Mike Nussbaum, Celebrated Chicago Theater Actor, Dies at 99

Mike Nussbaum, an actorknown as the dean of Chicago theater who found success during his early association with David Mamet, the Chicago-born playwright, died on Dec. 23 at his home in Chicago. He was 99.

His death was announced by his daughter Karen Nussbaum, a labor organizer.

For the last decade, Mr. Nussbaum has also been known as the country’s oldest working actor, a distinction that mildly irritated him. (For admiring journalists, he gamely performed his daily regimen of 50 push-ups, a practice he kept up until he was 98.) He often said he would have preferred to have been recognized solely for his acting skills, not the age at which he was acting.

Mr. Nussbaum came up in Chicago’s community theaters, notably Hull House, an incubator of talent in the 1960s, while also running a successful exterminating business. When he was 40, he was tackling a wasp nest when he fell off a roof, smashing a kneecap and breaking a wrist. While he stewed on the couch recuperating, he decided it was the right moment to pursue acting full time.

A pivot point in his acting career came in 1975 when Mr. Mamet, then a fledgling playwright, cast him in the role of Teach in an early production of the celebrated play “American Buffalo,” about a trio of hapless, double-crossing hustlers. The pair had met at Hull House, where Mr. Mamet had worked as a gofer when he was a teenager.

“It was, for those of us who saw it, kind of an overwhelming, definitive experience,” Robert Falls, the former artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theater, told Chicago magazine in 2014. “Over the years I’ve seen actors like Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall play that part, and no one has ever played it the way Mike Nussbaum did. There was a Chicago quality to it in its voice, in terms of attitude, a sense of pathos and danger that he brought to it that’s never been really equaled.”

Mr. Nussbaum won a Drama Desk Award for his role as George Aaronow, a beaten-down salesman, in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

When Mr. Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” another tale of desperate hustlers, opened on Broadway in 1983, Mr. Nussbaum, along with fellow Chicagoan Joe Mantegna, were cast as two of the play’s striving, venal real estate agents. Mr. Mantegna earned a Tony for his role as the slick Ricky Roma; Mr. Nussbaum won a Drama Desk Award for his role as George Aaronow, a beaten-down salesman with a nascent conscience; and the play would win Mr. Mamet the Pulitzer Prize in drama.

“There’s particular heroism in Mike Nussbaum, whose frightened eyes convey a lifetime of blasted dreams,” Frank Rich wrote in his review for The New York Times. “and in Joe Mantegna, as the company’s youngest, most dapper go-getter.”

The pair had performed years earlier in Mr. Mamet’s “A Life in the Theater,” a slight but biting two-man play about a young actor and an older one, goading and guiding each other, ego to ego. Mel Gussow of The Times praised the their performances as effortless. “As the cynical old poseur, Mr. Nussbaum is a Jack Gilford with a touch of John Barrymore,” he wrote.

Mr. Mantegna, speaking by phone, said that Mr. Nussbaum was “the role model for what everyone considers the Chicago actor.”

“He wasn’t doing it for the end game,” Mr. Mantegna said. “In New York, there’s an end game: Maybe I’ll get to Broadway, get a shot at TV. It’s an industry. L.A. is an industry. In Chicago it was never an industry, we were doing it for the love of doing it.”

He recalled Broadway producers urging Mr. Mamet to cast “Glengarry Glen Ross” with stars, and Mr. Mamet pushing back. “He said, ‘I’m going to do it with my kind of guys.’ Then there we were, this pack of unknowns, doing what would ultimately win the Pulitzer Prize.”

Then Mr. Nussbaum walked away from it all.

B.J. Jones, artistic director of the renowned Northlight Theater, in Skokie, Ill., which Mr. Nussbaum helped found in the 1970s, phoned Mr. Nussbaum during his run on Broadway to ask him to play the lead in a work by the English playwright Simon Gray.

Mr. Nussbaum called out to his wife at the time, Annette, for advice. “Do it,” she said. “I’m tired of New York.”

“Mike left Broadway to perform in a play for which we probably paid him a few hundred bucks,” Mr. Jones continued. “And when he did, they were scalping tickets in the lobby to see him. He was a Broadway star but he came home.”

As Mr. Mantegna said, “We were on the carousel, and there was the brass ring and he could have grabbed it, but he decided he liked the carousel.”

A slight man with a bushy mustache, Mr. Nussbaum could seemingly play anybody: He was a fierce Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” and a bawdy witch in “Macbeth,” two of his many roles for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. He also worked steadily in film and television. He was a pompous school principal in “Field of Dreams,” the 1989 baseball fantasy starring Kevin Costner, and a chillingly gentle jewelry store owner in “Men in Black,” the 1997 sci-fi comedy with Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith.

A scene from the film “Men In Black” (1997), in which Mr. Nussbaum played a chillingly gentle jeweler.Credit…Columbia Pictures, via Alamy

“Mike was the consummate ensemble player,” Mr. Jones said. “And he had an inherent warmth that infused all his characters.”

Mike Nussbaum was born Myron G. Nussbaum on Dec. 29, 1923, in New York City, and grew up in Chicago. His father, Philip Nussbaum, was a fur wholesaler; his mother, Bertha (Cohen) Nussbaum, was a homemaker. Mike was a skinny, unhappy child, beaten and demeaned by his father, “a man I did not admire,” he told Chicago magazine.

He was 9 and at summer camp when he discovered acting,though he froze during his first performance and had to be carried off the stage. He attended the University of Wisconsin before dropping out and enlisting in the Army during World War II.

He worked as a Teletype operator in France, first in Versailles and then Reims, and was on duty on May 7, 1945, the day of the German surrender. He sent out the announcement declaring the end of the war in Europe, signing it not with his initials, as was customary, but with his full surname. He kept a framed copy as a memento.

He returned to Chicago in 1946 and married Annette Brenner, who later worked in public relations for the American Civil Liberties Union and elsewhere. He went into the exterminating business because he wanted a home, a family and a stable life, which he knew he couldn’t have as a professional actor. “I wanted the American dream,” he said.

Mr. Nussbaum in 2019. “I’m lucky,” he once said of his long career. “Chicago has given me chances that I don’t think I would’ve gotten in New York.”Credit…Neil Steinberg/Chicago Sun-Times, via Associated Press

His first wife died in 2003. In addition to his daughter Karen, Mr. Nussbaum is survived by his son, Jack, a writer and activist; his second wife, Julie (Brudlos) Nussbaum; seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Susan, a playwright, novelist and disability activist, died last year.

“I’m lucky: Chicago has given me chances that I don’t think I would have gotten in New York,” Mr. Nussbaum told Patrick Healy of The New York Times in 2014. “There’s no real fame here, not like in New York. And your salary doesn’t go up when you win a Jeff” — otherwise known as The Joseph Jefferson Award, an honor given to the theater arts in Chicago — “not like when you win a Tony. But I’ve gotten steady work, great work, and all I ever wanted to do was act.”

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