In 1968, Mr. 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, Mr. Sher met Jim Hooper, a fellow actor, with whom he would live for the next 18 years.
It took Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”