ActorMike Nussbaum

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A skinny kid thanks to a bout of rheumatic fever, Nussbaum grew up in Chicago, and at age 9 went to summer camp in Eagle River, Wisc., where he was given the task to host a variety show on the camp’s stage — while dressed as a clown. He froze, and was humiliated. But he asked to try again when they were doing a play, and was given the role of a submarine crewman who went down with the ship. “They somehow or other were able to pour a whole bucket of water on me, as if my submarine had imploded,” he said in an interview years later. “The lights came down — the kids loved it. It was so hokey. But I forever after wanted to repeat that joy.” He did repeat it, in some high school productions.

He went to the University of Wisconsin, but quit to join the army for World War II, which included a stint as the Chief of the Message Center for General Dwight D. Eisenhower. He dispatched the official notice of Germany’s surrender. The Teletype message was simply signed, “Nussbaum”. After the war, needing to pay the bills, he joined his brother-in-law in the pest extermination business. On the side, he auditioned to work in any stage plays that he could find. There weren’t many. But once his kids grew up and moved out of his home, he decided it was now or never to get serious about acting. He was in his 40s. One of the people he met in the theater early on was David Mamet. “I used to tease David about what a terrible actor he was,” but when Nussbaum read the plays Mamet had written, he realized “this was a special talent.” Indeed, Mamet went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and wrote dozens of plays and film scripts — and often cast Nussbaum in them, especially when he directed.

Nussbaum in a scene for The X-Files in 1993. (20th Century Fox)

Mamet recalled the first time they met. “I remember him showing up to play Teach [in American Buffalo, 1975] in this leather jacket full of chains and cowboy boots. My first reaction was, ‘What the f–k is that?’ And then after that, My God, this is so brilliant.” When Nussbaum works, he continued, “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.” Chicago magazine, in the delightfully titled profile, “Mike Nussbaum Is 90 and Can Do More Pushups than You”, lauded him as “no exaggeration — among the country’s finest stage actors, though … you probably have never heard of him.”

But you would probably recognize his face: in addition to scores of plays, Nussbaum was in 45 film and TV productions going back to the late 1960s — and never stopped. Films include Field of Dreams, House of Games, Things Change, Fatal Attraction and Men In Black. On TV he had roles in The Equalizer, The X-Files, Frasier, L.A. Law, and The Commish. For Mamet he starred in American Buffalo and, on Broadway, Glengarry Glen Ross. He even did TV commercials, mostly for the Chicago market. Yet if he was such a fabulous actor, why didn’t he get his own TV series? Several producers created shows for him to star in, but none of the pilots sold to a network. Looking back, Nussbaum was glad. “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.”

Mike Nussbaum in 2014. (©2014 Taylor Castle, used with permission.)

The League of Chicago Theaters gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019. At the time, Actors’ Equity named him its oldest working member. “If there is a reason I’m still doing what I do,” he said in 2014, “it’s because I work with young people as an equal, as a colleague. I’m just invigorated by that.” He never gave it up: he was still working in theater at his death, and a film he appeared in is still in post-production. Myron “Mike” Nussbaum died at his Chicago home on December 23 — six days before he would have turned 100.
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Note: Here’s another bit about how Nussbaum came across to others: I sent an email to the photographer who did an absolutely enchanting portrait of him asking for permission to run it on this page — late on Christmas eve. He replied in less than half an hour with the OK, saying “Mike was so great to work with. Honored to have my pic used for the story.” Even people who only worked with Mike briefly light up at the mention of his name. Thanks, Taylor!

From This is True for 24 December 2023