Mike Nussbaum, recognized by the Actor’s Equity union as America’s oldest professional actor and who made a dynamic but steady impact on Chicago theater for decades, died Saturday at his home at the age of 99.
He was a week away from his 100th birthday. And by his last week, he was participating in dramatic readings and other projects with his friend BJ Jones, artistic director of the Northlight Theater in Skokie. Most importantly, Nussbaum and Jones had recently collaborated on a two-character, 15-minute play called “Pilot’s Lounge,” which David Mamet wrote as a tribute to Nussbaum. The two men quietly toured the piece to various venues.
“Mike defined a unique era and style of Chicago,” Jones said Saturday. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him, and I think that’s true for a lot of people.”
Extraordinarily, Nussbaum, II. While serving in the armed forces at the headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force during World War II, he became the teletypewriter who telegraphed the news of the Nazi surrender in Paris in 1945. He signed the telegram “Eisenhower” and later signed his own name on the document instead, adding only the operator’s initials in the lower left corner, as is customary. He knew that was the historical significance of that moment.
Nussbaum’s daughter, Karen, reported his death to the Tribune on Saturday morning, attributing his death to old age. “He was a great father and a good man,” she said. “He loved acting and he also loved turning the spotlight on other people. “He hated fascism since childhood and raised three children who cared about justice.”
Nussbaum grew up the son of a fur dealer in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood in the 1920s and ’30s. After first doing theater at Jewish summer camps, he went on to have a remarkable theater career, appearing in two of Mamet’s major plays: “American Buffalo” (he was the first actor to play Teach) and “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Appeared on Broadway.
Nussbaum retained his famous sense of humor to the end and spent his final hours enjoying a book of baseball jokes, said close friend Barbara Gaines, a former artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, on Saturday. “We were all laughing our heads off,” Gaines said.
Nussbaum began his career as a Chicago actor in the 1960s at Robert Sickinger’s seminal and famously busy Hull House company on Chicago’s North Side, while also working as a pest control specialist. By the 1970s he had gotten his Equity card and met a young Mamet at Second City; he also cast him as Teach in “American Buffalo.” The resulting performance was one of Chicago legend. Her relationship with the extraordinarily talented Mamet changed Nussbaum’s life; took him to Broadway and then on tour with actors like Alec Baldwin.
Nussbaum often said that she found it easy to work with Mamet because she had a natural affinity for his style. For viewers, Nussbaum’s dignified and sartorially expressive appearance, complete with moustache, was a fitting contrast to his famous Mametian invectives.
But Nussbaum was likewise comfortable working with Gaines on numerous productions at Chicago Shakespeare; these included his role as the stern Shylock in 2005’s “The Merchant of Venice” and his deliciously eccentric role as one of the witches in “Macbeth.” He also played a particularly caustic gravedigger in Gaines’ 2019 production of “Hamlet.”
“He was the godfather of the actor working in Chicago,” Gaines said. “He had Chicago rigor, Chicago intelligence and Chicago passion, but his default sense was always humor.”
Later in life, he became angry when critics thought he was writing rave stories that focused on his age and his unique ability to transcend it. He once told someone on the phone that he preferred to be judged by the quality of his work, not his age.
Nussbaum’s film credits included “Men in Black” and “Field of Dreams,” but her main calling was as a stage actress in Chicago. His credits were numerous and spanned decades, including a role as Lionel Espy in David Hare’s Racing Demon and a caustic grandfather in Noah Haidle’s “Smokefall,” a hit at the Goodman Theater in 2014.
By his 90s, he was able to perform dramatic stunts flawlessly because he had a photographic memory. He even played the role of Albert Einstein in Northlight Theatre’s “Relativity” in 2017.
“Mike never left the stage, and Einstein never stopped talking,” Jones said. “Mike arrived at the theater on the first day of rehearsal having memorized an hour and a half of Einstein’s speeches.”
Few actors who have played famous grandfathers of dramatic literature have had to worry, like Nussbaum, about portraying characters decades younger than themselves. But Nussbaum’s energy level always reversed the problem; “It’s a source of pride for one of the city’s greatest and best-loved stage men.”
When Nussbaum reached his 90s, he created a new email address: MikeNussbaum100.
Survivors include his second wife, Julie Nussbaum, his children Jack Nussbaum and Karen Nussbaum, as well as his seven grandchildren. He was predeceased by his first wife, Annette, and his daughter, Susan, an artist and activist for people with disabilities.
Plans for a memorial service are pending.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.