“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 bullshit. 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.”
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