William Smith was born in London on 22 February 1730, the son of the wholesale grocer William Smith (1700-1782). He received some education at Eton, but left there because of improprieties while drunk and went to St John’s College, Cambridge. With his tall figure and good looks, Smith opted for the stage, appearing for the first time, at Covent Garden, in the title role of “Theodosius” on 8 January 1753, when he was announced as ‘a Gentleman.’ He was supported by Mrs Cibber as Athenais and Spranger Barry as Varanes. Thus Smith began a career at Covent Garden, where he was to remain for twenty years before he moved over to work under Garrick at Drury Lane beginning on 22 September 1774. During those years he played numerous roles, mainly in comedies, in which he excelled as the fashionable gentleman and earned the sobriquet ‘Gentleman Smith.’ He became a solid favourite of audiences in such roles as Loveless in “The Relapse”, Heartfree in “The Provok’d Wife” and Oakly in “The Jealous Wife”. In the earlier part of his career he had success in playing roles in tragedy: Edgar in “King Lear”, Macbeth, Osman in Zara, Richard III and Valasquez in Braganza, among others. His greatest role, and one probably written by Sheridan with Smith in mind, was the original Charles Surface in “The School for Scandal” at Drury Lane on 8 May 1777 (G0003).
After Garrick’s retirement in 1776, Smith remained at Drury Lane until his retirement in June 1788. He spent the following 30 years in relative good health, enjoying the races, hunting and the company of friends of gentility and nobility. He died on 13 September 1819, at age 89, leaving an estate valued at some £18,000. Smith’s skills were summarized by one critic, who praised his ease, elegance and vivacity: ‘being the unaffected gentleman in private life, he is necessarily so on the stage.’ (BDA)