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Antony Sher, Who Conquered the Great Roles of Shakespeare in London, Dies at 72

Sher had been diagnosed with a terminal illness earlier this year.

Antony Sher as Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984
(© Reg Wilson/Royal Shakespeare Company)

Beloved Shakespearean actor Antony Sher has died at the age of 72 following a diagnosis of terminal cancer earlier this year.

Sher was born to Lithuanian-Jewish parents in Cape Town, South Africa, and made his way to London at the age of 19 in 1968. He studied at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art and worked early in his career at venues like the Liverpool Everyman and with companies including Gay Sweatshop. Early turns included playing Beatles drummer Ringo Starr in the Willy Russell play John, Paul, George, Ringo...& Bert in 1974.

He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982, beginning a legendary classical career that would take him through all the great roles. First up was the Fool to Michael Gambon's King Lear in 1982, followed quickly by the eponymous leading man in Moliere's Tartuffe. In 1984, Sher stunned audiences with a career-defining turn as Richard III, performing the role on crutches to live up to the character's description as a "bottled spider." The next year, he played Arnold in Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy, earning an Olivier for both of these performances. His Shakespeare resume would go on to include Shylock (1987), Titus Andronicus (1994-95), Leontes (1998-99), Macbeth (1999-2001), Prospero (2008), Falstaff (2014), and King Lear (2016-2018).

On Broadway, Sher earned a Tony nomination (in addition to another Olivier) for his work in the Pam Gems play Stanley in 1997, and brought his solo show Primo to the Music Box Theatre in 2005, receiving a Drama Desk Award. He had a frequent New York City home at Brooklyn Academy of Music, which presented many of the Royal Shakespeare Company productions in which he appeared.

Other roles included Willy Loman in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Death of a Salesman, Nicholas in Pinter's One for the Road in the West End, and finally, Jack Morris in Kunene and the King, which was written by his longtime friend and collaborator, John Kani. That production opened prior to the pandemic and would mark his final stage role.

Sher was also a widely exhibited artist, having turned to art therapy while in rehab for cocaine addiction in the 1990s. He was also the author of the now-legendary theater diaries Year of the King, Year of the Fat Knight, and Year of the Mad King, as well as four novels, three plays, a screenplay, and an autobiography.

Knighted in 2000, Sher is survived by his husband and partner for more than 30 years, Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Gregory Doran, whom he married in 2015.

Sher told TheaterMania he had few regrets about the arc of his acting career when King Lear came to Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2018. Billed as his final Shakespearean role, he described his turn as coming with "a melancholy and a sense of 'gosh, I've gone the journey.' Looking back now, I wish I'd played Hamlet, which I didn't do out of a sense of oppression...There was an old-fashioned idea that he had to be tall and handsome and blond. But that's nonsense, of course. I missed it and it's my own fault. But otherwise, Shakespeare served me very well. I'm very grateful."

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