Born at Newland, Gloucestershire, in 1741, the son of John and Rebecca Powell Bannister, he was employed in the government victualing office at Deptford by 1760. Having engaged in amateur theatricals as a youth, Bannister, it is said, brashly applied to Garrick for a position at Drury Lane Theatre. Rebuffed, he spent some time in provincial companies until he was taken on by Samuel Foote at the Haymarket Theatre and appeared on 28 April 1762 in one of Foote’s satirical entertainments called “The Orators”, in which Bannister played Will Tirehack, an Oxford student who did imitations of well-known players. He developed a talent and reputation for taking off performers, especially foreign singers, but received no immediate engagement at a London patent theatre. He bounced about, singing at taverns and pleasure gardens, and soon went to act at the Crow Street Theatre, Dublin, and for several summers seasons at Richmond. Finally, in 1767-68 he was taken on at Drury Lane, where he made his first appearance on 22 September 1767 as Merlin in “Cymon”. Bannister remained underemployed at Drury Lane, but enjoyed some success again at Foote’s Haymarket in the summer of 1768. In 1768-69 his fortunes improved and he became a well?regarded standby through much of the remainder of his long career. He continued to appear regularly at the Haymarket in summers. He was especially good in dialect characters such as Cadwallader in “The Author”, Don Diego in “The Padlock” and O’Flannagan in “The Cozeners”. Among his many other characters were Hawthorn in “Love in a Village”, Major Sturgeon in “The Mayor of Garratt”, Steady in “The Quaker” (G0031), Caliban in “The Tempest”, Antonio in “The Merchant of Venice”, Casca in “Julius Caesar” and Claudius in “Hamlet”. Bannister’s main attribute was his strong bass voice, complemented by a pleasant personality and a large figure.
Attributed to Zoffany is the portrait of him in the Garrick Club as Launce (with his dog) in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” (G0033), a role he seems not to have played in London. He was one of the founders of the society of actors called ‘The School of Garrick’ (G0032). Bannister died in London on 19 October 1804 and was interred in the family vault under the communion table in St Martin-in-the-Fields. His son John Bannister (q.v.) also became a much-loved comic actor.