Charles Nolte in 2002 / Star Tribune photo by Kyndell Harkness
I first met Charles Nolte in 1973, shortly after watching his production of "House of Blue Leaves" at Chimera Theatre. He seemed mythic — a man who had created a signature role on Broadway ("Billy Budd"), toured with Henry Fonda, worked with dame Judith Anderson and Charles Laughton and Charlton Heston and so many others. And there were the stories about his friendship with Tennessee Williams (Williams raved about Nolte’s 1972 production of "Streetcar Named Desire"). Yet here was this charming and handsome man in Minnesota, drawn back by his belief that New York theater had become "hopelessly parochial" but also by his honest and abiding love for his heritage. He was ours and I simply wanted to thank him for being here.
Last summer, Nolte donated volumes of films and diaries to the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota Libraries. On the occasion, he read from his thoughts upon re-entering the University in 1961 as a graduate student. As he described settling into class and ruminating on his journey up to that point, Nolte looked up at the assembled crowd and his voice broke: "I was back at the University of Minnesota."
Nolte’s second act in life was as impressive as his first. He inspired countless students, contributed to the life of Twin Cities theater (particularly at Theatre in the Round) and simply continued being Charles Nolte — his mere presence a gift to anyone who knew him.
Our paths had crossed briefly several times — each time I would recite our first meeting as if to prove that I knew him and he would smile, almost embarrassed by the adulation. But finally, in 2002 I had the chance as a critic to sit down with Nolte in his home for two hours and interview him for a story. As we talked that day, he said something that has stuck with me ever since. Every student and practitioner of theater should remember it, too:
Theater, Nolte said, is not about theater.
"When you’re in theater," he said, "you are in everything — art, psychology, law, business, medicine, history, religion, etymology, design, art, pathology. I try to inflame young minds to get excited about experiencing something that is rare."
As he struggled to the finish line these last few months, Nolte was cared for by Peter Thomson and Jan Puffer, two theater types who generously put their love for the man into action. Peter regularly sent out e-mail updates and on Jan. 6, he included a note from Charles himself:
"Thank you all sincerely for your concern. I feel so grateful for having such lovely friends. I have had a full rich remarkable life and am truly at ease with this ending. What a wonderful thing life is. Cherish it, enjoy it, embrace it. Love and affection to you all. -- Charles."