WILLIAM SMITH, commonly called Gentleman Smith, was the son of a wholesale grocer and tea-dealer in the city, and was born about the year 1730. He was educated at Eton, and St. John's College, Cambridge, with a view of entering into holy orders; but his conduct at the university was marked by some eccentricities, which prevented this design from taking effect. The immediate cause of his leaving college, was a drunken frolic with some other young men, which induced him, when pursued by the proctor, to snap an unloaded pistol at him. For this offence he was sentenced to a punishment, to which he did not choose to submit; and, in consequence, to avoid expulsion, left the university, and came to London, with the intention of trying his success on the stage. He immediately put himself under the tuition of Barry, and on the 1st of January, 1753, made his debut at Covent Garden, as Theodosius, in the tragedy of The Force of Love. His performance was a decided hit, and, for twenty-two years, he continued his career at the same theatre, with increasing reputation.
Soon after his appearance on the stage, he married a daughter of Viscount Hinchinbrook; an union, by which, it is said, the lady's family considered her and themselves dishonoured. Mr. Smith immediately called upon his wife's brother, and finding that he was only objected to on the score of his being an actor, said, "that if the family he had so much disgraced, would allow him, for life, a sum equal to his theatrical acquisition, he would cease to dishonour them; but if not, having no other alternative, he must even follow that profession, disgraceful as it might appear in their eyes, to prevent acts of greater dishonour in his." The offer was, however, rejected, and the alliance, which gave rise to it, was terminated by the lady's death in December, 1762.
In the winter of 1774, he entered into an engagement with Garrick, and continued to play at Drury Lane until his retirement in 1788, when he took leave of the stage in the character of Charles Surface. His marriage with a widow lady of large fortune was the reputed cause of his terminating his theatrical career. He appeared, however, about ten years after, for the benefit of his friend, King; when, notwithstanding his increased size and great age, which was then within a year of seventy, he is said to have gone through his part with that spirit, ease, and elegance, for which he was unequalled. It is singular, that during the thirty-five years he continued upon the stage, he was never absent from London but one season; nor ever performed out of the metropolis, except for one summer at Bristol, after the death of Mr. Holland, and again, in the summer of 1774, when he went to Dublin. He died at Bury St. Edmund's, on the 13th of September, 1819.
As an actor, he has been well characterized in Churchill's Rosciad, as the genteel, the airy, and the smart; yet this was not all the praise he merited. In tragedy, his Richard the Third, Hastings, and Hotspur, have been rarely excelled; and the same may be said of his Kitely, Oakley, and Charles Surface, in comedy. His representation of Kitely, indeed, a character in which Quin and other eminent actors failed, was generally considered superior to Garrick's. His voice, though rich and full, had a kind of monotony; and his action, though ever easy, was not always perfect; but the superior grace and elegance of his manners and appearance, were never equalled on the stage, and justly procured him the appellation of Gentleman Smith. He was a gentleman also in feeling as well as appearance, and is said to have prided himself in the reflection, that he was never called upon to perform in an after-piece, or required to pass through a trap-door in any entrance or exit on the stage. Both before and after his retirement, his chief diversion was fox-hunting. He was a legatee under the will of the eccentric Lord Chadworth, who bequeathed to him £200, a sum which is said greatly to have disappointed his expectations.