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Roger Rees dies aged 71

The actor won an Olivier and a Tony for his portrayal of Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC

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Roger Rees at the Olivier Awards in 2010
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Roger Rees, the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby, and one of their most notable Hamlets – as well as Kirstie Alley's obnoxious love interest, Robin Colcord, in Cheers - died on Friday night in New York aged 71.

His last stage appearance was earlier this year in the Broadway musical version of The Visit by John Kander and Fred Ebb, playing opposite Chita Rivera, but he left the show at the end of May (through illness) before it closed.

On his last visit to London, in October 2012, he played his one-man show, What You Will, at the Apollo (on the very stage where he had first auditioned for the RSC in 1965!), reminding us still what an electrifying actor he was: ever youthful, puppyish, with boundless energy and a winning vulnerability and charm, a cheeky Welsh smile.

Two years earlier, in 2010, he replaced Patrick Stewart as Vladimir in Waiting for Godot opposite Ian McKellen at the Haymarket, bringing an unexpected vivacity, almost jauntiness, to Beckett's miserable old tramp. Thanks to these three great RSC veterans, Beckett was restored as the comic dramatist he is, primarily. He returned to Broadway where, in 2012, he co-directed the Peter Pan prequel Peter and the Starcatcher written by his partner Rick Elice, author of The Jersey Boys; Rees and Elice were married in 2011.

After four years in the ranks at the RSC, he broke through in the mid-1970s in a series of major roles culminating in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1980), the two-play, six-hour classic adaptation by David Edgar, directed by John Caird and Trevor Nunn that won for Rees both an Olivier and a Tony as best actor, and an Emmy nomination when it was screened in 1983.

He now went on to play the lead in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing (1982) with the great speech about the cricket bat, then a wonderfully febrile RSC Hamlet in 1984 (Kenneth Branagh as Laertes, Frances Barber as Ophelia). Another favourite RSC performance was his lead in Nikolai Erdman's The Suicide, an unexpectedly hilarious Russian classic about another gloomy nerve-wracked loser which he played to the rafters.

He moved Stateside in 1987, converted to Judaism and became a US citizen. He enjoyed several successes on Broadway and was appointed only the fourth artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2004 (he left in 2007).

The country boy from Aberystwyth, a policeman's son who trained as an artist in London, had come a very long way from his debut at the Wimbledon Theatre in 1964. A full career included many films and another notable TV character, the UK Ambassador to America, Lord John Marbury, in The West Wing.

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