I heard the news that Roger Rees had passed away while I was in New York on Saturday. It was like a mule kick to the gut.
The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby
Back in 1982, my parents patiently indulged me, their wide-eyed child, as I watched The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby, which had been broken up over four nights in a row. This was astonishing for many reasons, mostly because my dad’s soul mate was Archie Bunker, and he prefered movies like Friday the 13th and Bo Derek’s 10. (He once took me and my sister to see Bo Derek’s Tarzan, the Ape Man, which was straight up child abuse.) So, it was a huge deal that they sat with me through all eight-and-a-half hours of PBS as it aired Trevor Nunn’s production.
Roger Rees’s Tony and Olivier Awards-winning performance as Nicholas made me a lifelong fan. I don’t know if he ever landed another role that used his unique talents quite so well, but I continued to follow his work, ever hopeful. In 1999, I decided to create a fan website for him. It was crude by today’s standards, but it adequately reflected my devotion. I even started a Yahoo group so I could meet other fans. That’s where I met Jolande Hibels, who had this incredible collection of playbills for every stage production in which Roger had ever appeared. I linked to her astonishing Roger Rees gallery on my feeble website.
(I still recall the bitter outcry of the women on the Yahoo group many years ago when I informed them that Roger was gay. I suppose I should have broken the news more gently.)
As I wrote Mrs. Winchester in 1998, Roger was my muse. Mrs. Winchester is about a rich woman’s obsession with the dead and a poor man’s ill-fated love for her. I pictured him as Carl, the bewildered foreman who comes to work for Sarah Winchester as she builds her “bizarre yet beautiful” mansion, yet winds up falling in love with her.
The script was a quarterfinalist in the Austin Film Festival competition the next year (I think), but nothing came of it. It has since been optioned twice and placed in other competitions, most recently as a Finalist in the 2012 Shriekfest Screenwriting Competition. Everyone who reads it raves about it. I think Roger’s spark brings the story to life.
(Haven’t read it? Don’t worry. I’ll probably adapt it to novel as I did Mr. Wicker. Then maybe someone will realize what a brilliant fucking role Mrs. Winchester is for a late-50s actress. We desperately need that.)
When I First Met Roger
It was after an L.A. Theatre Works production of Lady Windemere’s Fan in 1999 that I made my way into the lobby to meet him. At first, I wasn’t going to do it because the theatre people very coincidentally had sat me right under Roger’s microphone in the front row, which made me feel profoundly uncomfortable. But afterward, as I chatted with a friend in the parking lot, I decided I’d be damned if I was going to let this opportunity slip away due to embarrassment. That just wasn’t my style.
On my way back to where I’d hoped to encounter Roger, I had a delightful, flirty encounter with Eric Stoltz in the elevator, which helped me relax a bit. I sat on a bench, waiting until he appeared. As he approached, I stood and introduced myself, explaining that I’d built him a fan website.
Eyes cast downward shyly, he asked, “Why on earth would anyone do such a thing?”
I replied, “Well, you’ve given many people like myself so much joy. I just wanted to do a little something to give back to you.”
He melted before my eyes, making all kinds of utterly charming and sweet declarations that I no longer recall. All I remember is that he signed my program and I left, walking on clouds. I didn’t even sleep that night, I was so pleased.
Two years later, he appeared in a production of 1776 that opened on September 4, 2001, here in Los Angeles with my friend Mark Ryan.
It was so much fun seeing Mark and Roger on the same stage. I’d asked Mark to vouch for me, to tell him I’m not one of those fans.
After the show, I waited in the courtyard and, to my terror, Roger emerged before Mark did. He recognized me immediately and was incredibly darling. He kissed me on the cheek, hugged me, and kept telling me how wonderful it was to see me, asking how I was doing, etc. I managed to wrangle a friend of his (Rick?) into taking a couple pictures of us with my camera. The poor guy, bless his sweet heart, had a lot of trouble with my camera. As he messed with the settings, the whole time Roger kept turning to me, still just as lively and happy, asking questions as to get to know me better.
For a long time, I was unhappy that it was more of a Roger photo than a Roger-and-fan photo, but you can see by my expression that I was delighted beyond words to be standing next to him.
(I should note that national disaster had struck the day before I was originally supposed to see this performance. They moved the show out to the following weekend. That night in the courtyard before Mark and Roger emerged, I met a young man who was friends with Mark’s agent. He’d lost two friends in the Towers, including one who had proudly just hired a staff of 45 people… He broke down. I hugged him, a total stranger, whispering to him my sympathies as he wept. What a terrible time that was. But what a perfect time to see 1776. Roger announced to the audience that they were selling signed posters of the show and that proceeds were going to the NYC Fireman’s Relief Fund. I bought one, naturally.)
Bad Fan! No Biscuit!
Years passed. Work and writing displaced the time I’d previously spent doing fannish things. I neglected the website, but I never entirely lost track of Roger’s career. I didn’t see everything he was in, but I tried. I was bitterly disappointed by Going Under, even though it had seemed as though someone had made a movie just for me, as BDSM and Roger Rees were two of my favorite topics. I was not remotely disappointed by his appearances in Cheers, The West Wing, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, The Prestige and Frida. But to be honest, there is so much that I’ve missed, it’s ridiculous. I’d probably love his work in shows like Oz, Warehouse 13 and Boston Common. And so much more. He was a prolific performer, not just on stage, TV and film, but even in audio books.
His directing talents were formidable, as well. Bret and I saw Peter and the Starcatcher, which was written by Roger’s partner, Rick Elice, and directed by Roger on Broadway. The show had won a number of Tony awards. Unfortunately, the production we saw on tour in Los Angeles wasn’t quite our cuppa. (I vaguely recall it had something to do with the lead actress.) Still, it was entertaining (“Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod!”) and I’m glad we saw it.
I didn’t know that Roger was ill. He hadn’t been ill for long, apparently. In fact, he’d just been the lead in a Broadway production called The Visit when his sickness forced him to leave.
On Saturday when the news came out, I’d just been part of the Thrillerfest Debut Author breakfast at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan, where I’d gotten the chance to introduce myself and talk about my award-winning debut book, Mr. Wicker.
I speak first this morning. They have no idea what they’ve done. #Thrillerfest pic.twitter.com/iH9oVQO1M9
— Maria Alexander (@LaMaupin) July 11, 2015
There I was in the midst of some of the most famous novelists of our time: Lee Child, Heather Graham, Sandra Brown, Charlaine Harris, and many, many more. The conference so far had been tremendous.
But later that day after breakfast, as I was sitting in the lobby between panels, I was scrolling through Facebook when I came across a photo that Mark had posted of himself and Roger in 1776 with the news of Roger’s death.
Even though Roger was 71, it felt much too soon for him to leave. My heart broke even more deeply as I thought about Rick and his grief. They’d been together for over 30 years and married for four.
I’m glad I didn’t hear of it before breakfast. As the reality of Roger’s passing soaked into me, I could think of little else. Words cannot express the sadness I felt as the day wore on, knowing that such a special presence would no longer shine on the stage.
“I’d know that face in ten thousand,” Nicholas says. And it’s true. It’s a face — a voice, a person of eminent grace, humility, kindness and talent — that I will never forget.