Perpetually befuddled-looking, Roger Rees often played eccentric characters.
Roger Rees, the handsome, dark-haired Welsh-born actor and director who rose to fame as the title character in “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” a stage adaptation of an obscure Charles Dickens novel for which he won a Tony Award, died of cancer Friday at home in New York. He was 71.
In what proved to be the final role of a career that spanned six decades on stage, film and television, Mr. Rees played the doomed lover of Chita Rivera’s character in the musical “The Visit” on Broadway until May, when he was forced to bow out for health reasons.
Rivera and Mr. Rees met last year while rehearsing for the musical and became friends as they performed it at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, where Mr. Rees once served as artistic director, before the show moved to New York. The show closed in June.
“I feel I’ve been cheated a little bit,” Rivera, who played a vengeful millionaire in “The Visit,” said in a telephone interview on Saturday. “I haven’t had enough time with Roger Rees.”
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She added: “The world’s lost a great actor, a great soul, a great gentleman.”
Perpetually befuddled-looking, Mr. Rees often played eccentric characters. He was best-known to U.S. television audiences as the self-assured millionaire Robin Colcord on the sitcom “Cheers,” and as the British ambassador Lord John Marbury on “The West Wing.” Other recent TV credits include “Elementary” and “The Good Wife.”
He was a mainstay on Broadway, where he earned two other Tony nominations, one for best actor in “Indiscretions,” in 1995, and another, in 2012, for his work as a director of “Peter and the Starcatcher.” He also had a memorable turn as Gomez in “The Addams Family.”
But he was best known, in England and on Broadway, as Nicholas Nickleby. The play, based on Dickens’ 1839 novel about a young man who struggles to support his mother and sister after the death of his father, was an unlikely hit when it debuted in London in 1980.
It quickly gained critical and popular success, and, after moving to Broadway in fall 1981, won the Tony Award for best play and earned Mr. Rees the Tony for best actor in a play.
He also won an Olivier Award, the British equivalent of the Tony, and was nominated for an Emmy Award when the play was adapted for TV.
Mr. Rees’ life bore much in common with that of the Nickleby character. He was forced to drop out of school to earn a living after his father died.
Mr. Rees, who became a U.S. citizen in 1989, was born on May 5, 1944, in Aberystwyth, Wales, and grew up in South London. His father, William, was a police officer; his mother, Doris, was a shop clerk.
After his father died, Mr. Rees found work painting scenery at the Wimbledon Theatre in south London, and became an actor there. He then spent more than two decades with the Royal Shakespeare Company and served as the artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts from 2004 to 2007.
He was also the associate artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic in England for two years starting in 1985.
In film, he played the Sheriff of Rottingham in Mel Brooks’ “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” in 1993. He also appeared in “The Scorpion King” in 2002, and “The Pink Panther” in 2006.
Mr. Rees is survived by his husband, Rick Elice, the playwright whose credits include “Jersey Boys.” The pair collaborated on “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a Peter Pan prequel, and wrote a play, “Double Double,” a thriller in which Mr. Rees played opposite Jane Lapotaire.