The death of Roger Rees, 71, earlier this month has left sadness on so many levels. The worst of it comes from the loss of one of our great theater actors -- a treasure who won a 1982 Tony for his unforgettable Broadway debut in the title role of the legendary 81/2-hour "Nicholas Nickleby" and continued enriching our lives until brain cancer forced him to leave the cast of "The Visit" in May, midway through its too-short Broadway run.
The theater is such a small community in New York and, over and over through the decades, this deeply thrilling actor had made us feel as if we knew him -- or even that, somehow, he belonged to us.
But his death July 10 set off another uneasy feeling I guess I've been having for a while. In almost every obituary, the headline or the first sentence identified him as an actor from "Cheers" and "The West Wing."
This is true. The Welsh-born actor did create memorable characters -- the Brit multimillionaire boyfriend of Kirstie Alley from 1989 to 1993 on "Cheers," the snooty U.K. ambassador from 2004 to 2007 on "The West Wing."
But Rees was ours, first and foremost a part of whatever we lean on as a theater structure. Sure, he may have been more recognizable from TV. (I even played into the fame game just now by describing his characters.)
Much more, however, he was the resident go-to Brit for the best revivals of classics and flipped brilliantly from his pure Nicholas Nickleby persona into shades of darkness for edgy new plays Off-Broadway. He was also the artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival from 2004 to 2007 and, in 2011, was the least likely replacement for Nathan Lane's Gomez in "The Addams Family," the musical written by Rees' husband, Rick Elice. Rees, with his classical training, made a delightfully elegant cartoon madman -- like David Niven on a lark.
So here is my issue with the obit -- and with the ones that identified Richard Griffiths, the powerhouse British actor of "The History Boys," as "the 'Harry Potter' actor." Is it inevitable that, more and more, an actor's work in movies and TV will overwhelm his theater legacy?
We always talk about the ephemeral quality of live performance, how it exists for the moment we share it and never again. We tend to think about this as a precious thing. But I'm feeling strangely protective, even possessive of those indelible, fleeting moments.
How can theater compete with the big foot of mass celebrity culture? What part of one's career will get top billing? Will we have to see obituaries headlined " 'Star Trek's' Patrick Stewart" or have Ian McKellen eulogized first as Gandalf and Magento?
I don't mean to be morbid or presumptuous. Nor, however, am I the only theater person disturbed by the primacy of Rees' TV roles over his life's work in the theater.
Chris Boneau, co-founder of Broadway's mighty P.R. firm, Boneau/Bryan-Brown, tells me that he, too, was struck by the TV branding of Ree's career by obituaries in the media. Calling Rees' Nickleby "one of the biggest events in my theater life," he understates the "Cheers" billing as "curious."
As Boneau watches actors leave theater for the "stability, the paycheck and the material" in these burgeoning days of quality TV, he acknowledges that there's "more traction in the social media world." He has to watch "these great actors go off to California and not come back." He lists some who do keep returning to the stage, but many who don't.
He points me to the theater people -- or former theater people -- just nominated for Emmys. It's a big, big list, including Kevin Spacey, Jeff Daniels, Liev Schreiber, his brother Pablo Schreiber, Alan Cumming, Kathy Bates, Jane Krakowski, Allison Janney (two nominations), Felicity Huffman, Christine Baranski (two nominations), Viola Davis, William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Denis O'Hare, Margo Martindale, F. Murray Abraham, Zoe Kazan -- you get the idea.
For years, I've been enjoying, even celebrating, the crossover work of New York actors and playwrights into my favorite TV shows. I guess I've been avoiding the idea that their national fame might obliterate all but the highest-profile star-driven bookings.
I keep going over Rees' performances. Before "The Visit," my most recent memory is the 2013 revival of Terence Rattigan's "The Winslow Boy." Rees was wonderful as the father of a boy being heavily punished for stealing a pittance. A retired banker with degenerative arthritis, the father went from a dapper, reasonable fellow to a destructive obsessive in his crusade to win his son's day in court.
Next only to Nickleby in my heart, however, was Rees' quietly exquisite performance in the criminally underappreciated "A Man of No Importance," the 2002 musical version of a small 1994 movie about a stage-struck Dublin bus conductor. Rees was a heartbreaker as Alfie, a gentle middle-age man who -- with a yearning smile that seemed to weep and sweet eyes on the verge of a wince -- buried his gayness with an adoration of the theater.
As Alfie said, "Blessed are the poor in imagination, for they will inherit the cinema." Nothing against the movies, mind you, or even TV. When it comes to deciding who gets to claim Roger Rees, however, this line should count for something.