He is—no exaggeration—among the country’s finest stage actors, though unless you’re a devotee of Chicago theater or David Mamet plays (for which he is best known), you probably have never heard of him. His face, though—gentled by a snowy mustache, which sometimes constitutes the top half of a Vandyke, and a wavy mane, together faintly suggestive of Colonel Sanders, and weathered by the inch-wide swath of lines that branch out from his eyes and spread like a venerable rivers—is vaguely recognizable. It is, he knows, the blessing and the curse of also being a film and TV character actor: the “Oh yeah, that guy” syndrome.
In his case, the righteous school principal in Field of Dreams, the neck-in-a-brace book publisher in Fatal Attraction, the alien-in-disguise jewelry store owner in Men in Black. That guy.
These days, in his 91st year on earth, Mike Nussbaum—who didn’t even pursue acting full-time until he was in his 40s and still works with the hunger of a newbie (he currently stars in the Goodman Theatre’s Smokefall), collecting along the way theater reviews so adulatory that even he cringes—battles a different sort of curse. It has to do with his age, yes, but not in the way you might think, for his body and mind are in such superb condition that calling him an old man feels unseemly.
The curse the Goodman fixture faces these days is the exasperating refusal of some reviewers to simply judge his work for itself, without ladling on syrup about how great he is—and at his age no less!
Still, this facet is extraordinary, and when pressed, even he will marvel, if only a little and never in a self-congratulatory way, at where he finds himself and his career. In fact, a delightful thing will happen if you keep him talking about it—about his “full glass of rye every night before bed, probably a double shot”; about his slightly unorthodox daily exercise regimen; about his “lucky genetics.” Somewhere from the depths of his cobalt-blue eyes will arise that most shopworn of clichés: a twinkle.
For the truth is, Nussbaum himself is delighted to confirm that, yes, he really does do 50 pushups a day—and not some half-assed counterfeit version with trembling arms and his knees on the ground, but the kind he learned in the army during World War II—along with a series of abdominal crunches, a few trudging trips up and down the stairs of his Lake View high-rise, and a frankly funny-looking but apparently effective rat-a-tat-tat shuffle step in place.
And so it was that I found myself in Nussbaum’s carpeted study—his unlikely exercise room—watching as he dropped his bantam five-foot, two-inch frame (“I used to be five-seven; scoliosis took a couple of inches”) into position. When I’d asked him to indulge me, far from balking, he registered delight. His voice—the bell-clear, meticulously enunciated, richly timbred sound so familiar to any serious Chicago theatergoer—rumbled into a chuckle.
This wasn’t Jack Palance at the Oscars, hamming it up with red-faced one-armed pushups. This was a man simply being gracious. OK, maybe a touch hammy, but who can blame him? He was doing what he was born to do, what he loves to do, and what he has done longer and better than almost anyone in his craft: giving an audience what it wants. Without sprouting a single drop of sweat, he knocked out 15 perfect pushups, then stood up and beamed, perhaps because it felt good, but more likely, I’m sure now, because he had insisted I follow suit.
Asked about Nussbaum, his friend and fellow Chicagoan David Mamet responds with the kind of profane, blunt-force language the top playwright is known for. “I remember him showing up to play Teach [at the 1975 St. Nicholas Theatre Company production of Mamet’s American Buffalo] in this leather jacket full of chains and cowboy boots. My first reaction was, What the fuck is that? And then after that, My God, this is so brilliant.”
Nussbaum, who longtime Chicago director and producer Robert Falls calls “the definitive Mamet actor,” got two of his biggest breaks in Mamet shows—in American Buffalo and in the 1984 Broadway production of Glengarry Glen Ross, in which he played Aaronow, a tepid, aging salesman. From there, Nussbaum rarely stopped working, most notably in Chicago, but also in bit parts in a laundry list of movie and television shows, including a recurring role on The Commish and one-offs on L.A. Law, The X-Files, and Frasier.
“It’s wonderful to work with Mike because, like any artist, like any actor, he’s just unusual,” continues Mamet. “You’re constantly saying, ‘My God, where did that come from?’ It’s not coming out of a bag of ‘acting moments.’ That’s all bullshit. It’s coming out of—who the hell knows where? You either got it or you don’t, and Mike certainly does.”
It seems easy now to say that Nussbaum always had it. But for a boy growing up in Albany Park in the 1920s, a career in the theater seemed as remote as the glittering marquees that lit up the Loop nine miles and a world away. His father, a fur wholesaler, was, Nussbaum says, “a man I did not admire.” With good reason. “He beat me, among other things. He demeaned me.” Then again, he says, “I think all artists come from some sort of fractured family.”
He was a skinny, sickly kid (he suffered rheumatic fever), lonely and hurting. “If it wasn’t for the love of my mother, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Then, at age nine, a simple rite of passage—a few weeks spent at Camp Ojibwa in Eagle River, Wisconsin—became “the most definitive period” of his life. That was because of two moments on the camp stage.
The first was an inauspicious debut. He was to emcee a variety show, dressed as a clown. “I came on to the stage, did a couple of cartwheels, and went like this to the audience,” he says, throwing his arms out. “But just when I was supposed to make the introductions, I realized, Those are real people out there—kids and counselors and families. And I froze. Couldn’t say a word. They had to take me off of the stage. I cried for hours.”
He managed to work up the nerve to try again—this time in a one-act play in which he portrayed a submariner who goes down with his ship. In the dramatic climax, he recalls, “they somehow or other were able to pour a whole bucket of water on me, as if my submarine had imploded. The lights came down—the kids loved it. It was so hokey. But I forever after wanted to repeat that joy.”
The chances of his doing so appeared slim. “I really didn’t think of myself as being able to become a professional actor. I wasn’t handsome. I wasn’t tall. I didn’t think I could be a movie star. I never really thought about stage because there was almost no stage in Chicago at the time.”
Still, he could not shake the stirrings he’d had. High school brought some opportunities. He landed a role in his school’s production of Romeo and Juliet, read books on acting, stayed up nights listening to Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the radio, and devised ways to get close to the downtown theater scene. “If you wore a black tie and black pants, a lot of the theaters would hire you as an usher for the night, and then you could watch the show.”
He left home for the University of Wisconsin in 1941, still viewing acting as a hobby, not a career option. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought I might be a writer.” He certainly wasn’t going to be a scholar. “I was at Wisconsin for a year and a half, and I accomplished nothing, really, except learning how to drink beer.” Figuring he was wasting his time, he left school to enlist in the army during World War II.
There, too, the early results weren’t promising. Nussbaum’s second (and current) wife, Julie, recalls a tale she has heard her husband tell: He wanted to be a flier but was concerned that less-than-perfect eyesight would prevent it. He needn’t have worried. He first had to pass a flight-engineering test. “Afterward, he was waiting to get his grade, and a sergeant called, ‘Nussbaum!’ ” she says. “Mike said, ‘Yes, sir! How did I do?’ And he said, ‘Nussbaum, you have recorded the lowest score in the history of the United States Air Force.’ ”
Flyboy dreams grounded, he wound up as a Teletype operator, passing along orders and notices, and achieved an obscure claim to fame: It was Nussbaum who sent out the historic announcement declaring that the war in Europe was over. He keeps a framed copy, bearing the Teletype signature “Nussbaum,” on a shelf in his living room.
When he returned home to Chicago in 1946, he still dreamed of acting. But, he says, “I began to realize that I wanted some things that I probably wouldn’t have as an actor. I wanted the family and I wanted the stable life and I wanted a home. I wanted the American dream. After three-some-odd years in the army, that part of the dream had assumed a greater importance.”
He soon married Annette Brenner, whom he’d met in high school. Their son, Jack, was born a year later, followed by two daughters, Karen and Susan, over the next five years.
He went into the extermination business with his brother-in-law, picking up whatever theater gigs he could on the side. (He starred in some of celebrated director Robert Sickinger’s Hull House productions in the 1960s.) He did this for about 20 years until one day, while killing hornets, he tumbled off a roof, smashing his kneecap and breaking his wrist. He took it as a sign. By then in his 40s, with his kids grown and out of the house, he sold his share of the business and pursued acting full-time.
He earned his Equity card in the early ’70s, performing in a Second City production of The Deer Park, a Norman Mailer drama that Nussbaum calls “one of the worst plays I’ve been in.” (The show spurred protests in Chicago for the way it depicted black women.) But he was officially a working actor now, about to get a break from Mamet, then an aspiring playwright. They had met a few years earlier when Mamet, 24 years Nussbaum’s junior, was working as a theater gofer and bit-part player.
“I used to tease David about what a terrible actor he was,” Nussbaum recalls. But when Mamet showed him some things he’d written, Nussbaum realized that “this was a special talent.” When Mamet cast him to play Teach in his three-man American Buffalo, it established Nussbaum as a serious actor and launched a long and close working relationship between him and the playwright/director.
One person who attended that production would never forget Nussbaum’s performance. “It was, for those of us who saw it, kind of an overwhelming, definitive experience,” says Robert Falls, who since 1986 has been artistic director of the Goodman Theatre. “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.”
Of the many plays and movies in which Mamet and Nussbaum have teamed up—nine in total—it was the actor’s 1984 Broadway turn in Glengarry Glen Ross that made him a national name at the time. (Years later, Nussbaum would play Shelley Levene, another salesman, in an acclaimed run at Steppenwolf.) Those were heady days, Nussbaum recalls: “To be on the subway and to see those huge show posters of me and Joe Mantegna in all the stations was just a great ego boost.”
Standing on the cusp of stardom, he was cast as the lead in a number of television pilots. Though theater was his real love and always would be, the widespread fame that TV could provide was alluring. “Did I want it? Oh yeah,” he says. “Oh God, yes. I wanted it desperately.”
Not a single pilot sold. But what at the time was deeply disappointing turned out to be the exact right thing for him. Today, Nussbaum says he is grateful for the path he took: “I wonder if I would have ever been able to resist that life—the money and the fame and the self-importance. I don’t think I could have. I think I would have fallen for it, and I’m happy I was not tested. I’m not a star. I’m a well-known Chicago actor. And in many ways that’s probably the best of all possible worlds.”
Awards line the ubiquitous built-in bookshelves of Nussbaum’s home, but the true measure of what he brings to the stage is how his colleagues view him. “He’s always the actor that other actors in the room look up to,” says Goodman’s Falls. “He just has a presence and a force and a sort of centered quality and a meticulousness.”
In Smokefall, Nussbaum has a particularly demanding role—a dual role, in fact: a septuagenarian grandfather and his elder son. Nussbaum plays them without benefit of a wig, prosthetics, or makeup to create the illusion of more youthfulness—“just in the physical activity of the character and the vocal strength,” he says. He bounds up and down stairs, steps his way through an odd bit of quasi-military choreography, and rides emotional currents that demand both rigid restraint and crackling intensity.
The young New York playwright Noah Haidle had never seen Nussbaum’s stage work when he cast him in Smokefall. But from the first rehearsal, he knew why the actor had come so highly recommended. “Right from the get-go, I was like, Holy fuck,” Haidle says.
When I ask Nussbaum how he achieves this effect in his work—specifically, whether he ascribes to any of the various schools of acting—he scoffs. One time he tried some “actory bullshit” in rehearsals for the 1985 Goodman production of Mamet’s The Shawl, he says, and it cured him forever. He’d tinkered with a few stage movements to create better interplay with another actor, and “after about three minutes, David said, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ ”
He may not subscribe to Method acting, but that isn’t to say he doesn’t have a well of personal tragedies he could tap. His first wife, to whom he had been married for 54 years, died in 2003 after battling Parkinson’s disease. And in 1978, his daughter Susan, 24 at the time, was hit by a car on the way to her acting class at the Goodman School of Drama and was left without the use of her legs and with only the partial use of her arms. But that’s just life, Nussbaum says. Susan has had a rich career in theater; she played Gertrude Stein from her wheelchair in the 1978 Goodman production of She Always Said, Pablo and has published several plays and a novel. (His older daughter is executive director of an AFL-CIO community affiliate in Washington, D.C., and his son is a social worker in New Jersey.)
Through everything, Nussbaum has worked, just as he continues to do today. His role in Smokefall, he says, has been a great joy not only for the meatiness of the part but also for the energetic passion of his cast mates, who are in their 20s and 30s. “If there is a reason I’m still doing what I do, it’s because I work with young people as an equal, as a colleague. I’m just invigorated by that.”
He is grateful that his performances continue to generate raves. And yes, deeply grateful that he can still practice his craft at an age when most actors struggle to memorize their lines or keep up with the physical demands of the profession, though he’s a little tired of hearing about that. His wife, Julie, certainly is. She welcomed a rhapsodic review by Tribune theater critic Chris Jones of Nussbaum’s work in Smokefall (the current show is a reprise; its first run was on Goodman’s smaller stage last fall) but bristled at how the praise was framed. “There is no other actor anywhere who could do all of what Nussbaum does here at his age,” Jones wrote. Says Julie: “All of this stuff about his age—I tell you, if [Jones] keeps carrying on about it, I’m going to punch him in the nose.”
Nussbaum agrees, but in more politic terms: “I would like people to judge me based on what I do rather than the age that I do it at.”
All of which made me feel like a jackass for requesting to see his workout. After Nussbaum led the way with his army regulation pushups, I heaved myself up and down a few times, trying to do mine the way I imagined a soldier would. When I reached about 10, I could feel a light sheen of sweat on my forehead. That’s enough, I thought. I rose, figuring I’d won his approval. He simply smiled.
It was only later, while talking to Julie, that I learned that stagecraft isn’t the only thing the actor is meticulous about. Nussbaum had been watching my push-ups closely, she said. “He says you didn’t do them right.”