TV or not TV, that was the question. Whether it was nobler for an acclaimed English classical actor to play a tormented Shakespearean antihero in Stratford-upon-Avon or a two-faced millionaire on a hit sitcom in Hollywood . . .
Actually, if you watch "Cheers," you know how Roger Rees answered the question. He declined "Coriolanus," said yes to prime time, and for a year and a half immersed himself in Robin Colcord, the charmingly despicable playboy who re-broke Kirstie Alley's all-too-battered heart.
To Mr. Rees, who won a Tony a decade ago for his performance in the title role of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "Nicholas Nickleby," Colcord may not have been as taxing as Hamlet -- or even Laertes. But it was an important step in his effort to establish himself in the entertainment world on this side of the Atlantic, where a searing performance in a 400-year-old play does not ordinarily earn you a spot on the cover of People.
"In this country, you need to have a popular identity," the actor said recently. "And I've got very high standards. I like to do really good things. But 'good' -- witness Charles Dickens -- doesn't mean 'not popular.' Good doesn't mean 'not accessible.' "
Mr. Rees, who continues to pursue a career in TV and film in Los Angeles, where he now lives, is accessible to theatergoers in New York for the first time since "Nickleby," the landmark, 8 1/2 -hour retelling of Dickens' sweeping work. In "The End of The Day," Jon Robin Baitz' sardonic tale of greed and betrayal at Playwrights Horizons, Mr. Rees plays Graydon Massey, an English expatriate doctor torn between a hunger for money and the desire to do the right thing.
His return to the New York stage came about after Andre Bishop, now artistic director at Lincoln Center, asked Mr. Rees what kinds of plays he liked to do: "I said, 'I like plays where I stand in the middle of stage and talk a lot on my own.' Andre said, 'have I got a play for you.' "
His "Cheers" assignment, taken on while Mr. Rees was appearing in the Los Angeles production of Tom Stoppard's "Hapgood," was Mr. Rees' real entree to Hollywood, although he had done a few films before. Unlike many other English stage actors of the first rank, like Jeremy Irons and Daniel Day Lewis and Anthony Hopkins, Mr. Rees chose to stay in California.
It seems a trifle ludicrous for an actor who has played Hamlet at the RSC to be playing villainous supporting roles in forgettable movies like "Stop or My Mom Will Shoot" and Richard Grieco vehicles like "If Looks Could Kill." But Mr. Rees says he knows the difference between Coriolanus and Colcord and feels he is making an investment in the future. "I feel I'm in a stronger position even though I don't have as much to show for it quite at the moment," he said.