“The longer you live,” a gravedigger sings, tossing skulls from an old grave in the new production of “Hamlet” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, “the sooner you bloody well die.”
That line is not in Shakespeare’s play, but a winking bit of business added by director Barbara Gaines, apt for the character but also something of an in-joke, since the actor doing the singing is Mike Nussbaum, who is 95 years old.
“He’s not only the oldest actor working on stage in America, he’s one of the best,” said Gaines.
The senior member of Actors’ Equity has a resume long enough to make three thespians proud. He’s appeared in productions at Chicago’s top theaters for nearly half a century and had noteworthy small roles in hit movies such as “Field of Dreams,” “Men in Black” and “Fatal Attraction.”
And oh yes, he made his splash in the premiere of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” in 1975 and went on to star in “Glengarry Glen Ross” on Broadway.
“It’s wonderful to work with Mike because, like any artist, like any actor, he’s just unusual,” Mamet told Chicago magazine. “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 bulls—t. It’s coming out of — who the hell knows where? You either got it or you don’t, and Mike certainly does.”
Not only does Nussbaum still have it, but he somehow guards his dramatic gift from the cruel physics of age and mortality.
“I’m lucky,” he explained, relaxing backstage before Tuesday’s performance. “Genetic luck. I work out and I try to eat sensibly. I gave up smoking about 50 years ago. It’s just pure luck.”
Luck, and some help. Nussbaum was married for 54 years, but his first wife died in 2003. He married again, and Julie comes up when I insist there must be something else beyond stretching keeping him going. He admits there is.
“A great woman,” he said. “Probably one of the main reasons I’m able to do this.”
“Because she will not tolerate my pretending to be old.”
Not that he can’t turn senescence on when it suits his purposes. I’ll never forget seeing Nussbaum as Polonius in the CST’s 2006 “Hamlet.”
“What was I about to say?” Polonius mutters. “By the Mass, I was about to say something. Where did I leave?”
Nussbaum dithered so convincingly that my older son turned to me, alarmed. “Is that in the play?” he whispered. Afterward I raced to check. It is. Word for word.
Nussbaum reads a lot: he had a biography of Saul Bellow at his elbow and we fell to discussing being satisfied with life, which Bellow was notoriously bad at.
“I think that being an actor in Chicago, over a number of years, is the most satisfying life I could imagine,” he said. “I found New York and LA to be …” and he paused, choosing his next word carefully, “antithetic to art. The desire for fame, the desire for glory, for money, is overwhelming in both cities. Although I had some success in both cities, I decided my life was more balanced here. I enjoy getting on the bus to go downtown and have someone come up and say ‘I loved you in such-and-such.’
“The way I felt in New York, particularly, was the play was secondary,” he continued. “The actor’s task was to be seen and noticed. Once they become famous, they serve the play. But on that drive they will do anything to be seen, to be noticed, to get the good review. That doesn’t happen in Chicago. We work as a team to serve the play and the director’s vision of the play.”
So Mike Nussbaum presses onward. He says acting still brings him the same joy it did in amateur productions 80 years ago.
“The satisfaction is the same,” he said. “I love the fun of being with actors on stage pretending.”
Granted, work is not as steady. His previous performance was last October in “Curve of Departure” at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, and once “Hamlet” ends its run in June he has no future commitments.
“There are not that many parts for really old people,” he said. “Barbara called me for this, and it was a thrill. But I don’t have anything else. I’m looking for work, like every other actor.”
Looking, but not looking too hard.
“This is fun,” he said. “And for an old man to have fun is unusual.”