William Needles, Canada's Oldest Working Actor, Dies at 97

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William Needles

He appeared in more than 100 productions at Stratford Festival over 47 seasons.

NEW YORK (AP) — William Needles, Canada's oldest working actor who graced the stages of Broadway, London and the Stratford Festival in Ontario for almost 50 years, died Tuesday at a hospice in Alliston, Ontario, according to a Stratford representative. He was 97.

Needles, a member of the Order of Canada, appeared in more than 100 productions at Stratford over 47 seasons, with roles in everything from Alice Through the Looking-Glass to Henry VI.

"The Stratford Festival has lost one of its pioneers, a gifted actor and a favorite uncle," said Stratford's artistic director Antoni Cimolino. "Bill Needles was the embodiment of grace and generosity. His humor, humanity and sense of fun infused his work on and off the stage."

Born in New York and raised in Kitchener, Ontario, Needles studied at the Goodman School of Drama at the Art Institute of Chicago before joining the Stratford Festival in its inaugural season in 1953.

He made his Stratford debut in Richard III, under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie. His last performance on the festival stage was as Castruchio in 2006's The Duchess of Malfi.

Needles — fondly known as "Billie Noodles" — also appeared in the Broadway productions of Hadrian VII in 1969 and played Banquo in a 1961 TV film 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. One former student, Jon Lovitz, immortalized Needles with his classic Saturday Night Live character Master Thespian.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and five children, Jane, Arthur, Dan, Reed and Laura Ann. The Stratford Festival is dedicating the 2016 production of As You Like It to Needles' memory.