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Published: Sunday, 12/25/2005

Broadway's 'lovable lunatic': Genoa's Bill Nolte charms New York in 'The Producers'

BY DAN FIRESTONE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Genoa native Bill Nolte appeared in <i>Cats</i> and other hits. Genoa native Bill Nolte appeared in <i>Cats</i> and other hits.
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NEW YORK - The backstage area of the historic St. James Theater is strangely quiet now. Another Friday night packed-house performance of The Producers has just ended.

It's a stark contrast to the raucous laughter and wild applause that filled the Broadway theater just minutes earlier when the curtain lowered for the smash musical that won a record 12 Tony Awards in 2001.

Most of the cast has hastily departed. There's a matinee in what will seem like only a few hours to them. But up on the fourth floor, one of the stars of the show, Bill Nolte, already changed from his stage attire to jeans and jacket, waves from his dressing room and gives a big greeting to a hometown friend.

Nolte, 52, a Genoa native, is enjoying one of the biggest roles of his lengthy stage career. After two years of playing Franz Liebkind with the touring company of The Producers, Nolte took over the role on Broadway in October. His character in the Mel Brooks-written classic is an eccentric German playwright who pens a musical about Adolf Hitler - a show that the lead characters hope is the worst musical in Broadway history in order to scam investors out of their money when it becomes a flop.

But of course, it doesn't. It's a hit, and so is Nolte, in the role he plays brilliantly with a German accent, gaining big laughs with the simple roll of the eyes or winning them over with his booming baritone vocals during solo numbers.

"Franz is a lovable lunatic," Nolte said. "Of course he's a Nazi and you would think it would be hard for Mel Brooks to make a Nazi lovable but Franz is goofy and a little insane and that makes it palatable for American audiences. He's innocent and loony. He wants to write a musical to clear Hitler's name and that's insane.

"I love it. I never get bored with it because it is so well crafted and Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman, the director, have crafted a wonderful evening.

"That's part of an actor's job, not to get bored. Even when audiences might be tuned out, you've got to get it fresh and make it like the first time. I've been doing it two and half years and I'm still discovering things about the show and the role and still working on it."

When Nolte knew he wanted this role, he hired a dialect coach.

"I had to work on it," he said. "It's not something I do easily. It takes a lot of work. But I enjoy it when people from Germany come and ask me if I'm from Germany. I'm very proud of that."

Nolte takes the time to give a backstage tour, showing just how it's all pulled off night after night.

"This is a tiny backstage space so lots of props and scenery are hung in the fly space," he said, pointing to the rafters, where full sets hang ready to be dropped. "It's really a great old theater. This is where Oklahoma! began as well as The King and I and Hello, Dolly! Some of the really famous productions ever on Broadway started here."

Nolte is a veteran of the Great White Way by now, The Producers being the 10th cast he's been in. His first role came in 1985, when he played Old Deuteronomy in the long-running Cats. It was another role he perfected on the road, before transferring to the Broadway company.

Among his other Broadway credits were Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, King David, and the revival of 1776.

He's been at both ends of the spectrum for hits and misses.

"I was in Amour, and it only lasted three weeks but it was a fantastic time," Nolte said. "The producers decided to cut their losses and close early. There are a lot of shows that close in a week. If reviews aren't helpful, it's hard to make a go of it."

Nolte graduated from Genoa High School in 1971. He still gets back to the area a few times a year to visit his mother, Charlene, 87, and his brother, Dick, sister-in-law Cindy and nephew Nathan. His father, Robert, died in June, 2004.

"Before he passed away, he got to see me in this role when I was in Detroit," Nolte said. "That was special because this is the highlight of my career."

His first memories of theater were going to the Toledo Repertoire Theatre in the 1960s.

"I knew it was fascinating and I started seeing plays at the high school and wanted to be a part of it, so I was in the junior and senior plays and the musicals."

But his first love was art, which he intended to be his major in college.

"I never considered myself a singer. I went to the University of Michigan art school for a short time but it wasn't for me. So I came back and took some art classes. Then I found the Bach Conservatory of Music in Toledo. I chickened out of the first lesson but they called and I went the next week."

He studied singing under Robert Harless at the Bach Conservatory and went to Bowling Green State University as an art major for a year, continuing to do musicals with the Suburban Singers in Perrysburg. He sang at Cedar Point and performed in operas and musicals at BGSU.

After his sophomore year, he won a scholarship to the Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, studied opera and musical theater, graduated in 1976, and began his professional career as an actor.

His Broadway career really took off after he landed the role in Cats.

"I didn't always have a big booming voice, I would say it was more of a light tenor. It wasn't until I matured and I really studied, then the middle and bottom of my voice came to front."

Nolte says he feels fortunate to have worked so steadily for nearly three decades now.

"It will be 30 years next year," he said "I started with Showboat in Indianapolis with Shirley Jones and Gale Gordon. That was my first job. After that, I went to New York.

"Being on the road is like fantasy land. You don't have responsibilities of a home. All you have to do is wake up, have a meal, and do a show. I try to discover each city I'm in - San Francisco, Tokyo, Boston, Philadelphia."

Things are different when he's anchored in New York. One day he's speaking at a national theater conference, another he's at an audition for TV's Law and Order.

"As an actor, you are always looking for a challenge. There might be another great role or job on the boards."

He's yet to get his big break in TV or a film role. Being pegged as a stage actor can be great for landing Broadway parts but sometimes it works against an actor for TV or film.

"I would love to do TV, but all my credits are on stage," he said. "But if you audition, you meet the casting director and hopefully he'll remember you and bring you in when the right role comes along. It's all about making connections.

"But I love doing The Producers. I'm signed here for another six months and could do it longer. The excitement to me is doing new shows and creating new roles."

Nolte is also a part of the ensemble vocals on the soundtrack for the movie version of The Producers, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, which was released today.

Often after commitments like auditions, Nolte will arrive at the theater early, going to his dressing room to paint, rather than make the trek to his home in another part of Manhattan.

He's an award-winning painter, and his works are in collections around the country including New York, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Los Angeles, and Toledo, as well as in London, and can be seen on his Web site, www.billnolte.com.

"I've always studied in New York with watercolors and I've picked it up with a new intensity. My dressing room is set up with easel and paint. It's what I wanted to be in high school before I started singing."

But on this particular night, as Nolte exits the actors' door of the theater, the action near Times Square seemingly is just beginning although his night has ended.

It's a long way home, a half-hour subway ride, then back early for the next day's matinee.

But then again, it's also a long way from Genoa.

"Genoa and New York City are quite the opposite," Nolte says with a big laugh "It's a miracle that 30 years later I'm still an actor. I'm one of the lucky ones."

Contact Dan Firestone at: dfirestone@theblade.com or 419-724-6110.



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