Thursday, January 21, 2016

Farewell, Brian Bedford

Another great Stratford actor gone. I first encountered Brian Bedford in a 1966 movie called Grand Prix, where the driving sequences were rendered in glorious 70 mm Cinerama. The intense racing scenes were interspersed with a delicious soap opera-y plot that had drivers hopping in and out of bed with each others' wives, groupies, etc. Bedford played a sensitive British driver struggling to come back after a terrible crash and my 12-year-old heart thought this was all very thrilling.

Later, I saw him on Broadway with the enchanting Tammy Grimes in Private Lives and as far as I'm concerned, he was the definitive Elyot Chase,whose suavely elegant exterior fell apart when provoked by the love/hate of his life, Amanda. 

What a joy it was, therefore, upon moving to Canada to discover that Bedford was a stalwart at the Stratford Festival. He played many great roles, including the Shakespeare tragedies, but I loved most the way he could unearth the most poignant humanity in a comedic role.

The only time I met him was on a flight from London to Toronto. He was studying the script of London Assurance, the great Dion Boucicault comedy. Usually, I believe in leaving people alone, but a long flight breeds a certain informality. I stopped by his seat and simply said, "Hello, Mr. Bedford. I enjoy your work." He thanked me very warmly and we had a word or two about the famous London production in the 1970s, which I'd seen, starring Donald Sinden.

Months later, he was wonderful as Sir Harcourt Courtly, pursuing a much younger woman and not aging particularly gracefully.

Stratford's tribute is here:


Stratford mourns the loss
of beloved actor and director Brian Bedford
Macbeth will be dedicated to his memory

January 14, 2016… The Stratford Festival has been dealt a double blow with the death of two beloved actors within 24 hours. Brian Bedford, 80, one of the Festival’s very brightest stars, died of cancer on Wednesday, January 13, a day after the passing of theatrical pioneer William Needles.

Mr. Bedford was one of the defining geniuses of the Stratford Festival, admired and loved by audiences and fellow artists.

“Brian Bedford was the prime reason I went into the theatre,” said Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino. “I saw him in Molière’s Misanthrope, and it made me feel that he embodied the spirit of comedy itself. And yet he was entirely himself. Here was an actor who knew who he was and we loved him for it. He was brilliantly witty, completely relaxed, and made us all adore him. 

“But to see him in tragedy was another revelation. He was absolutely in the moment, with a strongly personal point of view, a vital intelligence keyed to a modern sensibility. 

“When I had the great privilege of working with and eventually directing Brian, I was overwhelmed by his generosity. He became a mentor, a role model and an inspiration.”

Mr. Bedford’s credits read like a list of Shakespeare’s greatest hits: Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Jaques in As You Like It, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, Timon of Athens, Macbeth, King Lear.

His comic pairings are the stuff of dreams: Benedick to Martha Henry’s Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing; Elyot Chase to Maggie Smith’s Amanda in Private Lives; Charles to Carole Shelley’s Elvira in Blithe Spirit; Garry to Domini Blythe’s Liz and Seana McKenna’s Monica in Present Laughter.

His work with Noël Coward was as near perfection as any could be, and with good reason: his degrees of separation from the playwright? Zero. Widely regarded as an authority on Coward’s work, he has not only directed and acted in his plays numerous times, but he also knew the playwright personally.

His portrayal of the suave sophisticate appeared so effortless that it was almost impossible to reconcile with the reality of his childhood. He was born to a poor family in Yorkshire in 1936. Two of his brothers died of tuberculosis and his father committed suicide.

The young Brian found escape in the theatre, first performing in amateur theatrics and then, at 18, winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he studied alongside Peter O’Toole, Alan Bates and Albert Finney. He was a protégé of John Gielgud, who coached him as Hamlet and directed him in the acclaimed Five Finger Exercise. The two shared the stage in 1958, when Mr. Bedford played Ariel to Mr. Gielgud’s Prospero in The Tempest.

Mr. Bedford’s star rose quickly in the U.K., with leading roles in The Young and the Beautiful and A View From the Bridge. In 1959, Five Finger Exercise transferred to Broadway, where the play found great success and Mr. Bedford found a happier existence. He had a dozen Broadway credits and a Best Actor Tony to his name when then Artistic Director Robin Phillips lured him to the Festival.

He made his Stratford debut in 1975, playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Angelo in Measure for Measure, opposite Martha Henry’s Isabella – the first in a long series of legendary performances. Over 29 seasons, Mr. Bedford performed in more than 50 Stratford productions and directed another 20.

Timon of Athens and The Importance of Being Earnest moved on to Broadway, swelling his Tony nomination tally to seven. The Festival’s 1998 production of Much Ado About Nothing, featuring Mr. Bedford as Benedick and Martha Henry as Beatrice, toured to New York’s City Center, and was recently remembered by Charles Isherwood of The New York Times as one of the great moments in 20th-century Shakespeare performance.

Though he was primarily a stage actor, Mr. Bedford could be seen on some of the day’s most popular television shows, including Cheers, Frasier and Murder, She Wrote. He starred opposite James Garner in the 1966 film Grand Prix, and was the voice of Robin Hood in the Disney animated classic.

Mr. Bedford’s most recent Stratford credits included the title role in 2007’s King Lear, Lady Bracknell in 2009’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and his one-man show based on the letters of Oscar Wilde, Ever Yours, Oscar, all three of which he also directed. His 2013 production of Blithe Spirit would turn out to be his final project at Stratford.

“Over the years Brian’s luminous presence on our stages made his performances ‘must sees’ for countless audience members,” said Mr. Cimolino. “We were blessed indeed that he chose to make Stratford his artistic home. And we are bereft to think that we shall not see, or hear, his like again.

“Brian, we thank you, we honour you and we miss you.”

Mr. Bedford leaves behind his partner of 30 years, Tim MacDonald, also a Stratford Festival veteran.

The Festival will dedicate the 2016 production of Macbeth to Mr. Bedford’s memory. Details will follow of a memorial, to be held in Stratford at a later date. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

William Needles (1919-2016)

Having attended the Stratford Festival since 1986, I saw William Needles onstage many times. The word "grace" is used below in the festival's media release and it is so appropriate. His presence onstage reached the heights of "acting" - it looked utterly natural. 

His exit from the stage was equally graceful and full of energy. His obituary is a joyful read.


Stratford Festival bids farewell to the dean of Canadian actors
William Needles, a veteran of 47 seasons, dies at age 97

January 13, 2016… 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 father, 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.