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The Man in the Mirror

It's not much of a stretch for Mike Nussbaum to get into character for his latest role.

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Mike Nussbaum first heard of Donald Waldman about a year ago, though he says he feels he's known him all his life. Waldman is the fictional 78-year-old World War II veteran at the center of Hearts: The Forward Observer, playing at the Northlight Theatre. Nussbaum is the 78-year-old veteran of more than 40 years of theater productions who's playing Waldman.

It's one World War II vet paying tribute to another. "Some of what Donald lived I lived too, though without the combat years," says Nussbaum. "It's my generation. I understand."

Waldman is based on a man named Donald Holtzman, the father of the play's author, Willy Holtzman. Like Waldman, Donald grew up in a working-class Jewish section of Saint Louis, graduated from a predominantly Jewish public high school (University High), got drafted, and went off to fight the Nazis in 1944. He killed people and saw friends get killed. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate a concentration camp. The violence he saw filled him with horror.

After the war Holtzman, like thousands of other combat veterans, simply went home. He took a job selling furniture in Saint Louis, got married, had two children, moved to a small house in the suburbs, and never talked about his war experiences, even when people asked.

"My father didn't have a lot to say about the war, and back then I didn't really ask a lot of questions," says Willy Holtzman. "We lived in Olivette, Missouri, which is outside of Saint Louis, in the typical cookie-cutter kind of house. It was very Jewish. My best friends had fathers who worked in auto parts, scrap metal, furniture--there were a few pawnbrokers. They used to gather in our basement, my father and his friends, to play hearts. They loved playing hearts. They were loud. They'd be laughing uproariously one minute, then screaming at each other the next--probably after someone dropped the queen. And then they'd make up and start laughing again."

As Willy grew older, he began to wonder about the mood swings of his father and his friends. "My father was a compulsive eater--he'd eat the way an alcoholic drank, just absorbing it," he says. "I didn't know why he acted like he did. At first, I didn't really care. I grew up in this little development where one house looks like the next, and stupidly I thought that one life is like the next. Then I started thinking about the individuality of each life--not just my dad's, but the other guys he was playing cards with. I realized I was going to write about it."

His father objected. "I told him I wanted to write a play about his war experiences, and he said, 'I don't want you to glorify what I did. I didn't do anything any other guy wouldn't do.' I said, 'What about the medals?' He said, 'Fuck the medals!' But then he realized I was going to write the play anyway, and he became an active collaborator. We started talking about things I didn't know."

The more Holtzman probed, the more it became obvious that his father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. "We don't think about it affecting World War II vets so much as veterans of Vietnam," says Holtzman, "but they had it too."

Hearts, which Holtzman finished in 1999, contains scenes of Waldman killing enemy soldiers, liberating a concentration camp, having a mental breakdown, and being sent to an institution. And of him eating compulsively and playing raucous games of hearts with his friends.

The play won the Arthur Miller Award for Dramatic Writing and was staged in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and New Haven. Those productions got glowing reviews, but Holtzman believes that Nussbaum was destined to play Waldman.

Nussbaum sees many parallels between his life and Waldman's. Nussbaum grew up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood (Albany Park), went to what was then a predominantly Jewish high school (Von Steuben), and enjoyed playing cards with his friends (though pinochle, not hearts). After high school he went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to study theater, but after a year he enlisted. "I never saw combat," he says. "I washed out of the air force because of bad eyes and became a teletype operator. In fact, I sent the message that ended the war. It was from Eisenhower, and it went to the Pentagon. It said that as of such and such a time [German] General Jodl had signed the instrument of surrender. My initials are at the bottom. I have a copy of it somewhere."

After the war Nussbaum returned to school in Madison, though not for long. "I had gotten married, and we were having a family," he says. "I didn't think there was any chance to make a living as an actor."

So he moved back to Chicago, opened an extermination business with his brother-in-law, and moved to Highland Park. "I was living the American dream--I wanted to raise my kids in the suburbs like everyone else," he says. "I found a house I could afford on a small cul-de-sac. We had three kids. My kids are still unhappy about being raised in the suburbs. They throw it up to me all the time. They say, 'We should have stayed in Chicago.' They missed the excitement of the city. They were probably right."

But Nussbaum says he wasn't haunted by his war experience. "The big difference is that I never saw combat, unlike Waldman or Holtzman. For me, the war was not nearly as traumatic. The only medal I got was a good-conduct medal. I don't even know where it is. I was never too involved in veteran groups. There were only one or two army friends that I stayed in touch with. I don't go to reunions. For me the war was a different kind of maturation process than it was for the guys who saw combat. I was 19 when I went in and 23 when I came out. I became more self-confident in those years. I came out with the feeling 'If I can do this I can do anything.' I was lucky that way."

Throughout the 50s and 60s, Nussbaum acted in various North Shore community theaters. Then he started getting roles in off-Loop productions. "I finally sold the business in 1970," he says. "I was too involved in theater--Hull House, Drury Lane, the Candlelight, the Goodman--to do both. I got very lucky partly because of Hull House and partly because of my association with David Mamet. I met him way back when he was a 14-year-old working as a gofer backstage at Hull House."

Over the last 30 years he's been in plays on Broadway and in Europe; he's also had movie roles. But he'd never portrayed a World War II veteran until Hearts came along. He saw the script last year. "Bill Wise, who was playing the role of Donald Waldman in the Philadelphia production, told me about it," he says. "He said, 'Mike, it's a great part for you.' So I called [Northlight artistic director] B.J. Jones. And B.J. said, 'I happen to have a copy of the script on my desk. I think it's perfect for you.' When I read it I was impressed, but I didn't know if I could do the play. It's physically exhausting--my character's onstage for over 90 minutes without an intermission. It's one of those things where if you're as old as the character you're too old for the part."

Yet Nussbaum manages, roaring and raging and leaping about when he has to. He often stays around for the postproduction discussion, and large numbers of veterans from different wars have shaken his hand and told him how he got it right.

"Dan Loria played the role in New Haven, and he's a Vietnam vet, a former captain in the marines," says Willy Holtzman. "When he first saw the script and all the jumping around he had, he started in with 'My neck, my knees.' He said, 'You can't tell me Nussbaum's doing this in Chicago.'"

According to Holtzman, Nussbaum's performance hits closest to home, at least for his father. "My father's got big balls to let me put this onstage," he says, "and seeing Nussbaum do it was harder for him. I mean, here's this Jewish guy who's his age. I think the little bit of distance my father had on the play with the other productions, when it was with younger actors, is gone."

And how has his father responded to the play itself? "He's seen it several times, and I think he likes it," says Holtzman. "He says I got it right. Well, there's one exception. I changed the name of the high school he went to. In the play I have him going to Soldan High School, which was his high school's rival. That drives him crazy. He told me, 'I went to University High. I didn't go to Soldan. I hated those motherfuckers.' I said, 'I'm sorry, dad, but U High sounds kind of preppy.' I think that's hard for him to live with, but he's managing."

The play has revived old memories for Nussbaum too. "The concentration camp scene reminded me of things I had gone through, though not nearly as intense," he says. "Right after the war I got a call from my father. He said a cousin of mine had been released from a concentration camp. I was able to get a leave and go to Paris, and I found that cousin in a large, old, crummy apartment building filled with refugees from all over Europe. There must have been seven different countries in that place, involving Jews speaking a variety of different languages."

His cousin's name was Felix. "Felix's father was the youngest of 21 children," says Nussbaum. "Felix's mother was my father's sister. His whole family disappeared. I remember him telling me this, but the thing that made the most impression on me is that he had lost his wife and two children in the camps. I don't know what I would have done if I had been forced into one of those camps. No one does. You'd like to think that you'd have acted with courage, but who knows how you would react under those situations? To me it's so hard to understand how people are able to find the courage and strength to suck it up and go on living after that. And yet they do."

Despite the stress of the memories and the strain of the production, Nussbaum says the play is strangely uplifting for him. "There's that scene near the end where Waldman says to the concentration camp survivor, 'How could you let them do this to you?' You know, 'Dying would be better than this.' But at the end of the play he realizes that surviving is the way--perhaps the only way--to fight back."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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