Actor, director, mentor Charles Nolte dies

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 15, 2010 - 8:42 PM

A lifelong love of theater gave him careers as an actor on stage and in films, director, playwright and mentor.

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Charles Nolte, 2002

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Charles Nolte, an international stage and screen actor who also directed, wrote and taught in the Twin Cities, died Thursday in Minneapolis.

He breathed his last listening to a recording of Bellini's "Norma," one of his many beloved operas, said those who were with him. He was 87.

Nolte was diagnosed with prostate cancer two years ago, said longtime friend David Goldstein, who met him in 1971.

"Even as he was getting weak a few days ago, he was laughing and joking," Goldstein said. "Charles was such a multifaceted person who loved to tell stories, and he did it in the theater and film and opera. Above all, he was a good person."

As a professor at the University of Minnesota, where he taught from the mid-1960s to the late 1990s, Nolte influenced many, including a group of former students who formed the Playwrights' Center.

"He was the most open, gently encouraging mentor any playwright has ever had, and we all loved him," said former student and center co-founder Barbara Field, whose adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" is a holiday standard.

In addition to Field, his students at the university included actors Peter Michael Goetz and Ernie Hudson.

Born Nov. 3, 1923, in Duluth, Nolte moved to Wayzata with his family in the early 1930s. He was voted "most likely to succeed" by the 1941 graduating class of Wayzata High School. Shortly after high school, he made his debut in a summer stock company that became the Old Log Theater.

Nolte studied for two years at the University of Minnesota before serving in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1945.

He enrolled at Yale, where he majored in English with a minor in history. After Yale, he moved to New York. His first Big Apple role was at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem in 1946 in a revival of "Tin Top Valley" with co-star Julie Harris.

He made his Broadway debut in "Antony and Cleopatra," a production that starred Katherine Cornell and featured Maureen Stapleton, Tony Randall, Eli Wallach and Charlton Heston. He performed again with Heston and Martha Scott in "Design for a Stained Glass Window." He also acted with Henry Fonda in both "Mr. Roberts" and "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial."

His Broadway credits also include playing the title character in "Billy Budd," an adaptation of Melville's novel.

Nolte's films include "War Paint" (1953) with Robert Stack and Peter Graves and "The Steel Cage" (1954) with John Ireland.

"He knew people at the highest levels of the culture to people who cleaned houses -- all would be at his parties," said Goldstein. "He was such an erudite, patrician man with a wicked sense of humor."

In the 1960s, Nolte took up playwriting and returned to school. He earned a doctorate at the University of Minnesota in 1966. His "Do Not Pass Go" was produced off-Broadway. He also wrote libretti for two operas by Dominick Argento: "The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe" and "Valentino."

Nolte's last appearance in the Twin Cities was in "Exit Strategy" at Mixed Blood two years ago. In that play, Nolte depicted an aging gay man who once performed on Broadway and who was booted from an academic job because of his relationship with a much younger man.

Nolte donated his journals to the University of Minnesota, which named a theater after him in 1997.

Survivors include two sisters, and his partner of over 50 years, Terry Kilburn. Memorial services are pending.

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

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