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At 94, Mike Nussbaum Is The Oldest Working Stage Actor In Show Biz

In <em>Curve of Departure, </em>Mike Nussbaum portrays a grandfather who is confronting loss and decline.
Michael Brosilow
In Curve of Departure, Mike Nussbaum portrays a grandfather who is confronting loss and decline.

Before Mike Nussbaum started acting professionally in his 40s, he was trying to make a living as an exterminator.

"I was acting since I was 9 years old ... but I was doing community theater for many years before I went ahead with it as a professional," Nussbaum says.

These days Nussbaum is earning rave reviews for his portrayal of Rudy, a grandfather who is confronting loss and decline, in Rachel Bond's play Curve of Departure at the Northlight Theatre near Chicago.

Nussbaum won a Drama Desk Award for his performance in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross in 1984. He's done lots of Mamet, lots of Arthur Miller, and had featured turns in several films, including Men in Black and Fatal Attraction.

He has done a lot — and at 94 years old, he is reportedly the oldest working stage actor in America.

For the role of Rudy, Nussbaum has to look death in the face, but he says that's not a problem at all.

"I think anybody who reaches my age is aware that it is a gift to be able to live this long and not to expect that it will go on much longer," he says. "In my note to BJ Jones, who directed the show and is one of my oldest and dearest friends, I said, 'If this play is my last, it's a great one to go out on. ' "

Nussbaum says that is truly how he feels.

"I am gifted and lucky to still be able to do the thing that is the most fun for me in life," he says. "As long as I can do it, I will."

In Northlight Theatre's production of <em>Relativity, </em>Nussbaum portrays theoretical physicist Albert Einstein.
/ Michael Brosilow
Michael Brosilow
In Northlight Theatre's production of Relativity, Nussbaum portrays theoretical physicist Albert Einstein.

One thing that Nussbaum says helps with his continuing performances is his ability to project loudly from the stage.

"Audiences are delighted with an old actor who can speak loud because most of my audiences are also old and they don't hear the young actors as well," he says.

Nussbaum will turn 95 in December and is looking ahead to his next role, for which he will step into the shoes of the gravedigger in Hamlet at Chicago's Shakespeare Theater next April.

"After that I have no idea," he says. "It would take some courage for a theater to hire somebody who's 95 and I'm just hoping that somebody will."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.