As told by Rick Elice
ROGER REES was born on May 5, 1944 in Aberystwyth, Wales and grew up in south London. His father was a cop and they lived in a rough neighborhood. During these years, Roger, often called Rog for short, discovered his desire to be an artist. He often found safety from the tough neighborhood kids by escaping to the art room.
Roger’s extraordinary gift for painting earned him a full scholarship to Camberwell College of Art. After a year studying at Camberwell, mentors encouraged him to send samples of his work to The Slade School of Fine Art, know to be one of the finest art schools in Britain. At the age of 17, Roger was accepted to The Slade and granted a second full scholarship.
During his third year at The Slade, Roger’s father passed away forcing Roger to drop out of school to support his mother and younger brother. One of his professors, Nicholas Georgiadis, was a set designer for the Royal Ballet, principally for Kenneth Macmillan. Georgiadis was able to secure Roger a job painting scenery. His work would be featured in Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet and Sleeping Beauty – parts of these sets which are still in use today. Roger began taking scenery painting jobs all over Britain including at the Wimbleton Theater very near to where her grew up in south London.
One day Roger was painting a scene for the Christmas pantomime, Babes in the Wood, when an unexpected opportunity came along. He was on a paint frame suspended forty feet in the air, when the theater’s manager, Arthur Lane, shouted up that he was in need of a replacement for an injured cast-member. The costume fit and Roger got his first taste of performing as an actor. In 1966, Lane urged Roger to audition for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Having little vocal training, Roger was not accepted. He moved to Scotland to continue working on scenery and props and serving as a stage manager. He became a reliable understudy when actors were unable to perform. He found himself playing roles such as Yasha in Cherry Orchard and Bruno in Dear Charles. He used these opportunities to develop his acting skills; building experience and confidence. In 1967, he auditioned again for the Royal Shakespeare Company and this time he was accepted.
His first role was as a non-speaking huntsman in The Taming of the Shrew. This began his lifelong passion for Shakespeare. Over his 22 years year with the company he performed in many roles including Graziano in Merchant of Venice, Roderigo in Othello, and Aguecheek in Twelfth Night. He became one of Trevor Nunn’s leading actors starring as Antipholus in Comedy of Errors, Semyon in The Suicide, Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Hamlet. His most famous role for the Royal Shakespeare Company was the title role he created in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. For his performance as Nicholas Nickleby, Roger won the Olivier Award in London, the Tony Award in New York, and an Emmy nomination for Best Actor. Roger remained an Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company for the rest of his life.
During the 1980’s in London, Roger created the starring roles of Henry and Kerner, both opposite Felicity Kendal in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing and Hapgood, and played opposite Jane Lapotaire in the thriller, Double Double, co-authored with Rick Elice. In 2010, Roger played Vladimir in the critically acclaimed production of Waiting for Godot opposite Ian McKellen. The production toured throughout Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
On and Off-Broadway, Roger appeared in London Assurance with Donald Sinden, Nicholas Nickleby, Indiscretions with Kathleen Turner, Eileen Atkins, Cynthia Nixon, and Jude Law (Tony and Drama Desk nominations), John Robin Baitz’s The End of the Day (Obie Award), Uncle Vanya with Derek Jacobi and Laura Linney, The Uneasy Chair with Dana Ivey, The Rehearsal with David Threlfall and Frances Conroy, The Misanthrope opposite Uma Thurman, the world premiere of the Terrence McNally/Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical, A Man of No Importance with Faith Prince, Steven Pasquale and Sally Murphy, as Gomez opposite the Morticias of Bebe Neuwirth and Brooke Shields in The Addams Family, and as Arthur Winslow in The Winslow Boy with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Alessandro Nivola.
Film credits include: The Ebony Tower (opposite Laurence Olivier), Mel Brooks’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Bob Fosse’s Star 80, Julie Taymor’s Frida, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, Peter Greenaway’s A Life in Suitcases, and Richard Squires’ Crazy Like a Fox (opposite Mary McDonnells).
Known to television audiences as Lord John Marbury on The West Wing and Robin Colcord on Cheers, Roger also played Dr. Colin Marlow in Grey’s Anatomy and has appeared in OZ, My So-Called Life, MANTIS, Warehouse 13, The Good Wife, Elementary and such television movies as The Crossing, Double Platinum, Titanic and Liberty. On Thanksgiving 2015, he was seen on PBS in his final film role in Ric Burn’s documentary, The Pilgrims.
From 1986-88, Roger served as Associate Artistic Director of the Bristol Old Vic where he directed Julius Caesar, Turkey Time, John Bull, and others.
In America, Roger directed Red Memories (NYSF), Mud, River Stone (Playwrights Horizons), The Merry Wives of Windsor, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Dog & Pony (Old Globe), Arms and the Man (Roundabout), and an episode of HBO’s OZ.
From 2005-2007, Roger was the artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where he directed The Rivals, Robbie Baitz’s The Film Society, Simon Grey’s The Late Middle Classes, Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, Herringbone starring BD Wong, and Double Double with Matt Letscher and Jennifer Van Dyck. He also directed The Taming of the Shrew, in which he played Petruchio opposite Bebe Neuwirth’s Katherine.
With the much-loved Collegiate Chorale (now Master Voices) at Lincoln Center, Roger directed Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, Philip Glass’s Juniper Tree, Gershwin’s White House Cantata and Kurt Weill’s Firebrand of Florence. He conceived and directed Here Lies Jenny starring Bebe Neuwirth, with choreography by Ann Reinking, which ran successfully in New York and San Francisco.
In 2011, Roger and Alex Timbers teamed up to direct Peter and the Starcatcher by Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, at New York Theater Workshop. They won the Obie Award for Outstanding Direction. In 2012, the play opened on Broadway, garnering more Tony nominations (nine) than any new American play in Tony Award history. The production won five Tony Awards, ran on and off Broadway for two years, and toured nationally from 2013 – 2014.
In the fall of 2012, Roger took his one-man show, What You Will – devoted to his life and adventures with William Shakespeare – to London’s West End. The show, which Roger toured for years throughout the US, premiered in 2006 at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC.
In the summer of 2014, Roger starred opposite Chita Rivera in the Terrence McNally/John Kander/Fred Ebb musical, The Visit, directed by John Doyle and choreographed by Graciela Daniele. The Visit opened on Broadway on April 23, 2015.
The Visit would end up being Roger’s last production. After a year-long battle with brain cancer, Roger passed away at home on July 10, 2015 at 8:00pm – curtain time. Roger was survived by his husband, Rick Elice. They had been happily together since 1982 and legally married in 2011.
On November 16, 2015, Roger was inducted into The Theater Hall of Fame, honored for his Lifetime Achievements in the American Theater.