William Needles, Shakespearean actor and Stratford Festival veteran, dies at 97

William Needles, one of Canada's best-known Shakespearean actors and a founding member of Ontario's Stratford Festival, has died at age 97.

An Order of Canada recipient, Needles praised by William Shatner, Jon Lovitz

Actor William Needles in his last performance at the Stratford Festival. He played Castruchio in The Duchess of Malfi in 2006. (David Hou/Stratford Festival)

William Needles, one of Canada's best-known Shakespearean actors, has died at age 97.

Needles died Tuesday at his home in Alliston, Ont., after suffering a heart attack on Dec. 19 in Stratford, Ont.

A statement from the Stratford Festival said despite receiving a grim prognosis, Needles greeted friends at the hospital over the holidays as he was treated, and found him "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."

Needles had been a member of the Stratford Festival company since its inception in the early 1950s,  was co-founder of the Actors Fund of Canada and taught at the University of California, Irvine.

Known as Billie Noodles to friends, students and his fellow actors, Needles was the recipient of the Order of Canada 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," Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino said in a release.

"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."

William Shatner on Twitter said he was very sad to hear of his death.

"Canada lost a great Shakespearian actor," Shatner wrote of Needles.

Shatner, along with fellow Canadian actor Bruno Gerussi, appeared with Needles in a 1962 Stratford production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Raised in Kitchener, Ont.

Needles was born in Yonkers, N.Y., on Jan. 2, 1919, and raised in Kitchener. His father was Ira Needles, the founder of BF Goodrich Canada and co-founder of the University of Waterloo.

In 1940, William Needles played John in the CBC Radio soap opera John and Judy. He left the role to serve in the Second World War, then returned to it.

He made his Stratford Festival debut in Richard III, playing Norfolk and the First Murderer, as well as Rinaldo in All's Well That Ends Well. Over 47 seasons, he performed in more than 100 productions. He retired from the stage in 2006.

He also performed on Broadway in productions including Hadrian VII and Next Time I'll Sing to You.

In an interview posted on YouTube, Needles was asked why he chose to become an actor.

"I never fancied myself as an actor. I went into acting simply to avoid getting into what my father wanted me to do. He wanted me in the business world," he said.

His father's reaction?

"You've chosen the world's worst profession," Needles's father said.

'Nicest teacher'

Needles served as an acting teacher at the University of California for a number of years and was a mentor to hundreds.

"Perhaps the greatest of his many talents was his gift of mentorship to several ‎generations of young actors," Cimolino said. "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 soothe a bruised spirit. After a talk with Bill, you'd be ready to get up, smile and try again."

One of his students, actor Jon Lovitz, tweeted he was sad to hear the news of "my great professor of Shakespeare."

"He was the kindest, nicest man. A great actor," Lovitz tweeted. "I based [my Saturday Night Live] character Master Thespian a lot on him. He was the nicest teacher, ever."


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