On Thursday, January 14, 2010, Charles Nolte, age 86, died as he lived: immersed in art and surrounded by friends. They were watching Norma on the huge projection TV in the living room of Charles’ house on East River Terrace when one of them noticed that Charles had stopped breathing. With the focus on Bellini, he had slipped quietly offstage for the last time.
I first met Charles in 1964 when I took his playwriting class at the University of Minnesota. By then his Broadway acting career was behind him: the title role in Billy Budd, roles in Anthony and Cleopatra, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, and Mister Roberts, among others, with the likes of Katherine Cornell, Henry Fonda, and Charlton Heston. He had returned to Minnesota to focus on teaching and writing. We read his new play, Do Not Pass Go, that quarter, and under his benevolent tutelage I wrote a one-act play that received a workshop production at Scott Hall. He was then, as always, soft-spoken, warm-hearted, encouraging.
Over the years I ran into Charles from time to time, usually in theater and concert hall lobbies. I’ve never known anyone who spent more evenings at Orchestra Hall, the Guthrie, the Ordway, and our other cultural pleasure palaces. Above all he loved the opera, a passion he indulged in part by writing librettos for two of them: The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe and The Dream of Valentino, both by Dominick Argento. In the mid-1990s, when I was on the Board of the Playwrights’ Center (an institution that owes its very existence to Charles), the Center’s Executive Director, Carlo Cuesta, and I went to Charles’ home to ask him for a contribution to a capital campign. He gave us a lovely lunch in the gazebo in his back yard. And he gave us the pledge we’d sought.
About five years ago, Bill Semans and I decided to write what became Exit Strategy, a play about two old people taking charge of their lives. Bill and Charles had become good friends who met for lunch once a week, and in their conversations they often talked about how much fun it would be to act together. So Bill and I wrote the role of James, an elderly gay ex-actor, for Charles. Charles was then in his early eighties, and Bill and I weren’t sure he would be equal to the demands of daily rehearsals and a four-week run. Truth to tell, neither was Charles. But he was.
To watch Charles in rehearsal was a pleasure. He took direction graciously. He worked as hard as any actor I’ve ever seen. He never complained, never pulled rank, never insisted on doing a scene “his way.” But on one occasion, when he thought (correctly) that the dialogue we had written seemed inappropriate to his character, he brought in a five-page excerpt from the journal he’d been keeping since the 1940s. The passage contained an astonishing account of an afternoon in 1948 when Charles stole another man’s clothes at a beach in the Bronx, put them on, and wore them home. Bill and I boiled the five pages down into a half-page monologue, and it remains one of the most affecting passages in the play.
Charles also contributed the play’s most memorable line. He and Bill were returning from lunch at Frost’s, and as they drove down Summit Avenue past the University of St. Thomas, Charles, looking at all the beautiful young men on their way to class, wistfully said, “Sometimes I think I’ve sucked my last cock.” That evening Bill told me the story, and we agreed to put the line in the play.
At 82, Charles knew that he could no longer trust his memory for every line, so he provided himself with a few extra cues. Everywhere one looked, in fact, he had written prompts to help him get his lines right: on the offstage side of doorways, on the inside cover of a book he carried with him in a couple of scenes, on his sleeves—even on his hands.
In May 2008, the week after Exit Strategy closed, Charles learned that he had prostate cancer. Until very near the end, it hardly slowed him down. Two days before he died, Bill paid him a visit at his house, and they spent a couple of hours together. Charles was eager to hear the next draft of Exit Strategy. At Charles’ request, Bill fixed him a Manhattan. “Next time you come,” Charles said, “do you think you could bring a little grass?”