July 3, 2015, was a heartbreaking day for many people who work in the theater.
That afternoon, they received an e-mail from Rick Elice, the Tony-nominated co-writer of “Jersey Boys,” letting them know that his partner of 33 years, Roger Rees, had glioblastoma — “a very s–tty brain cancer,” as Elice put it.
“He’s been struggling with it since October, when on a beautiful fall day, he started walking into people and things — and our lives changed forever,” Elice wrote. “There is no cure.”
Rees, one of the finest actors of his generation, died a week later, only a short time after making his final stage appearance, in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “The Visit.” He was 71.
That summer, Elice began writing a memoir about their life together. “Finding Roger: An Improbably Theatrical Love Story” comes out on Tuesday. While it begins with that sad e-mail, it’s also full of joy, wit and charm, the very qualities that made Rees such a beloved figure in the theater and on TV, where he made a memorable Lord John Marbury on “The West Wing” and Robin Colcord on “Cheers.”
Elice, who’s currently writing “The Cher Show” for, well, Cher, is donating all profits from the book to the Actors Fund, of which he is a trustee.
He fell for Rees after he saw him in the original production of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” on Broadway. A struggling actor back then, Elice wasn’t happy that the British were taking jobs from Americans. He led a protest against the show — until a friend persuaded him to see it.
“It’ll change your life,” the friend told him.
As Elice writes, “By the time the play’s over, more than eight hours later, I’ve learned a million times over that my friend was quite right. Being in the theater that day has profoundly changed my life.”
Elice wrote Rees a “mash note,” dropped it off at the theater — and never got a reply. But a year later, when he was working as a copywriter for a Broadway ad agency, Elice saw Rees at the dress rehearsal for “Cats.” (Elice was working on the show’s ad campaign; Rees was there visiting Trevor Nunn, his “Nickleby” director.)
They had one date before Rees headed back to London to star in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.” A few weeks later, Elice went to London to see the play. Rees picked him up at the airport, drove him to his mother’s house and said, “I have to go do the matinee now. Goodbye.”
“I’m sitting there at the kitchen table with this lovely little British lady, and she says, ‘So who are you and what are you doing here?’” Elice tells The Post. “I told her I had no choice but to come.”
Mrs. Rees eyed him and said, “You’re not going to mess him about, are you?” — which, as Elice says, “is a very British way of saying, “Don’t f–k with my son.”
“My plan is to, um, follow him around for the rest of my life,” Elice said.
Mrs. Rees relaxed, and “very soon I became part of the family,” Elice says.
“In many ways, Roger saved my life,” the 60-year-old adds. “I was a kid, and the sexual revolution was very much on my mind, shall we say. I entered into a monogamous relationship with Roger just at the time every single gay man was at risk of getting AIDS.”
Elice had a hand in saving Rees’ life, too. In the early ’80s, Rees was an alcoholic. One night, driving home from a London theater, they had an argument about his drinking.
‘In many ways, Roger saved my life.’
“Roger had had a few and, you know, you’re not supposed to drive drunk, as I was telling him when he drove us into the railing of the Albert Bridge,” Elice says. “The Thames was beckoning us a little too strongly.”
The police arrived, and Elice got Rees and his car home. The next day, Rees had no memory of the incident.
“I guess this is a good time to stop drinking,” Rees told Elice.
Except for one drink after his mother’s funeral, Rees never touched alcohol again — and credited Elice with helping him kick the habit.
Nothing, sadly, could save Rees from that “very s–tty” brain cancer.”
He died at home with Elice, whom he married in 2011, by his side.
“You know, before I met Roger, I was an incurable romantic,” Elice says. “And then I met him, and I was cured.”
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