of the play in London, Perth, Adelaide, and Melbourne, and then in 2011 taking over for Nathan Lane as Gomez in the Broadway musical adaptation of The Addams Family. Even as recently as this year, Rees starred in the short-lived Broadway revival of the musical The Visit alongside Chita Rivera.
Rees is survived by his husband, Rick Elice.