Wilks, Robert (c.1665–1732), actor and manager, was born in Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin, second among three sons of Edward Wilks, pursuivant to a lord lieutenant; nothing is known of his mother. Educated locally, he was appointed a clerk in the office of Sir Robert Southwell (qv), because of his skilled penmanship, when he turned 18. Travelling to England with Southwell, he returned to Ireland at the outbreak of war in 1689 and was later appointed clerk of the camp in the army of King William III (qv). A fortuitous meeting with the actor John Richards instilled a love of the theatre, and he played the lead role in a version of ‘Othello’ that was performed at Smock Alley in 1691 to celebrate the defeat of James II (qv). Devoting his life to the stage, Wilks moved to London (1693) and performed successfully at Drury Lane. He was soon persuaded to return to Ireland after receiving a lucrative offer from Joseph Ashbury (qv), the manager of the Smock Alley Theatre, in 1694. Around 1698/9 he moved to London permanently. A brilliant performer of prologues and epilogues, he moved to the Queen's Theatre (1706), where he played Hal in ‘Henry IV’.
Excelling in comic roles, he soon became one of the leading performers on the London stage. In 1709 he became one of the joint-managers of the Queen's Theatre. Inevitably there were serious disagreements, some resulting from Wilks's formidable vanity, but others caused by financial concerns. It was a measure of his abilities that his partners decided that it was better to put up with him than to risk losing his acting talents. It was said too that Wilks had ‘no joy in life beyond his being distinguished on the stage’ (Highfill, Burnim, & Langham, 118), and this was believed to be the reason why he was such a perfectionist.
He died 27 September 1732 at his home at Bow St., London, and was buried at St Paul's, Covent Garden. A marble monument was erected nearby which paid tribute to his ‘amiable qualities’ in private life, and the public virtues that made him ‘universally applauded’ (Benjamin, ii, 54). He befriended George Farquhar (qv), and looked after Farquhar's orphaned daughters. One of the finest and most engaging comic actors of his day, Wilks was not taken seriously in other roles. In tragedies he was often given secondary rather than leading roles: for example, he was much better as Macduff than Macbeth, and as Edgar than Lear. He married first (c.1693) Elizabeth Knapton (d. 1714) in London; they had two sons and four daughters, but only one daughter, Frances, survived to adulthood. He married secondly Mary Fell (née Brown), a widow.