Prolific Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum, best known for his scene-stealing roles in films like “Men in Black,” “Field of Dreams,” and “Fatal Attraction” as well as decades of acclaimed stage work, died on December 20, 2023 at the age of 99. He passed away after spending over a year under hospice care in Chicago.
Nussbaum enjoyed one of the longest-running acting careers in history, first stepping on stage at the age of 15 in a 1938 production and continuing to perform regularly well into his 90s. Over his eight-decade career, he brought his talents to Chicago’s bustling theater community while also appearing in supporting roles in some of Hollywood’s biggest films side-by-side silver screen legends.
With his passing, the curtain closes on a titan who became an emblem of Chicago’s cultural legacy. As Hollywood stars and theater luminaries pay tribute, Chicago loses an icon who helped shape the modern theater scene as it grapples with the loss of one of its most prolific contributors.
Early Life and Career Beginnings
Born in Chicago on December 29, 1923, Nussbaum fell in love with acting at a young age when he joined the drama club at Roosevelt High School. Though his initial aspirations were to become a history teacher, he could not resist the siren call of the stage.
He began acting professionally while still a teenager in 1938. His early roles further stoked his passion for the dramatic arts, spurring him to leave college to pursue acting full time by the 1950s.
In Chicago theater circles, Nussbaum earned icon status for his seven-decade career treadin the boards at some of Chicago’s most prestigious theaters. After cutting his teeth at little theater companies and suburban playhouses in the 1940s, Nussbaum joined forces with playwright David Mamet as a founding member of the St. Nicholas Theater Company in the 1970s.
He became an indispensable player in Chicago’s bustling off-Loop theater scene over the ensuing decades. Major regional theaters like Steppenwolf, Goodman and Victory Gardens boasted Nussbaum among their frequent star performers.
Film Roles with Hollywood Elite
Though Nussbaum remained devoted to the stage, he memorably brought his talents to Hollywood on several occasions. His most famous role came as a jewelry store owner in the 1997 blockbuster “Men in Black” starring Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith.
Nussbaum played supporting and character roles in several other hit films, often appearing alongside A-List stars:
In “Field of Dreams” (1989), he had a memorable scene with James Earl Jones and Ray Liotta as baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson.
He played a key supporting part in the Glenn Close thriller “Fatal Attraction” (1987).
He acted alongside Shelley Long and Chevy Chase as a doctor in the holiday classic “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989).
Despite sharing scenes with some of Hollywood’s elite, Nussbaum remained dedicated to theater and split time between mediums rather than leave Chicago’s stages behind.
Acclaim and Longevity in Chicago Theater
While Nussbaum brought memorable charm and authenticity to his occasional film roles, theater remained his greatest passion and most prolific body of work.
He first stepped on stage at the age of 15 in a 1938 production of the Clifford Odets play “Golden Boy.” 80 years later, in 2018 at age 94, Nussbaum delivered his final performance in a revival of Arthur Miller’s “The Price” at Raven Theater.
In between, Nussbaum amassed over 400 credits across plays and films. His extensive theater resume reads like a timeline of 20th century dramatic writing, spanning works by luminaries like Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Anton Chekhov and Edward Albee.
Nussbaum’s lengthy catalog of performances earned him unmatched esteem and admiration among the Chicago theater community:
He received seven Joseph Jefferson awards, Chicago theater’s highest honor, as well as its Artistic Achievement Award for lifetime contribution.
The illustrious Goodman Theater created an award named for Nussbaum, given to ensemble members “who made Chicago theater better through their artistry, leadership and citizenship.”
Upon his retirement in 2018 at age 94, the Chicago Tribune declared him “arguably Chicago’s greatest stage actor ever.”
Reactions from Chicago Theater Community
The outpouring of memorials from Chicago luminaries pays tribute to Nussbaum’s irreplaceable legacy. Writers, directors and fellow actors alike mourned the departure of such a singular talent.
Rick Bayless, the city’s most celebrated restaurateur and a Goodman Theater trustee, tweeted:
Chicago has lost a legend of theatre. I was lucky to call Mike Nussbaum friend as well as to watch him weave magic onstage.”
Many echoed Bayless’ sentiments about Nussbaum’s generosity and warmth as a colleague. Actress Kate Fry shared with the Chicago Sun-Times:
“Mike taught me the meaning of generosity. There was no ego, nothing but enthusiasm for the work and endless patience for those of us less skilled.”
Goodman Theater Artistic Director Robert Falls extolled Nussbaum’s special contributions in an official statement:
“Mike was an artistic ringleader in Chicago for decades. His warmth, charm, and brilliance helped build and sustain the legendary theater community we have today.”
Tour-de-Force Stage Roles Defined Nussbaum’s Legacy
While Nussbaum accumulated hundreds of credits, theater historians may remember him most for a handful of career-defining performances in landmark Chicago productions:
Death of A Salesman (1984) – Nussbaum played down-on-his-luck protagonist Willy Loman in the Goodman Theatre’s 50th anniversary production of Arthur Miller’s classic American tragedy. His heartrending performance won universal praise, with the Chicago Tribune raving “His Willy breaks your heart and fills your head simultaneously.”
Glengarry Glen Ross (1983) – Nussbaum originated the role of aging salesman Shelly Levene in David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play before its Broadway run. Mamet wrote the part specifically for his longtime friend and collaborator, and Nussbaum’s performance anchored the searing drama.
American Clock (1980) – In an early production at the fledgling Steppenwolf Theatre, Nussbaum tackled the leading role of Moe Baumler in Arthur Miller’s sprawling Depression-era play centered on the Baumler family.
The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove (2002) – Nussbaum played business mogul Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in America, in this one-man show focused on Walker’s life.
Curtain Call for a Chicago Luminary
The sheer length and consistent excellence of Nussbaum’s career created a towering legacy unmatched by his peers in the Windy City or beyond.
Part scholar, part entertainer and consummate man of the theater, Nussbaum captained Chicago dramatic arts from the post-war 20th century renaissance through the millennium while also sprinkling Hollywood fairy dust via charismatic character turns.
Nussbaum’s influence established Chicago as an American theater capital and magnet for generations of writing and acting talent. As the final curtain falls on his sprawling career, his presence leaves behind an enormous void.
Yet Nussbaum’s legacy lives on through awards and venues bearing his name as well as the stamp his performances left on American theater’s evolution. Chicago stages shine brighter thanks to the moments of magic Nussbaum manifested over 80 years of prolific artistry.
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