Biography of the Worst Actor in History Robert Coates

About the worst actor in history Robert Coates, his biography and history on the stage.

ROBERT COATES (1772-1848). British actor.

One of the worst actors in legitimate stage history was an Englishman named Robert Coates, who had been born in the West Indies. Coates, nicknamed Romeo because of his passionate desire to act, and Diamond for his originality in attire, became stagestruck in puberty. In 1809 he invaded--perhaps assaulted would be the more accurate word--the London theater. Often referred to as the Gifted Amateur, Coates devoted a long and riotous life to proving he was another Garrick. That he was not, but in his own way he was certainly as entertaining. He liked to play Shakespeare, and he designed his own costumes for Hamlet and Macbeth--as Romeo he appeared in white feathered hat, spangled cloak, and pantaloons. He wore these same costumes in public. Before appearing in a Shakespearean play, he would rewrite it to suit his talents. "I think I have improved upon it," he told his shocked friends. In Romeo and Juliet he improved the ending by trying to pry open Juliet's tomb with a crowbar. If he particularly enjoyed playing a scene, he would repeat the same scene 3 times in one evening as his audiences sat stupefied.

Coates was probably the most inept working actor in the history of the British theater. Yet he tirelessly tramped up and down the British Isles declaiming from the boards. Year after year he was met with derision, catcalls, hilarity, but he persisted. At a performance in Richmond, several spectators were so shaken by laughter that a physician had to be summoned to attend them.

When theater managers, fearing audience violence, barred him from their stages, he bribed them to let him appear. When fellow thespians, fearing bodily injury, refused to act beside him, he provided guards to reassure them. Eventually, by sheer persistence and by the audacity of his mediocrity, he became a legendary figure decked out in furs, jewels, and Hessian boots. He starred in London's leading theaters and gave command performances before royalty. Nothing, it seemed, not criticism, not ridicule, not threats of lynching, could remove him from his place before the footlights. Only death, it was agreed, might silence him and save the English stage. But he would not die. In his 74th year, reduced in circumstances but spouting and gesturing still, he was as active as ever. But the year following, on an afternoon in 1848, a carriage ran him down, and he died. Although English drama survived his passing, its comedy would never be the same again.

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