When he was an acting student at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago 51 years ago, William Needles was told he was the "least likely to succeed" student in his class.
"I was very young, very shy, very introverted and scared to death," Needles remembers. "It took me a long time to find my feet as an actor."
But find his feet he did, going on to star in Canadian live TV shows and radio serials, to perform in Broadway plays and to be a principal member of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada for 28 of its 35 seasons.
"I guess you could say I insinuated myself into the theater," says Needles, 68. "I've never been ruthless, and it's probably why I haven't played a great many leading roles. I'm happy to be working with a good company."
Needles, who has been a visiting lecturer in drama for part of each year at UC Irvine since 1974, this year is teaching at the university only during November. Tonight he will present "Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken," a 45-minute poetry reading, in the university's Fine Arts Concert Hall.
Although Needles was born in Yonkers, N.Y., he has lived in Canada since he was 6 and became a Canadian citizen in 1972. The writing of Frost, one of the few poets that Americans are likely to encounter early in life, was not taught in the Canadian schools.
Consequently, Needles found Frost's poetry "only a few years ago, when a student stood up and did some of his work, and I said, 'Who is that?' And he said, 'You don't know ?'
"He was not a Canadian poet," Needles says. "He was considered very American. They're just a little bit jealous of the American dominance (in Canada)."
Yet when Needles began reading Frost, he found that the poet "strikes my fancy totally. He has a lot of metaphysical material in his poetry. You can read (the poems) again and again and again and they keep their freshness . . . surprises keep coming up."
He was also attracted by Frost's storytelling ability, Needles says. "What he seems chiefly concerned with is getting the speech of the people around him, which was chiefly (that of) the New England area. . . . You hear the people talking."
Needles says he likes reading poetry aloud "for recreation, as much as anything."
This month, he's also teaching 15 UCI graduate and advanced undergraduate students how to read Shakespeare's sonnets aloud, "because if they can learn to work on a sonnet, they can do any speech in Shakespeare--they'll know how to cope with the archaic language."
Yet, Needles adds, "I find that I really am an actor, not a teacher. Teaching is a very specialized skill, and I'm not really trained in it."
Robert Cohen, chair of UCI's drama department, described Needles as "an actor's actor . . . known everywhere where there are actors," even though he has mainly played supporting roles and his name is not a household word. "(Needles is) not a professional pedagogue. He is a consummate actor, and he passes (his skills) on to his students," Cohen says.
Needles says he began acting because "I always found it very, very difficult to express myself (in ordinary life)." He found that he felt freer "under the guise of a role . . . a fantasy."
"Actors are children. Theater is games. . . . Sometimes you're as alive on the stage as you are anywhere in your life.
"My father wanted me to be a businessman, and I knew I could never emulate him. He said, 'Well, what do you want to do?' I said, 'Well--uh, uh, uh--I want to be an actor.' He said, 'You'll have no security, no pension, nothing to back you up! Why can't you accept a place in the business world?' But I knew I could never equal him (as a businessman).
"When I was 40 years old, he said, 'There's still time to get into a decent profession.' "
Needles has supported himself as an actor since he was 19, and one of his first jobs was as an actor/stage manager for a small theater in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where "it was 40 below most of the time I was there (and) the only time we could afford to heat (the theater) was when the audience came in at night."
Later, Needles spent three years in the U.S. Army during World War II. After his discharge, he performed for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. on TV and radio.
At Stratford, a small town 100 miles southwest of Toronto, Needles learned to perform Shakespeare under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie, the English director and playwright. Guthrie hired Needles to play the lead role of Petruchio in "The Taming of the Shrew" for the Stratford Shakespearean Festival's first season.
Since then, Needles has played more than 75 major roles on stage for the Stratford, as well as major parts in many other theaters' productions (including plays at South Coast Repertory and UCI). He has also occasionally appeared in films.
He no longer works with UCI for more than one month a year because he wants more time with his wife, five grown children, "seven grandchildren, two dogs, seven birds and one guinea pig," he says.
Also, the Stratford's season now runs from February to Halloween, and "if I'm going to start up again in February, I need a bit of a rest," he says. "I have to have a few of the barnacles scraped off."
William Needles will present "Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken" today at 8 p.m. in UC Irvine's Fine Arts Concert Hall. Tickets are free but must be reserved. Call: (714) 856-6616.