The other day, I went to see a play, Curve of Departure, at the Northlight Theatre in suburban Skokie, just north of Chicago. I've been to the Northlight before -- it's a very nice facility of a little over 300 seats that's surprisingly part of the local Doubletree Hotel. The four-person play written by Rachel Bonds has gotten very good reviews, and I enjoyed it though found it a bit unfocused. But what got me there was that one of the co-stars, playing the patriarch of the family was Mike Nussbaum.
Mike Nussbaum is a hugely popular actor in Chicago, all the more impressive since he came to acting late, changing careers from being partners with his brother-in-law running, of all things, a pest control company). But it worked out awfully well for him, since he's been at it now for well-over 50 years. In fact, Acators Equity lists him as the oldest-working actor on stage. That's because he's 94. And he was spritely and vibrant on stage the other night, giving a fun, lively performance full of texture and enthusiasm.
You probably would recognize Mike Nussbaum, because he's done tons of movies and TV shows, with a distinctive Chicago accent. (Though he plays a character from New York City in Curve of Departure and uses a good New York dialect.) His most recognizable roles are most likely Men in Black, where he played the kindly shop owner who "splits apart" to reveal that the tiny alien leader is living inside this human shell. And also he had a major role in Things Change, the terrific movie written and directed by David Mamet, opposite Joe Mantegna and Don Ameche. In fact, he has a long history with Mamet, who got his start in his home of Chicago, and has appeared in numerous Mamet plays in the city, as well as the original Broadway cast of Glengarry Glen Ross. And also many of Mamet's movies. His versatility is extensive, and maybe 10-15 years ago he had the starring role in King Lear at the well-regarded Chicago Shakespeare Festival Theatre.
It's that Mike Nussbaum got his start acting in summer camp at Camp Ojibwe in Wisconsin, appearing in plays written by one of the counselors -- my dad, Edward Elisberg! My dad didn't stay in the theater, becoming a doctor which was his first love since literally age 10 when he wrote a poem about wanting to become a doctor, but he's always felt great affection for Mike Nussbaum's very long success.
And I know that my dad's story is absolutely true and not one of those parent tales that gets embellished over the years. That's because about five years ago Mike Nussbaum was starring in another play at the Northlight Theatre, Better Late, which was written by my friend Larry Gelbart. Because I was going to be in town, Larry got seats for me and my dad, as well as my cousin Susie, and we all went to see it. The play was wonderful, and afterwards we hung around in the lobby waiting for the actors to leave the dressing rooms. (That's where they depart at the Northlight.) When Nussbaum showed up, I went over and introduced myself as a friend of Larry Gelbart, and we had a nice chat about that -- and then I mentioned that I believed he also know my dad, Edward Elisberg and pointed...and immediately his face lit up, he threw his arms out and shouted, "Eddie!!!!" My dad came over, and they had a warm, terrific conversation.
(To be clear, this wasn't the first time they'd seen each other in 75 years. They didn't cross paths often, very rarely, in fact, but I do know that they briefly visited at the Shakespeare Theatre when Nussbaum did King Lear. And when he had that Household Pest Control business I mentioned, I assume my dad overlapped with him then because Nussbaum's brother-in-law partner was the father of one of my brother's friends.)
After the play the other night, I again waited around in the lobby for Mike Nussbaum to arrive from his dressing room. Again I introduced myself to him and noted that I was the son of Eddie Elisberg. His face once more broke in to a big smile, and he spoke affectionately of my dad. And I was surprised by impressed that he was even aware that my dad had passed away recently. So, clearly he kept up with the "old gang" -- though I suspect there isn't much of the old gang left.
I believe Mike Nussbaum has said that this will be the last stage play he appears in. (In fact, the show closed the very next night.) Though I suspect he'll keep acting in films and TV, since there's less of a physical and mental strain -- though he was often prancing around the stage the other night almost like a kid.
I have no idea what Mike Nussbaum will, in fact, be up to next, but it was -- and always has been -- a joy to see him.