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Legendary Chicago Actor Mike Nussbaum, 89, on Top of His Game at Goodman

By Jackie Kostek | October 28, 2013 6:53am | Updated on October 28, 2013 8:15am
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DNAinfo/Jackie Kostek

DOWNTOWN — At 89 years old, Mike Nussbaum should be ready for retirement, you'd think.

Instead, the Chicago acting legend is on stage six nights a week, just as he has been for the better part of the last century.

“It’s pure genetic luck,” said Nussbaum, who plays two characters in the Goodman Theatre’s latest production, "Smokefall," which ends its monthlong run on Sunday. “Most elderly men and women today are pretty competent. I’m probably the new 70.”

Nussbaum — who grew up in Chicago and now lives on the lakeshore in Lakeview — said he accepts the fact that people like to focus on his age, though he remains focused on his work.

And despite having a lengthy list of accolades under his belt — an Emmy, a Drama Desk award, seven Joseph Jefferson awards, among others — Nussbaum said he has done some his best work in the last decade.

“My work has become much more effective, and a part of that is because I’m less personally invested in it,” Nussbaum said. “I’m more concerned with the work than the results of the work.”

That’s something Guy Massey, an actor who plays three characters in "Smokefall" and shares a scene with Nussbaum, said is a hallmark of Chicago actors.

“You’re just trying to figure out how to make the play work,” said Massey, who added that during rehearsals for the production, the third act was tweaked almost daily, challenging the actors to be flexible and learn new lines.

“Mike would say, ‘Hey, we’re all trying to accomplish the same task, we’re just trying to make this work,’” said Massey. “He’s humble. He’s simply going about his work.”

Massey said he and the other actors in "Smokefall" “go to school on him all the time.”

“We are so aware of how amazing he is,” Massey said. “We’re just watching and learning from him.”

Nussbaum said he believes in leading by example. He’s been working consistently since the 1950s — two or three plays a year in Chicago with occasional jaunts to New York City for theater or to Los Angeles for big-budget films like "Fatal Attraction," "Field of Dreams" and "Men in Black" — so he’s never really had time to teach, he said.

He doesn’t give actors unsolicited advice, and as a result, he said his relationships with other actors have flourished. To him, working with the "Smokefall" cast has been a “total delight.”

“Being able to work with young people as peers and not as a mentor or a teacher is a whole different ball of wax,” Nussbaum said. “To be immersed in their youthfulness and their vitality is revitalizing.”

That youthfulness has certainly rubbed off. In "Smokefall," Nussbaum plays Colonel, a 77-year-old widower struggling with Alzheimer’s and a tenuous family life, and Johnny, Colonel’s grandson who has grown older as well. The roles are active, physically and emotionally, with Nussbaum on stage dancing in one scene and giving a lengthy monolog in another.

Nussbaum said he was charmed by the original script and thinks the play has translated for audiences.

“I believe that when you see art at that level, it is gratifying whether elements are sad or funny or deeply intellectual,” Nussbaum said. “I think you recognize you’ve seen something that touches your humanity.”

Oh, and about that retirement? Nussbaum said he’ll continue working for as long as he can memorize the lines.

"I'm going to keep doing it until I can't," said Nussbaum.

Nussbaum Fun fact: He was stationed in Europe during World War II and was the operator who sent the message announcing the end of the war in Europe. For more on him, watch the video.