When actor Antony Sher, who died December 2 at 72, had his breakout role as Richard III in 1985, he won the Olivier Award (London’s Tony) for that and for originating the role of Arnold in Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” in the West End that same year. While Sher had a long-term male partner at the time and had already been part of the Gay Sweatshop fringe theatre troupe with out gay actor Simon Callow in the 1970s, like most gay actors of that time (and many still today) he was not out publicly. He nevertheless said in his acceptance speech, “I’m very happy to be the first actor to win an award for playing both a king and a queen.”
Sher would go on to distinguish himself as one of the greatest classical actors of our time at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) starting in 1982. When he played Shylock in 1987, he met Gregory Doran in the production and soon partnered with him romantically and they became a famous out gay couple. Doran went on to become a director — often of Sher — and eventually artistic director of the RSC until he took a leave of absence in September to care for Sher, ill with terminal cancer, in his final months. The men were the first same-sex couple to get a civil partnership in the UK in 2005 and they married when it became legal ten years later.
I had the privilege of seeing his Falstaff and King Lear here at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and his Prospero, a production in London of “The Tempest” reflective of his South African roots. I also saw him in an intimate revival of Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass” at the Tricycle Theatre in London as a conflicted Jew in the US during the time of Hitler’s rise. But nowhere was his brilliance, heart, and soul more on display than in his own adaptation of the searing memoir of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi (1919-1987), “If This is a Man,” about how he survived Nazi barbarism in Auschwitz.
Sher wrote the one-man play “Primo” and then had to get permission to perform it from Levi’s estate. It was a fraught negotiation. They agreed to let Sher do it in London, New York, and South Africa and then not make it available for anyone else to perform ever again. They did allow it to be filmed and his performance is available on DVD and on-demand on Amazon Prime.
“Primo” opens with Levi saying, “It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944.” What could he possibly mean? And while the descriptions of dehumanization and torture that follow are harrowing, his relatively late arrival at the death camp did play a role in surviving its nightmares.
Sher came on our Gay USA cable show to talk about his journey with the role during his Broadway run in 2005. And while he was better known for playing ferocious Shakespeare characters from Iago to Lear to Macbeth, this quiet role from this gentle man packed just as much power if not more.
While Sher was much less well known for his film work, what he did was compelling. As an accomplished stage actor he nailed small roles as British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) in “Mrs. Brown” (1997) and as the psychiatrist Moth in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), which also featured Callow.
But just as the AIDS pandemic was cresting in 1995, in the movie “Alive and Kicking” he took on the role of a gay social worker who has an affair with a beautiful young dancer (Jason Flemyng) who is dying of AIDS but angrily fights the limits it puts on his art — a powerful and brave work by Martin Sherman, who also did “Bent.”
Sher was born on June 14, 1949 in Cape Town, South Africa and moved to England at 19. He told The Guardian, “I looked around me and I didn’t see any Jewish leading men in the classical theatre, so I thought it best to conceal my Jewishness. Also, I quickly became conscious of apartheid when I arrived here, and I didn’t want to be known as a white South African… Then there was my sexuality. The theatre was full of gay people, but none of them were out… Each of these things went into the closet until my entire identity was in the closet.”
But as he grew as an actor and as a person, he embraced his gay and Jewish identities, took roles reflecting them, and joined the fight against apartheid back home, among many other civil rights causes. He also embraced painting as a therapy to overcome a cocaine addiction. And he was an award-winning writer including “The Year of the King” (1985), about his work on “Richard III,” which has become an actor’s bible along with his later takes on doing Falstaff and Lear.
Sher was knighted for his services to theater in 2000. His husband Doran, also knighted, told The Guardian, “On stage he was volcanic, but off he was quiet, thoughtful, and not terribly outgoing and maybe that was attractive to me.” Veteran critic Michael Billington called him “a man of staggering versatility.” Helen Mirren wrote she was “devastated” by his passing and recalled their first encounter at the read-through of a David Hare play in the 1970s: “I read the first words of our scene together and he answered. I raised my eyes above the pages to look at him more precisely, as with simply those minimal words I immediately realized I was opposite a great actor.”
Harvey Fierstein posted on Facebook, “Brilliant, kind, funny, actor, writer, painter Antony Sher is gone. I was honored to have him star in TORCH SONG TRILOGY in London. Poorer us.”