By Rohan Preston
The Twin Cities and nation’s theater scenes have lost a major light.
Charles Nolte, who in his early years sometimes acted in heartthrob roles on stage and screen and who would later write plays and become a beloved professor, died Thursday evening in Minneapolis.
Nolte had been suffering from prostate cancer diagnosed two years ago, said longtime friend and mentee David Goldstein, who met him in 1971.
“Even as he was getting weak a few days ago, he was laughing and joking,” he 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 both a professor at the University of Minnesota, where he taught from the mid-1960s until the late 1990s, and as an early supporter of the Playwrights’ Center, Nolte nurtured many writers and performers.
His students at the university included actors Peter Michael Goetz and Ernie Hudson. His protégés also include playwrights Barbara Field and John Olive.
Born Nov. 3, 1923, in Duluth to a father who would later become a dean at the University of Minnesota, Nolte moved to Wayzata with his family in the early 1930s. He was voted “most likely to succeed” by the 1941 class of Wayzata High School. Shortly after graduating, he made his debut in a summer stock company that would later become 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, when he was given a medical discharge.
He transferred to Yale, where he majored in English with a minor in history. After Yale, he moved to New York, where his first Big Apple role was at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem in 1946 in the production, “Tin Top Valley.”
He made his Broadway debut in “Antony and Cleopatra,” a national tour that culminated in New York and that featured as cast that included Maureen Stapleton, Tony Randall, Eli Wallach and Charlton Heston. He would perform 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,” Herman Wouk’s adaptation of his own novel which ran for a year and a half starting in Jan. 1954.
His Broadway credits also include playing the title character in “Billy Budd,” an adaptation of Melville’s novel. He acted abroad as well, performing in “Medea” alongside Christopher Plummer in Paris, for example.
On screen, Nolte’s films include “War Paint” (1953) with Robert Stack and Peter Grave; “The Steel Cage” (1954) with John Ireland; and an appearance on the TV show “Tales of the Vikings.”
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 even as he returned to school. He earned a doctorate at the University of Minnesota in 1966, at which point he was offered a position that only required that he teach for six months at a time. His “Do Not Pass Go” was produced off-Broadway under director Alan Schneider.
Nolte also wrote libretti for two operas by Dominick Argento: “The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe” and “Valentino.”
“Before the Guthrie came, we had the Old Log and the University Theatre,” said Goldstein. “Charles made it his mission to build this theater community from the ground up – teaching people, mentoring people."
Nolte’s last appearance in the Twin Cities was in “Exit Strategy” at Mixed Blood Theatre two years ago. In that work by Roy Close and actor Bill Semans, 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 22-year-old man who was not his student.
Nolte’s journals are archived at the University of Minnesota, which dedicated the Nolte Experimental Theatre at the university in 1997.
Survivors include his partner, onetime child actor Terry Kilburn, of Minneapolis, and two sisters.
Memorial services are pending.