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Celebrating the Life of Mike Nussbaum: Oldest Working US Actor and a Chicago Theatre Icon

Published December 24, 2023
7 months ago

The American theatrical landscape lost one of its stalwarts when Mike Nussbaum, the nation's oldest professional actor, died peacefully at his home on Saturday at the remarkable age of 99. His death, days away from marking his 100th birthday, marked the end of an era for the Chicago theater scene, to which he had been a dynamic presence and a guiding light for generations.


Nussbaum, born in December 1923, witnessed and shaped the evolution of theater in Chicago, starting from the quirky Jewish summer camp performances of his youth to originating roles in seminal plays that would shape American theatre. His work with the prolific playwright David Mamet stands out as a highlight of his legacy. Nussbaum was the first to tread the boards as Teach in "American Buffalo" - a performance that became the stuff of Chicago lore - and later graced the Broadway stage in Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," earning him the respect and admiration of peers and audiences alike.


His life before theater was just as remarkable. During World War II, he was the man who transmitted the momentous message of Nazi Germany's surrender from Paris - a historical missive he boldly signed with his own name, underscoring its significance.


From his early days with Robert Sickinger's Hull House company to his acclaimed performances at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and beyond, Nussbaum amassed an enviable repertoire that spanned more than just the stage. His film appearances in "Men in Black" and "Field of Dreams" brought his talent to a wider audience, but he remained, at heart, a true Chicago stage actor.


Despite advancing years, Nussbaum's spirit and passion for the craft never waned. Even into his 90s, he dazzled with his performances and impeccable memory, notably starring as Albert Einstein in "Relativity" with a monologue learned entirely by heart.


His life off-stage was no less full. Raised to oppose fascism and strive for justice, he saw to it that his children carried on those values of empathy and social awareness. His loss is felt not just by those who knew him but also by those who were moved by his performances.


Beyond his sizable talent, Nussbaum was cherished for his wit, sense of humor, and the mentorship he provided to countless actors who today shape the fabric of American culture. His passing marks not just the loss of a cherished actor and veteran but also the fading of a chapter of Chicago's rich theatrical history.


His departure leaves the stage a little dimmer, though plans for a memorial promise one final spotlight on a man whose contribution to the arts will be remembered and celebrated long after the curtains have closed.



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