Die Young And Leave A Beautiful Corpse: A Short Biography of the Victorian Actor William Terriss
In Hollywood the only commandment is to die young and leave a beautiful corpse. Though William Terriss lived and died in Victorian England this fits his tragedy to a T. Another bylaw is this: if you can’t be famous then be infamous. And that fits Terriss’ murderer to a T too. Likewise, considering the fickleness of fame if you are really desperate to be remembered then haunt the scene of your grisly murder because a ghost will always be remembered if only for being a ghost. That also fits Terriss to a T —- a T as in Terror. And while there is no proof it can be speculated that Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey might very well have also been inspired by Terriss who was famous for apparently never aging despite some 25 years on the London Stage which usually burns out most actors long before their usually painfully ignominious or else sordid deaths besmirches their living memories.
Terriss had just turned 50 and passed as 40 and was still playing dashing 30 year old heroes in the famous Adelphi Melodramas. He had barely a grey hair or sagging jawline and never added a pound to his tall, slim, athletic frame so he had no problem playing the youthful hero opposite his leading lady who was almost half his age who was also his lover. They were a beloved couple on stage and off stage and their fans adored them even though everyone pretty much knew that their passionate kisses that climaxed every melodrama were genuine and not pantomime. Everyone adored Terriss! But perhaps the biggest mystery and also the biggest tragedy about Terriss is the fact he was assassinated by a stalker, the first such murder to befall a famous actor in Victorian England. Yet no one could explain the why and wherefore for such a brutal murder other than insanity so Terriss’ murderer spent the rest of his life very happily in a surprisingly well off insane asylum doing amateur dramatics.
Terriss was born in 1847 to a solid middle class family in a time where acting was wildly popular but socially frowned upon. William Charles James Lewin attended many a middle class private school and laughed away every attempt to receive an education. He majored in sports and mischief and tree climbing. Clearly not cut out for university despite desperate attempts by his respectable family William Lewin sought out adventure such as the merchant navy, Indian tea plantations, medicine or at least hospitals, and engineering (as in driving trains). Later he even tried sheep farming in the romantically remote Falklands Islands (possibly hoping to have his clipper or else his remote island attacked by Captain Nemo’s Nautilus). Terriss also raised race horses in Kentucky. Being over six feet tall he failed at horse races — but not for lack of trying!
William Lewin stumbled into acting on a double dare and one of his first gigs was doubling for an aging Romero by climbing up the ivy to woo the lovely damsel in destress before ducking behind the ivy for the stout actor playing Romero to magically pop up to the shock of the damsel in destress as well as the audience. The gig did not last long accordingly but it earned the laughing teenager the running joke of eternally misplaying his lines if not his panache! Not paunch! Panache! He never had a paunch but to the end he always had panache!
William Lewin married Isabel Lewis and tried several times to find alternatives to acting that could fulfill his craving for adventure and the outdoors life while calming his long suffering and oh so stogy parents. But in the end William accept his fate and became an actor, adopting the stage name of Terriss. The one consolation his long suffering and oh so stogy parents had was the fact Terriss finally settled down and give them beautiful grandchildren to adore and spoil —- who alas followed their father and joined the theatre and ended up in Hollywood in the 1920s.
As his family grew Terriss surprised everyone by working hard if humorously at the profession he accidentally stumbled into. Terriss now kept his adventures limited to sports like riding horses, bicycles, sailing, climbing trees including climbing up the outsides of townhouses to enter by the upper windows instead of the front door, and occasionally a sedate game of chess with his very best friends with the occasional pipe of humble tobacco —-preferably from Kentucky. Everything in moderation except perhaps rescuing people! Terriss routinely rescued people drowning in diverse rivers and oceans and would appear soaking wet at rehearsals thereafter embarrassed at being soaking wet. Terriss even once almost fell into the Niagara Falls when he slipped off the wet path and dangled by one hand just like an Adelphi Melodrama until Henry Irving reached down to pull him back up to the wet foot path.
Terriss used his tall, lanky form to good effect in action scenes in his theatre gigs even if he found female prima donnas somewhat hysterical and Shakespeare’s poetry a tad boring. He developed his fine voice so even his stage whisper could be heard at the back of the theatre. He gave his audience their money’s worth and respected his audience who adored him. Terriss was beloved by his fans. There was a genuine bond between Terriss and his fans. He respected his fans not realizing that one of his fans would become a fanatic. Terriss also developed a naturalistic, free and easy style of acting during a time of stylized performances. Terriss’ style seemed so natural and unstilted that it was called ‘Breezy’. Terriss especially used sly humor and impish wit to add to the sometimes massively heavy pomp and circumstances productions then in vogue. Terriss would wink at the audience if things got too heavy going. Despite the adoration and fame coming too early Terriss never developed an ego which acting usually encourages —- usually with fatal consequences. Terriss described his job at the elite Lyceum Theatre as the ‘Fourth Wheel’ of a carriage which was to say the success of the enterprise was based on everyone pulling together under Irving’s direction. Terriss never took the critics or the reviews seriously and so kept his head in a career prone to inciting narcissism and self destruction. His greatest virtue was level headed common sense.
Terriss quickly became a very popular actor in such hits as Robin Hood where his athletic flare and and impish mischief make him popular on both sides of the 4th Wall. Terriss never took himself seriously but took the job seriously. He was that needful thing in the self destructive and erratic world of the theatre: reliable. Trustworthy. Sane. He did the practical things to keep a production going for 100 performances straight. If the audience got bored he livened things up. He was like an electric spark! Puck grown up!
Terriss said his motto was Carpe Diem: enjoy the moment. But his 180 degrees turn from his youthful madcap adventures to his discipline in the theater leading to becoming a theater manager of the Adelphi Theater reflected an unexpectedly tenacious and disciplined personality behind the impish panache. Terriss was mostly an extrovert but privately he was pragmatic and highly responsible toward his family and his fellow actors as well as his fans who admired him as a hero on and off the stage. He rarely confided his inner thoughts and never exposed his private life or inner doubts but this 180 degrees change from a madcap was remarkable and laid the foundations for his amazingly successful career and success.
So Terriss put aside his superficially madcap youth and surprised everyone by becoming a reliable and caring husband, a devoted father, an owner of a fine upper middle class home with a large country style garden, as well as a famously trustworthy and merry soul during tense rehearsals where bets were made if he would somehow manage to learn his lines before opening night (somehow he always did!). He also eased tensions during stressful rehearsals with his good natured humor and mimicking of his co-stars including the legendary Henry Irving. Only Terriss could get away with pulling good natured pranks on the great Henry Irving! But being a key member of the Lyceum Theatre or else the actor manager of the Adelphi Theatre Terriss worked hard and shrewdly behind his superficially breezy charm and impish mischief.
Terriss could be compared to Errol Flynn in his mischievous ‘breezy’ panache in action melodramas (both becoming stars playing Robin Hood). But there was a difference that showed in the drastically different outcomes of the two dashing heroes in fantastic costumes swaggering against all odds. Flynn could not control his inner demons and he did indeed live for the moment. So Flynn ended up prematurely old and financially ruined. He outlived his fame and died ten years too late with his reputation besmirched after becoming a caricature. Terriss superficially appeared to be a Victorian Flynn. But Terriss spent 25 years building his way to success as the most beloved and successful actor manager next to Henry Irving and the most beloved demigod of the Strand Theatres by not just living for the moment and wallowing in the fruits of early success resulting in burned out excess.
Terriss’ parlayed his looks and athletic flare for stunts and action scenes and also a sly mischief toward very specific goals. He always kept his inner moral and pragmatic compass. When most actors in theatre or else movies burn out Terriss’ tenacity and quietly charming determination to succeed even to quitting Irving’s Lyceum Theatre to become his own boss of the Adelphi Theatre proved that Terriss know how to plan his way toward success on his terms courtesy of his amazing looks, athletics, hard work, professional savvy, smart moves, and smarter professional gambles. All without stabbing anyone in the back until the night he was stabbed in the back.
Terriss was also a soft touch for down and out actors and would give everyone at least one chance including giving one desperate down and out actor his pocket watch and chain for an audition. Terriss never gambled but if his friends lost during friendly card games he would tuck money into their overcoat pockets. Terriss always treated everyone exactly the same: fairly. Being ‘square’ is now seen as corny but it was a Victorian virtue that Terriss believed in. He was honest with everyone and did not believe in deceit so his later curiously middle class infidelity was odd. But the infidelity was with only one other woman beside his wife. It was a sort of second marriage running parallel as train tracks with his first marriage and Terriss very much treated Jessie Millward as if his second wife. It was an entirely middle class liaison so respectable it became a marriage in all but name. Unable to lie Terriss simply told his children who were fast growing up about Jessie who was so close to their age they all played together like a second family —- preferably ending with a picnic before he trained to the theatre.
‘A fair field and no favor’ which was to say fair and square meritocracy was all Terriss wanted for himself and everyone. Work hard and be fair and square and let the Gods bless or not as they will. But Terriss did not put up with betrayal or spite. If anyone exploited his soft touch and betrayed his kindness Terriss would cut them off, sincerely perplexed why goodness could be repaid with villainy. Typical of this mindset Terriss played a famous Victorian Cad role as if genuinely perplexed why his victim could be angry at him. ‘But if you want to go home Livy why don’t you go?…..The door was never locked. You could have left at any time…’ Terriss’ cad thought he was playing fair and square with his victim. And in a sense Terriss’ cad was playing fair and square with his victim. She could have left Terriss’ seducer at any time. But Victorians had a weak spot for Byronic dark angels especially if they looked like Terriss: tall, slim, fair haired, blue eyed, Anglo Saxon English incarnate, and mischievous with a sly smile always playing on his lips.
Terriss was twice hired by Irving to provide the Lyceum Theatre with sexy, action roles to counterbalance Irving’s more serious performances and toured America with Irving’s company. On the ship to America Terriss took a bet and climbed up the tallest mast and then took another bet and appeared in drag on the decks where the sailors ogled him with lust. Terriss got the company to San Francisco just in time to catch their ship by commandeering the steam engine over the Rocky Mountains. When Terriss and Irving found their railroad private dining car meal of delicious game birds pilfered by starving co-stars Terriss dressed up as a waiter to deliver a platter to the desperados in their sleeper car.
Henry Irving and Ellen Terry were famous but aging so they needed a young star to add panache to their artistic, extravagant, if sometimes stodgy productions. Terriss met Jessie Millward during just such a production. Terriss told the young actress frozen with stage fright ‘Here’s my hand! Take it and you’ll have a friend for life!’ She did! They became friends and lovers thereafter but the phase captures Terriss’ humanity toward everyone. ‘Here’s my hand! Take it and you’ll have a friend for life!’ It was his motto in life and he assumed that if he extended his hand of friendship to everyone in need they would always return the hand of friendship. Terriss was tragically wrong about this bit of misguided human nature!
Terriss excelled at comedy but chaffed at the romantic roles like Romero and wanted to do more meaty character roles where he could provide action on the stage, spectacular duels, thrilling fight scenes, all in rousingly masculine roles if not per se tormented roles worthy of a Method Actor that can overwhelm an actor’s sanity even if the result is a standing ovation. Physical roles. But Terriss could have been perfect as Henry V in the Hollow Crown historic dramas of the Wars of the Roses or Coriolanus the Roman general turned traitor or even Macbeth where a heroic soldier goes terribly terribly wrong. Terriss had the looks and physicality and no little ambition to tackle such roles. He had just enough awareness of his inner darkness which he never ever unleashed to tackle such men who but for fortune could have been heroes but who instead became traitors or villains. Terriss understood that but for fortune a good man can become a bad man and visa versa. That was an essential ingredient of his later Adelphi Melodramas.
Wallace Reid once famously said that acting ennobles actresses but belittles actors. Terriss might have felt this as he was type cast in Irving’s productions. Even Terry admitted that Terriss looked overstuffed in lavish costumes but strutted the stage like a prince in rags (or else leopard skins). ‘When he was dressed up Terriss was spoilt by the feathers, when he was in rough clothes he looked the prince’. And Indeed in his private life Terriss was called Bohemian for his casual clothes and soft collars and soft slouch hats. Stuck with Elizabethan costumes Terriss would swagger defiantly to force the audience to ignore the fantastical costumes and see his virile masculinity instead. Some called it his ‘Butcher Boy’ image.
Terriss who never ever gambled now did something shocking. He gambled! He quit! It was a gamble that won Terriss a second gig at the Lyceum Theatre in more meaty roles like the darker Mercutio, Don Pedro the covert villain behind a facade of a virtuous man, Henry VIII, Henry II to Irving’s Becket, Faust to Irving’s Mephistopheles, Elgar to Irving’s Lear, Cassio to Irving and Booth’s Othello and Iago, the showy Captain Absolute, and Squire Thornhill where he turned the sexy cad into a (for the era) complex Byronic bad boy sincerely bemused why everyone was mad at him for his straight forward approach to sex a la Hugh Hefner. But Terriss would always be second fiddle to Irving so he could never get more meaty roles like Macbeth or Henry V or Coriolanus or even Iago where he could have been cast against type as the charming rogue with a mischievous smile concealing unspeakable inner evil.
So Terriss gambled again and defected to the up and coming Adelphi Theatre where Terriss and Jesse Millward became the celebrated stars of the famous Adelphi Melodramas: lavish productions full of swashbuckling action scenes and special effects like full blown storms at sea or else gigantic battlefields. While melodramas were always full of action with the heroine withstanding all attempts to abandon her beloved as her beloved fights off all foes the plays also featured at least hints of the underlying sociological and economic and class and ethical conundrums of the Victorian era. One play adopted the Dreyfus Affair into a melodrama of a poor highland Scottish soldier boy court-martialed for something he did not do. While the solutions to injustice and chaos usually involved individual heroic melodramatic action leading to the final kiss and ‘Happy Ever After’ these were not simplistic plays despite all of their extravagant action scenes and special effects which only ten years later would become the stuff of the Flickers and then 1920s Hollywood action melodramas.
And Terriss balanced panache and heroism with a moral vision and unexpectedly sly insouciance with just a touch of moral doubt. Like an Agatha Christie murder mystery the point of the Adelphi Melodrama was to find chaos and expose the why and wherefore before restoring moral order and social authority once more. Just as the murderer must be exposed and punished so the hidden villain of the Adelphi Melodrama must be exposed and punished no matter his power or corruption. Moral authority must be restored so the audience can leave with optimistic hope along with that long anticipated kiss of the beleaguered lovers as love triumphs. The girl is the muse and inspiration for the boy to fight against all odds. But Happy Ever After must be earned!
During his final years as the demigod of the Adelphi Melodramas Terriss knew he had to switch gears as he reached 47. He could still pass on the stage and even in publicity photographs as 37 but he knew he yet again had to make a pragmatic career move on the chessboard of life. He changed the melodramas toward more complex roles of conflicted heroes facing darker odds and more devious villains. His inspirational love is sometimes conflicted or not entirely resolved with a totally happy ever after. While his fans still saw him as the boyish hero and wanted the happy ever after Terriss knew he had to ease his fans toward plays where he could continue to play as a middle age hero as he moved the game posts from thirty-ish to forty-ish as he approached fifty-ish. The difficulty was that Jessie Millward was now thirty-ish and she could not move into morally complex roles. Victorian females always had to stay English Rose virgins loyal to their beloveds. And Terriss had to gently ‘age’ his boyish heroes because he could hardly be wooing a genuine 20 year old virgin when he was fifty.
Before John Barrymore or Douglas Fairbanks or later Errol Flynn or Burt Lancaster William Terriss was ‘Breezy Bill’ of the Adelphi Melodramas. The ‘Breezy’ quality actually comes closest to Ronald Colman’s Prisoner Of Zenda. Terriss’ manner was always heroic and dashing but mischievous and sly too, bemused, thoughtful, tenacious, determined, always honorable, lithe, sexy, classy, charming, and graced with a melodious voice.
Terriss was at his peak as he turned fifty, usually a dicy time for a star of Adelphi Melodramas. But the Gods seemed to bless Terriss with a charmed life. Though his darling wife had become an invalid (soon to be discovered to be cancer) Terriss was a tender husband and father despite a co-star who was also his lover. But no one could stay angry for long with Terriss. Terriss kept two homes and even invited his now grown up children to stay with him and Jessie Millward at their cute bourgeoisie cottage hideaway. Terriss always made it very clear he would never leave his wife and Jessie never asked him to. It was a surprisingly typical Victorian arrangement of middle class domesticity. Terriss was starring in yet another smash hit in The Secret Service. The audiences loved him and cheered his finale where his character triumphed never all odds and kissed at last his beloved who was always played by his beloved in real life: Jessie Millward. No one could not love and adore Terriss —- except one man! A stalker stalking his life like a dark shadow!
Terriss had it all but did he sometimes wonder if the Gods were giving him too much happiness without the usual quota of suffering or tragedy? Everything had unfolded so happily that Terriss never paid any price for the lavish blessings which the Gods bestowed upon him. He was the most famous and beloved actor next to Henry Irving. The Adelphi Theater rivaled the Lyceum. Terriss displayed all of the virtues of the Victorians: hard work, enterprise, determination, daring, audacity, talent, humbleness, charity toward all and especially charity toward unemployed actors with donations to the Actors Benevolent Fund, remarkable common sense, moderation in all things, apparently no demons to torment him whatsoever, nary a vice except a penchant for mischievous practical jokes, a private life kept private, a public life worthy of even his greatest fan Queen Victoria, and rare for the Theatre, genuine affection from everyone —- except a sometime actor and madman named Prince who delusional despite Terriss’ charity toward him, now stalked Terriss with malicious intent. Finally one night Prince ambushed Terriss and stabbed him in his back outside the private door of the Adelphi Theatre like something out of an Adelphi melodrama. Despite ghastly mortal wounds Terriss actually fought his murderer before collapsing in the doorway of the rear entrance to the Adelphi Theatre. William died in the arms of his co-star and lover Jessie Millward. Some said his last words were ‘I shall come back!’
Terriss’ funeral was almost a national day of mourning. Huge crowds, as much as 50,000, lined the funeral route. His grave overflowed with flowers. Queen Victoria wept. The Prince of Wales attended. The whole of the theatre world attended. Irving raised eyebrows by gently escorting Jessie Millward as the official widow Mrs Terriss preceded over the funeral with dignity despite her cancer. Jessie Millward always played by the rules and quietly retreated after the funeral by saying ‘Outside of my family and the Terriss family I did not want to see anyone…’ The whole nation wept.
And the shock was all the worse for making no sense. In his life Terriss had been that rare thing: a kind, gracious, good natured, impish gentleman. The opposite of two faced. He was in private what he was in public. A loyal and loving father and husband. A bemused older man lover to his co-star who was almost half his age who utterly adored him. A highly respected and responsible stage manager. A good friend to many friends. A thespian respected by other thespians. And one of the most beloved actors in Victorian England. There was no rhyme or reason for the mad stalker to pick Terriss to stab to death. So everyone was shocked all the more when the jury came back with the verdict of NOT GUILTY! Richard Archer Prince got off by claiming insanity and anyway! He just killed a mere actor! Prince enjoyed a long life in a surprisingly cushy insane asylum where he staged amateur theatricals before dying of a ripe old age.
Perhaps because of the unexpected violence of his demise Terriss’ ghost haunts the Adelphi Theatre (especially in the dressing room once enjoyed by Jessie Millward) as well as appearing as ghostly footsteps or else as a mysterious spectral green light. His ghost has also been sighted haunting the route he took to his death that night which today is the modern Covent Garden Tube Station where workers have over many decades seen a tall fine man in old fashion clothes lost and bemused in the empty tube station late at night. But when they offer to key the strange man out he always vanishes. While the hauntings come and go some workers at the station have seen the ghost as much as two years running. Electricians who work after hours at the closed station (which is one of the few to close after hours and not run 24 hours) have reportedly being ordered to not do dangerous work at the Covent Garden Tube Station after hours ‘in case the ghost interferes with their potentially dangerous work’.
The hauntings appear to come and go in cycles and some experts in the paranormal think that the souls especially those violently or prematurely killed haunt their environs as they work out their conflicting anguish and angst before moving on to the next reincarnation or else passing over the Rainbow Bridge of Dreams to the Shining Plains of High Heaven. The sightings have appeared to have diminished so perhaps Terriss has passed over at last to join his beloved soul mates including both his beloved wife and his beloved lover as well as his children now grown up and aged and dead. Or perhaps the hauntings are Terriss’ final practical joke. Or perhaps Terriss’ soul haunts the places of his demise confused why the Gods should play him such a cruel hand after he lived such a genuinely kind life which did not justify such a cruel end: to bleed out from gapping wounds in less than one half hour unable to be moved while sprawled on the stairs .Terriss died in agony in the arms of Jessie as his powerful heart hemorrhaged as he drowned in his own blood while still fiercely fighting for life to the end, unable to surrender to his horrific fate.
Or perhaps the Gods in their infinite kindness gave William Terriss the best death of all: to die at his peak, beloved by one and all, never to age or fall into ignominy such as befelled Henry Irving, Macready, Kean, Garrick, and too many others who outlived their fame and like fallen angels crashed to earth. By 1900 the Adelphi Melodramas were failing before the onslaught of Flickers. The Era of the movies had arrived! Terriss would not have survived and even his children ended up doing bit parts in Hollywood before lingering like aged ghosts for the occasional interview about their famous pater. Douglas Fairbanks channeled Terriss’ ‘Breezy Bill’ charm, panache, and sly humor combined with dark good looks and athletic flare into nearly twenty years of world wide fame which even today outlives Terriss because movies outlives theatre. But by 1930 Fairbanks was passe. And of course by then Rudolph Valentino, the Great Lover, was dead. So Terriss died at exactly the right moment. You might say Terriss’ death was the best career move he could have made.
Terriss’ death insured that he died ‘a beautiful youth, a kind of Adonis, although he was fifty years old’ (per Ellen Terry). So Terriss’s death at just the right moment in time meant he could stay forever young and leave behind a beautiful corpse.