Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum dies at 99, the oldest working actor in the US

Actor Mike Nussbaum at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, posing in the lobby with a bust of William Shakespeare, August 2005. Nussbaum died Saturday, Dec 23, 2023. He was 99. Photo: TNS

Mike Nussbaum, acknowledged by the Actor’s Equity union as the oldest professional actor in the United States and a dynamic and yet steadying influence in Chicago theatre for decades, died Saturday (Dec 23) at home at the age of 99.

He was days short of his 100th birthday. And until his final week, he had been participating in dramatic readings and other projects with his friend B.J. Jones, the artistic director of Northlight Theatre in Skokie.

Most notably, Nussbaum and Jones had worked recently on a two-character, 15-minute playlet called Pilot’s Lounge, written in tribute to Nussbaum by David Mamet. The two men quietly toured the piece to various venues.

“Mike defined an era and style of Chicago acting like no other,” Jones said Saturday. “I would not be here if it were not for him, and I think that’s true of so many.”

Extraordinarily, Nussbaum, while serving in the armed forces during World War II at the headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, became the teletypist who cabled the news of the Nazi surrender in Paris in 1945.

He signed the cable “Eisenhower” and then, instead of just adding the operator’s initials in the lower left-hand corner, as was customary, he signed his own name on the document, too. Such, he knew, was the historic importance of the moment.

Nussbaum’s daughter Karen informed of his death Saturday morning, attributing it to old age.

“He was a great dad and a good man,” Karen Nussbaum said. “He loved acting and he also loved turning the spotlight on other people. He hated fascism from boyhood and he raised three children who cared about justice.”

Nussbaum was born in December 1923 and grew up in the 1920s and 1930s as the son of a fur salesman in the Albany Park neighbourhood of Chicago.

Nussbaum began his career as a Chicago actor in the 1960s in Robert Sickinger’s seminal and famously intense Hull House company on Chicago’s North Side, even as he worked as a pest exterminator on the side.

By the 1970s, he had his Equity card and had met a teenage Mamet at Second City, who went on to cast him as Teach in American Buffalo.

The resulting performance was one of Chicago legend. The affiliation with the prodigiously talented Mamet changed Nussbaum’s life, taking him to Broadway and then on tour with such actors as Alec Baldwin.

Nussbaum often said he found working with Mamet easy because he had a natural affinity for his style. For audiences, Nussbaum’s dignified and sartorially eloquent appearance, replete with mustache, provided an apt contrast with the famed Mametian profanity.

Later in life, he became irritated when critics would write what they thought were laudatory stories centring on his age and his unique ability to transcend it. He preferred, he once said to one over the phone, to be judged on the quality of his work, not the age at which he was doing it.

Nussbaum’s films included Men In Black and Field Of Dreams, but his primary business was being a Chicago stage actor.

Well into his 90s, he performed dramatic treats flawlessly, being possessed of a photographic memory. In 2017, he even starred as Albert Einstein in Northlight Theatre’s Relativity.

“Mike was never off stage and Einstein never stopped talking,” Jones said. “Mike showed up on the first day of rehearsal at the theatre with an hour and a half of Einstein’s speeches memorized.”

Few actors playing the famous grandfathers of dramatic literature had to worry, as did Nussbaum, about playing characters decades younger than themselves. But Nussbaum’s energy level always turned the problem on its head, a point of pride for one of this city’s greatest and most beloved men of the stage.

“I am flooded with memories,” said the actor Joe Mantegna. “When I am asked for my definition of a Chicago actor I always say, ‘look to Mike Nussbaum.’”

As he arrived into his 90s, Nussbaum created a new email address: MikeNussbaum100.

Survivors include his second wife, Julie Nussbaum, children Jack Nussbaum and Karen Nussbaum, as well as seven grandchildren. His first wife, Annette, and his daughter Susan, an artist and activist for persons with disabilities, preceded him in death. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

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