Canada's Oldest Working Actor Bill Needles Dies at 97
It is with sadness that the Stratford Festival bids farewell to the man who was Canada's oldest working actor. William Needles died January 12, at the age of 97, surrounded by his family, at a hospice in Alliston, Ontario. Just days earlier, he had left his adopted hometown of Stratford, after suffering a massive heart attack on December 19.
True to form, Mr. Needles surprised doctors and loved ones, showing enormous resilience despite a dim prognosis. The Stratford General Hospital saw a steady stream of actors pour through its doors during the Christmas period, as faithful friends visited a man whose support of the theatrical industry is unparalleled. Expecting to find an invalid drawing his last breath, his visitors instead found their longtime friend and mentor reciting Shakespeare - the Chorus from Henry V one day, Shylock's admonition to Antonio another. His mind was razor sharp, though his body was letting him down.
Mr. Needles, with the help of his daughter, Jane, reached out to friends near and far. Calls came in from every corner, including from his former student Jon Lovitz, who immortalized Mr. Needles with his classic Saturday Night Live character "Master Thespian."
His achievements and honours are many: a Member of the Order of Canada, a founding member of the Stratford Festival company, a co-founder of the Actors Fund of Canada, a Master Teacher Cum Laude from the University of California, Irvine, and recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Waterloo and the Queen's Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals.
"The Stratford Festival has lost one of its pioneers, a gifted actor and a favourite uncle. Bill Needles was the embodiment of grace and generosity. His humour, humanity and sense of fun infused his work on and off the stage," said Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino.
"Bill was a brilliant comedian who could bring the house down with laughter while appearing quite nonchalant. His work seemed effortless. His voice and manner were rich with nuance.
"But perhaps the greatest of his many talents was his gift of mentorship to several ?generations of young actors. In what can be a difficult way of life Bill was there for so many during the tough times. His honesty, decency and kindness could balm almost any hurt and sooth a bruised spirit. After a talk with Bill you'd be ready to get up, smile and try again.
"Billie Noodles - as he was fondly called - will be dearly missed."
Mr. Needles was born in Yonkers, New York, on January 2, 1919, and raised in Kitchener, Ontario, just down the road from Stratford. His grandfather, Ira Needles, was the founder of BF Goodrich Canada and co-founder of the University of Waterloo.
In the late 1930s, Mr. Needles studied for two years at the Goodman School of Drama at the Art Institute of Chicago, and then moved to Winnipeg to work as a stage manager for the John Holden Players. In 1940 he moved on to Toronto, where he joined the cast of the CBC Radio soap opera John and Judy, playing John. After serving in the Second World War he returned to the role of John at CBC. He made a name for himself in radio drama, and served as a manager for Lorne Greene's Acting Academy and Dora Mavor Moore's New Play Society before joining the Stratford Festival in its inaugural season.
He made his Stratford debut in Richard III, under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie, playing Norfolk and the 1st Murderer, and as Rinaldo in All's Well That Ends Well. The next season he was celebrated for his portrayal of Petruchio in Guthrie's Wild West production of The Taming of the Shrew. He became an indispensable member of the Stratford acting company, appearing in more than 100 productions over 47 seasons, including as Duke Senior in As You Like It (1959), Chorus in Henry V (1956 and 1989), Albany in King Lear (1964 and 1972), Cymbeline (1970), Monsieur Loyal in Tartuffe (1983 and 1984), the Duke in The Merchant of Venice (1996), the White King in Alice Through the Looking-Glass (1996), the Lord Mayor in Richard III (1997), the Shepherd in Oedipus Rex (1997), Merriman in The Importance of Being Earnest (2000) and Mortimer in Henry VI (2002).
He retired from the stage at the age of 87 and, as the oldest working actor in Canada, turned in two final masterful performances: Adam in 2005's As You Like It - his last performance on his beloved Festival stage - and Castruchio in 2006's The Duchess of Malfi.
During his career, Mr. Needles performed at theatres across North America and abroad, including the Broadway productions of Hadrian VII with Alex McCowan and Next Time I'll Sing to You with James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons. His many film roles included Banquo in the 1961 production of Macbeth, with Sean Connery in the title role.
He was a teacher of acting, serving for many years at the University of California, Irvine, and a mentor beyond compare to hundreds of people starting out in the profession.
Though retired for a decade, Mr. Needles made almost weekly visits to the Festival, travelling through the halls on his scooter and sharing lunch with his many friends in the greenroom. The Festival was truly his second home, and the theatre's people his second family. He will be sadly missed and long remembered.
Mr. Needles leaves behind his wife, Dorothy Jane Goulding, whom he married in 1946, five children, Jane (Ted Bradley), Arthur (Linda), Dan (Heath), Reed (Clare) and Laura Ann, 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, his sister, Lauranna Jones, many nieces and nephews and countless friends and colleagues.
The Stratford Festival is dedicating the 2016 production of As You Like It to Mr. Needles' memory. Mr. Needles performed in four different productions of the play at Stratford, as Duke Senior in 1959, Duke Frederick in 1972, Duke Senior in 1983 (which was televised on CBC), and Adam in 2005.
A celebration of Mr. Needles' life will be held at the Festival in the spring. A family funeral will be held on Saturday, January 16, in Alliston, with burial to follow at Avondale Cemetery in Stratford at a later date. Memorial donations may be made to the William Needles Guthrie Award Fund at the Stratford Festival, the Actors' Fund of Canada, or Matthews House Hospice in Alliston, Ontario.