Roger Rees, the handsome Welsh-born actor and director who rose to fame as the title character in “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” for which he won a Tony Award, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 71.
His death followed a bout with cancer, which he had for about a year, his publicist, Rick Miramontez, said.
In the final role of a career that spanned six decades across 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.
Ms. Rivera and Mr. Rees met last year while rehearsing for the musical and became fast friends as they performed it at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, before the show moved to New York. It closed in June.
“I feel I’ve been cheated a little bit,” Ms. 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.”
“The world’s lost a great actor, a great soul, a great gentleman,” she added. “I’ve lost a new friend that I was really looking forward to spending the rest of my life with, getting to know him.”
Mr. Rees often played eccentric characters. He was best known to American 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.”
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, both in England and on Broadway, as Nicholas Nickleby. The play, based on Dickens’s 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 the fall of 1981, won the Tony 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 when the play was adapted for television.
Mr. Rees’s own 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.
Roger Rees 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.
“I was at a pretty rough school, and the only thing I was good at was art,” Mr. Rees told Playbill in 2013. “I got out of this school and went to Camberwell College of Arts, a terribly prestigious thing to do. I was there to be a painter. And I sketched so well that a year later I was sent to Slade School of Fine Art, one of the great art schools.”
After his father died, Mr. Rees found work painting scenery at the Wimbledon Theater in south London. He became an actor there in 1965, appearing in “Hindle Wakes” as a mill owner’s son who impregnates a mill girl resistant to efforts to make an honest woman out of her.
Mr. Rees moved to the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967, appearing in “The Comedy of Errors,” “Three Sisters,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Othello,” “Twelfth Night” and “Cymbeline.”
He spent over two decades with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and was the artistic director of the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts from 2004 to 2007. He was also an 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’s “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” in 1993. He also appeared in “The Scorpion King” in 2002, and “The Pink Panther” in 2006.
Mr. Rees, who became a United States citizen in 1989, 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.
In an interview with “The Graham Show” on YouTube in 2013, Mr. Rees likened acting to being a blacksmith.
“It’s hot and cold, it’s fierce and pleasant,” he said. “Sometimes the most excruciating experiences in rehearsals and performances yield the most beautiful work.”