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Theatre & Performance Stratford Festival’s elder statesman William Needles was a ‘beautiful man’

William Needles stars in the Stratford Festival’s production of The Duchess of Malfi in 2006.

David Hou

Colm Feore shared a favourite joke with William Needles. Whenever Mr. Feore saw the elderly actor in a theatre or on the street in Stratford, he'd hail him with a line from Shakespeare: "Are you yet living?" Mr. Needles would invariably erupt with laughter.

That wisecrack, from the opening scene of Much Ado About Nothing, is originally spoken by Benedick to Beatrice with mock amazement, but there was some real amazement behind Mr. Feore's teasing. After all, Mr. Needles was in his 90s and had been a member of the Stratford Festival company since its tent-by-the-river origins in 1953. He had only quit acting in 2006, at the age of 87, and continued to attend all the festival shows. And his surname was all too appropriate: His memory for Shakespearean text was needle-sharp right up to the very last.

Mr. Needles died Jan. 12, 10 days after his 97th birthday, at a hospice in Alliston, Ont. He had recently been moved there from Stratford General Hospital, where he had been convalescing after suffering a massive heart attack on Dec. 19. During his time in hospital, Mr. Feore had gone to visit him, along with fellow Stratford leading man Geraint Wyn Davies, who'd done a memorable production of Henry V with Mr. Needles in 1989.

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"We'd been given to understand that Bill was ailing," Mr. Feore recalled, "but the moment he spotted Ger, he launched into the Chorus from Henry V." They ended up listening to Mr. Needles reminisce about his experiences in the Second World War and gamely trade more Shakespearean dialogue with them until his daughter Jane gently asked the men to leave and let her father rest.

"But we made him laugh and had fun," Mr. Feore said. "He seemed like the old Bill. And he loved being around actors. He loved sharing his stories of the festival and giving us guidance and reminding us all of why we were there."

Mr. Needles was not only a living record of the festival's history, but a distinguished actor himself, a respected acting teacher for many years at University of California, Irvine, and a co-founder of the Actors' Fund of Canada. His achievements netted him a Queen's Jubilee Medal and membership to the Order of Canada, among other honours. To generations of young performers, however, he was simply lovable "Billy Noodles," the sage to whom you could turn for advice, insight and paternal reassurance.

"Many people called him 'father' or 'daddy,' outside of his own family," said Jane Needles, the oldest of his five children. "And that's what he was like – he had that special capacity to be a mentor to others."

George William Needles was born Jan. 2, 1919, in Yonkers, N.Y., the eldest child of Marian (née Westover) and Ira Needles. When he was six, the family moved to Kitchener, Ont., where William and his two siblings, Lauranna and Myron, grew up. Mr. Needles's father was an impressive figure. Ira Needles was an Iowa farm boy who left home as a teenager and climbed the corporate ladder to become president of B.F. Goodrich Canada.

He was later a founder and the second chancellor of the University of Waterloo, and would serve as a member of the Stratford Festival's board of governors from 1957 to 1960.

His father was a hard act to follow and Mr. Needles later said he chose acting "out of desperation" as a way to avoid going to business school. "I knew I couldn't compete with my father, who was a very accomplished and powerful man," he recalled in a 2005 video interview for Theatre Museum Canada. After lecturing him on the pitfalls of the acting profession, Ira Needles insisted his son get the best training possible and sent him to the Art Institute of Chicago's Goodman School of Drama.

Following graduation, Mr. Needles did a stint as an actor/stage manager in Winnipeg before coming back east to Toronto, where in 1940 he landed the male lead in the CBC Radio soap opera John and Judy. The show would become the first of his long-running engagements, lasting 14 years, although early on he took a four-year break to serve in the war.

In the wake of Pearl Harbour, Mr. Needles enlisted in the U.S. Army and was shipped out to the Pacific. "Pop was nearsighted and very unathletic," said his son, playwright Dan Needles, with a chuckle. "But he could type, drive a Jeep and play the organ, so they made him a chaplain's assistant." He took part in the Battle of Okinawa and saw Tokyo after it was fire-bombed. Dan Needles said his father never forgot the devastation he witnessed: "He had a survivor's guilt about it – that he'd got off easily compared to others."

After his discharge, Mr. Needles returned to Toronto and, in 1946, married his wartime pen pal, Dorothy-Jane Goulding, daughter of Dorothy Massey Goulding, director of the seminal Toronto Children's Players. The couple eventually had five children. It was also in Toronto where Mr. Needles auditioned for the celebrated British director Tyrone Guthrie, who was hiring local actors for the first season of the Stratford Festival.

Joining that fabled early company, Mr. Needles learned the art of Shakespearean acting from Mr. Guthrie's imported stars, including Alec Guinness and Irene Worth, and mingled with such young up-and-comers as Bruno Gerussi, Christopher Plummer and William Shatner. He landed a leading role by chance in the second season, when Mr. Guthrie tapped him to play Petruchio in a Wild West staging of The Taming of the Shrew after Mavor Moore dropped out.

"It was the most horrific time I've ever been through," he recalled in his 2005 video interview, noting that he had only a few weeks to learn the part. "Without the assistance of Barbara Chilcott [who played Kate], and her two brothers … I wouldn't have made it. They'd take me out in the fields at night and rehearse the lines with me."

Whether or not that experience scarred him, Mr. Needles thereafter preferred to be a supporting player. "He wasn't comfortable in leading roles," Mr. Feore said. "He told me he found immense gratification in doing the detailed work of a supporting actor. And he did it with such grace and so deftly. He could bring the wealth of his experience into just a few lines."

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Mr. Needles spent 47 seasons at Stratford, taking on more than 100 parts. He was always generous to younger actors, Mr. Feore said, recalling with some embarrassment how, while rehearsing the role of the mad king Leontes for the 1986 production of The Winter's Tale, he threw Mr. Needles, who was playing the courtier Antigonus, around the stage. "When I apologized later he said, 'No, no, dear boy, that's perfectly fine, you must do what you have to do to find the character.' It was such a courageous and kind thing to do."

At the same time, Mr. Needles was no pushover. "He would not put up with any dictatorial directors," Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino recalled, "and he was willing to walk out on a production if he didn't like the people he was working with."

Outside the festival, Mr. Needles acted on Broadway in the 1969 hit Hadrian VII with Alec McCowen and on film and television – notably as Banquo to Sean Connery's Macbeth in a 1961 CBC production of Shakespeare's "Scottish play." In 1974, Mr. Needles began a lengthy association with the University of California, Irvine, as a visiting lecturer in drama, where his students included a young Jon Lovitz. Mr. Needles became the inspiration for the comedian's Saturday Night Live character Master Thespian, an affectionate parody of grand Shakespearean actors. The two stayed in touch and spoke on FaceTime when Mr. Needles was convalescing. "He was the kindest, nicest man. … A great actor," Mr. Lovitz wrote on Twitter when he heard Mr. Needles had died.

Mr. Needles and his wife, Dorothy-Jane, a playwright and broadcaster, lived apart. "They were much happier in their own spaces," Jane Needles said. The Needles children spent much of their childhood on a farm near Rosemont, Ont. – an inspiration for Dan Needles's popular Wingfield Farm plays – with their father driving up from Stratford to visit them between shows. Dan and Jane, a veteran arts administrator, followed in their parents' footsteps, although Dan said his father hardly encouraged a life in the theatre. "It never occurred to me that you could make a living at it because he complained about it so much."

It was out of that keen appreciation of the precarious nature of his profession that Mr. Needles helped start the Actors' Fund of Canada, in the 1950s. The organization continues to provide financial assistance for artists in need. He also owned a big old house in Stratford where actors were always welcome to stay. "He was a beautiful man with such a big heart," Jane Needles said. "He'd give the shirt off his back."

Mr. Needles leaves his wife; his children, Jane, Arthur, Dan, Reed and Laura; 15 grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and his sister, Lauranna Jones.

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The Stratford Festival is planning a tribute to Mr. Needles in the spring and has dedicated this year's production of As You Like It to his memory. Mr. Cimolino said the festival will miss his delicious sense of humour and the example he set for how to speak and act Shakespearean verse. But most of all, Mr. Feore added, it will miss him as a living link with its past: "With his stories, he gave us some comfort, some sense of baton-passing. He was telling us, 'Listen, this is not ground that has never been walked over before. You're among friendly ghosts.'"

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