A Tribute to John Mahoney, an Actor We Thought We Knew |


John Mahoney, the beloved actor popularly remembered for his role on
“Frasier,” and who died on Monday, at the age of seventy-seven, was a
performer whose raspy-voiced warmth, handsome face, easy laugh, and
familiar presence created the illusion that he was your beloved old
friend. When you saw him for the first time—for me, it was when he
appeared in “Moonstruck,” in 1987—that presence radiated off the stage or

There’s much to swoon over in “Moonstruck”—Nicolas Cage, Cher, the
outbursts, the passion, the moon, the bakery, the brownstones, the Met,
“Oh, Ma, I love him awful”—but the chief John Mahoney scene is as
indelible as all the rest of it. He has a memorable role as a
fellow-patron at a restaurant at which Olympia Dukakis’s character, the
mother of Cher’s character, is a regular. Mahoney plays an aging
lothario professor who often gets drinks thrown in his face by indignant
younger women after a sleazy remark. Dukakis eats alone because her
husband is having an affair; Mahoney ends up alone because he’s a
scoundrel who can’t help offending his dates. One night, they eat
together, and their scene of getting to know each other, in which she’s
scolding, skeptical, sympathetic, and wise, and he’s chastened and
increasingly smitten, is a marvel. He can’t take his eyes off her, and
you can’t take your eyes off him. When he walks her home, swept off his
feet by a white-haired woman almost a decade his senior, he conveys a
feeling of mild magic, of floating on air—she’s both reformed him and
declared victory over his kind, gently rebuffing him, and he’s

In “Say Anything,” in 1989, he played an ideal father—at first. Ione
Skye plays his devoted, high-achieving daughter, and he’s a loving,
supportive divorced dad who runs an elder-care home. You immediately
believe the father-daughter bond, their mutual affection and respect,
and you believe that he would be warily protective of her as she begins
to date the ragtag aspiring kickboxer played by John Cusack. We spend
much of the movie watching Skye and Cusack fall in love and Cusack
trying to win over Mahoney, who makes us admire him despite his brusque
protectiveness. He’s not an ogre—he’s the kind of parent many people
aren’t lucky enough to have. I remember the joy in the theatre when
Mahoney’s character, having learned that Skye has been accepted to an
élite study program, drives along happily singing “Rikki Don’t Lose That
Number” and drumming his thumbs on the steering wheel. To me, that
moment—that perfectly captured sing-in-the-car mood—is better than the
famous Cusack boom-box scene. When Mahoney’s character is revealed to be
an embezzler, stealing money from the elderly clients he cares for, it
truly hurts. Cameron Crowe created a sympathetic character who’s also
self-interested and deceptive—not an obvious monster but a villain
nonetheless, and Mahoney made us believe all of it, including his
incredulity at the loss of his daughter’s affection. One of the things
that you take away from “Say Anything” is the quiet devastation that
Mahoney’s character wreaks—a complex bad feeling that’s just as
true to life as the soaring happiness of first love.

The only curveball of a role that I saw Mahoney play—in fact, it’s such
a curveball that you might remember the performance but be surprised to
remember that it was his—was in “Barton Fink,” the Coen brothers movie
from 1989, in which he plays W. P. Mayhew, a white-suited Faulkneresque
novelist turned Hollywood screenwriter. When Fink (played by John Turturro) lands in Hollywood and
tries to make his way in screenwriting, too, Mayhew dispenses steely
wisdom with a Southern drawl and staggers around with a bottle of
whiskey. He’s a souse with writer’s block, yelling, “Mah honey!,” and
failing to do much but philosophize, sing, and cash checks. The
performance was wild, controlled, and tinged with pathos; it might have
influenced your impression of Faulkner.

I went through a phase a while ago where I suddenly started watching
lots of “Frasier” reruns, and consequently became mildly fixated on
Mahoney. I can have complicated feelings about “Frasier,” except in my
undying affection for Niles (David Hyde Pierce), whom I could watch
forever. Mahoney, who played Martin Crane, Niles and Frasier’s father,
was rightly seen as the heart of the show, but I sometimes felt that
“Frasier” seemed to bank a bit too much on Mahoney’s natural warmth and
was a bit too cavalier with his talents. Martin, a wounded ex-cop, was
recognizably haimish: friendly, funny, just-folks, one of the guys, with
a ratty armchair and a feisty dog, a fun contrast to Frasier and Niles’s
fussy hauteur. Mahoney made a meal of the character and his zingers, but
Martin could be sitcom-broad, with an exaggerated limp and a hot temper;
he was written to be abrasive as well as lovable, and would throw
surprisingly emotional fits, quick to pronounce that his sons had
betrayed or disappointed him, which would then get resolved by the end
of the half hour. I suspect that Martin was supposed to stand in for the
audience in some way—the beer-drinking Joe America in front of the
TV—and we were meant to laugh with him at Frasier and Niles, but the
cartoonish parts of the character could undermine our ability to do
that. The role seemed a bit too easy for him, somehow; I tried to
reconcile my fondness for the actor, and for the better parts of his
“Frasier” character, with my grouchiness about its excesses. On more
than one occasion, I Googled him. Who was John Mahoney?

Well, John Mahoney was amazing. As you might have
read last night or today, he had an extraordinary life. Born in Britain
in 1940, he moved to Chicago and became a U.S. citizen, in 1959; he
didn’t become a professional actor until he was in his forties. In the
late nineteen-seventies, he joined the Steppenwolf Theatre, at the
invitation of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, and throughout his career,
when he wasn’t working in Hollywood or on TV, he was onstage in Chicago,
the city where he chose to spend much of his life. He was beloved by his
peers at the Steppenwolf and in the wider theatre community; I wish I’d
seen him onstage. He was famously private, I read, and this led me to
hope and believe that there was happy fulfillment behind that privacy.
Returning to my “Frasier” viewing after learning about who he was, it
seemed to me that Mahoney both enjoyed the role and appreciated it. He
didn’t participate in “Frasier” reunions, even at the request of Oprah.
He was grateful, but he had moved on. He was an actor, and it was a great
gig. Yesterday, Peri Gilpin, who played Roz, on “Frasier,” tweeted a
photo of him singing at her wedding.

When I read, yesterday, that he died, I yelled, “No!,” like a weirdo. The
impulse came from the same place the “Frasier”-era Googling came from: a
deep fondness for an actor I didn’t know, born of his brilliance at
creating the feeling that I did.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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