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

Originally published on September 29, 2018 4:13 pm

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."

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, HOST:

Mike Nussbaum is earning rave reviews for his portrayal of Rudy, a grandfather who's confronting loss and decline in Rachel Bond's play "Curve Of Departure" at the Northlight Theatre near Chicago. Mike 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." Mike Nussbaum has done a lot - period. He's 94 years old. He is reportedly the oldest working stage actor in America. Mike Nussbaum joins us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

MIKE NUSSBAUM: It's my pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: You started out in your 40s?

NUSSBAUM: No, I started out professionally in my 40s, but I was acting as a - since I was 9 years old. And as a young man trying to make a living, I was an exterminator, but I was doing community theater for many years before I finally went ahead with it as a professional.

SIMON: Forgive me.- you were an exterminator?

NUSSBAUM: Yes, I was. And in spite of that, I've lived to 94.

SIMON: (Laughter).

NUSSBAUM: There may be a secret ingredient in DDT that we don't know about.

SIMON: (Laughter) Well, you would be a great ad for it.

NUSSBAUM: (Laughter).

SIMON: This current play, "Curve Of Departure..."

NUSSBAUM: Yes.

SIMON: ...I don't know a nice way to put this.

NUSSBAUM: All right.

SIMON: What's it like to play somebody who has to look death in the face when you're 94?

NUSSBAUM: Well, as a 94-year-old man, looking death in the face, it'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. 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. And that's exactly the way I feel. I am gifted and lucky to still be able to do the thing that is the most fun for me in life. As long as I can do it, I will.

SIMON: And at the age of 94, 95 in December, right?

NUSSBAUM: Yes, that's correct.

SIMON: How do you project onstage?

NUSSBAUM: Well, that's one of the things that I still have is a strong voice. And 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 because they come from a different era. And they speak softly, and they speak rapidly, and they slur, and I don't.

SIMON: Yeah. So what's your next role, or what you'd like to be your next role?

NUSSBAUM: Well, as a matter of fact, I am going to be playing the gravedigger in April at Chicago Shakespeare in "Hamlet." After that, I have no idea. It would take some courage for a theater to hire somebody who's 95, and I'm just hoping that somebody will.

SIMON: Mike Nussbaum plays Rudy in Rachel Bond's "Curve Of Departure" at the Northlight Theatre right outside of Chicago. We'll repeat it. Mr. Nussbaum will turn 95 in December. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

NUSSBAUM: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.