Antony Sher, actor acclaimed for his versatility, dies at 72

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Antony Sher, actor acclaimed for his versatility, dies at 72
Antony Sher as Stanley Spencer in Pam Gem’s “Stanley,” in New York in 1997. Sher, an actor known for his masterly interpretations of Shakespeare’s great characters and for his versatility, died on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. He was 72. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Roslyn Sulcas

NEW YORK, NY.- Antony Sher, an actor known for his masterly interpretations of Shakespeare’s great characters and for his versatility, died Thursday at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. He was 72.

The cause was cancer, said the Royal Shakespeare Company, with which Sher had been closely associated for more than four decades. Gregory Doran, the company’s artistic director and Sher’s husband, had announced in September that he would take compassionate leave to care for Sher.

Sher was 32 when he first attracted notice as an actor, playing the leading role of a libidinous, manipulative lecturer in a 1981 BBC adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury’s novel “The History Man.” He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company the next year.

His breakthrough came in 1984, in the title role of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” He performed on crutches, which he used as an extension of Richard’s contorted physique and psyche to evoke Shakespeare’s description of the character as “a bottled spider.”

In The Times of London, Sheridan Morely described his portrayal as “the only one in our lifetime to have challenged the 40-year memory of Olivier in that role.” Other critics agreed that it was a career-making performance. “In this unabashed attempt at incarnating evil, Sher is monstrously convincing,” Mel Gussow wrote in The New York Times.

In 1985 he won an Olivier Award both for his performance as Richard and for his subsequent role as a drag queen in Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy.” In his acceptance speech, he said he was happy “to be the first actor to win an award for playing both a king and a queen.”

Sher went on to play numerous great Shakespearean roles, including Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” (1987), Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale” (1998), Iago in “Othello” (2004), Prospero in “The Tempest” (2008), Falstaff in “Henry IV,” Parts One and Two (2014), and the title roles in “Titus Andronicus” (1994), “Macbeth” (1999) and “King Lear” (2016).

“The voice alone is rich, roaring music,” Charles Isherwood wrote in a 2014 New York Times review of “Henry IV,” adding that “Mr. Sher manages to make Shakespeare’s often arcane language sound as familiar as the slang you’d hear on the streets today.”

In 1987, when playing Shylock, Sher noticed “a handsome chap playing Solanio,” he later recalled, “so I asked the director who he was.” It was Doran, who would become his partner and, in 2015, his husband.

After a tense first collaboration, when Doran directed Sher in the title role of “Titus Andronicus,” a production they took to Sher’s native South Africa in 1995, they determined that they wouldn’t discuss work at home. (They went on to work together extensively, but not exclusively.)

In addition to Doran, Sher’s survivors include two brothers, Joel and Randall.

Sher’s dramatic range was extensive. He won rave reviews for his performances in “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” both directed by Doran. He played Arturo Ui in Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” and Joseph K in an adaptation of Kafka’s “The Trial,” and he won his second Olivier Award in 1997 for his portrayal of painter Stanley Spencer in Pam Gem’s “Stanley.” He was awarded a knighthood for services to the theater in 2000.

Sher was also a prolific writer and an accomplished artist. He published an autobiography, “Beside Myself,” in 2001, as well as four novels, two plays and three theater diaries, illustrated with his sketches and paintings.

In many of his books he described his connection to, and ambivalence about, South Africa. “Home. Love. Hate,” he wrote in his autobiography. “A triangle, a difficult equation, it’s always there for me.”

In 2004 he wrote and starred in “Primo,” an adaptation of “If This Is a Man,” Primo Levi’s unsparing 1947 account of daily life in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Writing about the 2005 Broadway production, Ben Brantley of the Times said that Sher “creates a portrait in which brutal memory penetrates the very marrow of one man’s existence.”

He frequently spoke of being drawn to playing outsiders and misfits. “I was a white Jewish South African and I didn’t feel like I belonged in the classical British theater,” he said in an interview with the Times before the premiere of John Kani’s “Kunene and the King” in 2019. “I always felt a bit like an interloper.”

In what was to be his last role, he played a terminally ill South African actor preparing to play King Lear. In the interview, he said that he had tried to leave his South African identity behind when he moved to Britain, but that he could now celebrate the way his life “had come full circle.”

Antony Sher was born in Cape Town on June 14, 1949, the third of four children of Emmanuel Sher, an importer of animal hides, and Margery (Abramowitz) Sher, who ran the house. “Her role in life was of commander in chief, and that often mean battle conditions,” Sher wrote of their life in Sea Point, the middle-class white suburb where he grew up.

Although his grandparents were Lithuanian Jews who had fled pogroms in Europe, Sher said he had little sense growing up that they were living amid similarly oppressive conditions for Black people in apartheid South Africa. “My family was typical of white families at the time, almost ignorant about apartheid, which sounds impossible but true,” he said in 2019. “I became politicized much later in England.”

Short, slight and bespectacled, Sher never felt he fit in at the sports-mad boys’ school he attended. Sent by his mother to elocution classes, he was introduced to the plays of John Osborne, Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker. By 16, he had decided to go to drama school in London.

First however, he had to do nine months of national army service, obligatory for all white men in South Africa. Although it was a traumatic experience, he wrote in his autobiography that he later came to regard it as “a kind of research trip” for playing Macbeth, Richard III, Cyrano and others.

In 1968, Sher flew to London with his parents and auditioned for both the Central School of Speech and Drama and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Both turned him down. The Royal Academy’s letter, he recalled, was particularly wounding. “We strongly urge you to seek a different career,” it said.

He found a place at the Webber Douglas Academy, where his teachers included Steven Berkoff, then performed with the theater group Gay Sweatshop before landing the role of Ringo Starr in Willy Russell’s Beatles musical “John, Paul, George, Ringo ... and Bert,” which transferred to the West End. During the run of the show, Sher met Jim Hooper, a fellow actor, with whom he would live for the next 18 years.

It took Sher a long time to admit openly that he was gay; he had two relationships with women after drama school and a brief marriage before publicly acknowledging his homosexuality in 1989. Rather disappointingly, he wrote, that revelation “made no impact whatsoever.”

He also tried hard, early on, to shed any traces of a South African identity, telling people he was British. “It wasn’t just that I was ashamed of apartheid,” he wrote. “I was also ashamed of coming from a cultural wasteland. How could you become a famous actor if you were a white South African?”

After “The History Man,” Sher appeared in a handful of films, including “Mrs. Brown” and “Shakespeare in Love,” but his career remained firmly anchored in the theater. He overcame a cocaine addiction in the mid-1990s and later remarked that he had been able to use that experience in playing Falstaff.

“For an actor,” he said, “nothing is wasted.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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