He was murdered in a street by a madman. There was an enormous public outpouring of grief. Tens of thousands lined the streets at his funeral, for he was adored or respected by everyone, including royalty. Echoes of John Lennon? But this was 1897 and it was the swashbuckling actor William Terriss – known as Breezy Bill.
To theatre-goers in Victorian England Terriss was a hero. He had the kind of passionate following that George Clooney enjoys today. In 1880 Terriss was invited by Henry Irving to join the cast of the Lyceum Theatre, and they became close friends.
According to the actress Ellen Terry: “Irving never could be angry with Terriss, not even when he came to rehearsal full of absurd excuses. One day, however, he was so late that it was past a joke, and Henry spoke to him sharply.
“‘I think you’ll be sorry you’ve spoken to me like this, Guv’nor, when you hear that my poor mother passed away early this morning,’ said Terriss, weeping. Henry promptly gave him the day off. A few weeks later, when Terriss and I were looking through the curtain at the audience just before the play began, he said to me gaily: ‘See that dear old woman sitting in the fourth row of the stalls – that’s my dear old mother.’ The wretch had quite forgotten that he had killed her!”
Terriss had been a midshipman, tea-planter, engineer, sheep-farmer and horse-breeder in the Falklands before becoming an actor.
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