The actor had been working until very recently, and died after a brief illness

By Adam Carlson
July 11, 2015 09:55 AM
Cindy Ord/Getty

Roger Rees, who made appearances on Cheers and The West Wing but who was best known for his decades-long theater career, died Friday night. He was 71.

Rees had been acting until very recently, and left his most recent production – in the Broadway musical The Visit – in May, to undergo a medical procedure, the Associated Press reports. He died at his New York home after a brief illness, his representative told the AP.

Rees’s acting career began in the ’60s, and he began working with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967. His most iconic role, as the original Nicholas Nickleby in the company’s production of the Charles Dickens novel, earned widespread popular and critical acclaim – and earned Rees an Olivier Award and a Tony, as well as an Emmy nod, when the production was adapted for TV.

The play ran for more than eight hours, and required its cast to haul props during their performances.

“Sometimes I think I’ll go off and be a milkman or a greengrocer, some easy job,” Rees told PEOPLE in 1981 during the play’s Broadway run.

Subsequent performances included turns in The Addams Family, The Red Shoes and The Winslow Boy, among many others.

Off stage, Rees was a dedicated patron of the arts, a familiar presence in the audience, according to Deadline; and for four years ran the Williamstown Theatre Festival, until 2007. In 2012, he earned another Tony nomination for directing Peter and the Starcatcher, written by his husband, Rick Elice.

Rees was also a prolific TV actor, appearing for five years as Robin Colcord, Kirstie Alley‘s love interest, on Cheers; and as British Ambassador Lord John Marbury on The West Wing for six years.

He also appeared in Mel Brooks‘s Robin Hood: Men in Tights, as the Sheriff of Rottingham.

Patrick Stewart shared his condolences on Twitter early Saturday: “A space is left that cannot be filled.”