Brow Beat

Actor John Mahoney Has Died at 77

 John Mahoney attends the premiere of Flipped at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in Indianapolis, Indiana, 2010.
John Mahoney attends the premiere of Flipped at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in Indianapolis, Indiana, 2010.
Joey Foley/Getty Images

Actor John Mahoney has died at the age of 77, Variety reports. Mahoney, who played Martin Crane on Frasier, was in hospice care in his adopted hometown of Chicago. Besides his work on Frasier, he was known for memorable roles in movies like Say Anything and Barton Fink, as well as a long and successful theatrical career.

Mahoney was born in Blackpool, England in 1940, but fell in love with the United States after visiting his war-bride sister at age 11. “It was so bleak and dark in England—those gray and foggy postwar years,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1996. “Here, it was so sunny. The people smiled.” At 19, he returned to the U.S., serving in the Army and eventually becoming a citizen. Acting came late in life: Mahoney, a graduate of Quincy College, began his career teaching English at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois, then took a job editing a medical journal in Chicago. The work paid well but didn’t suit him, and at 37 he quit to pursue acting, a decision he described in a 1990 interview:

I just wasn’t happy. I didn’t go home at night and bang my head against the wall, but I was smoking a lot and drinking a lot and it all sort of caught up with me in this dark night of the soul. I finally thought, before I get too old, I’ve got to try it, and if it doesn’t work out, at least I’m not going to be 65 years old, looking back over my life and saying, “God, why didn’t I at least try?”

It worked out. Mahoney landed at the Steppenwolf Theatre, a stroke of luck he attributed to his age: “Finally, they would have somebody who actually looks old enough to play a father.” A 1985 production of Lyle Kessler’s Orphans brought him to national attention; he followed it with a 1986 revival of John Guare’s House of Blue Leaves, in which he starred with Swoosie Kurtz and Stockard Channing (Ben Stiller had a minor role). The role won Mahoney a Tony Award. In his acceptance speech, he said, “this wasn’t really necessary, but you’ll never get it back.”

The late 1980s brought Mahoney to Hollywood, where he played memorable roles in Moonstruck, Eight Men Out, and Say Anything. In 1991 he turned in a particularly amazing performance in Barton Fink as W.P. Mayhew, a deranged riff on William Faulkner that pitted Mahoney’s considerable charm against extremely shabby surroundings:

In 1993, Mahoney was cast his most famous role: Martin Crane, the cranky, salt-of-the-earth father to Kelsey Grammar and David Hyde Pierce’s pompous sons on Cheers spinoff Frasier. The show ran for eleven years and put Mahoney in a financial position to do whatever he wanted. What he wanted to do was theater; what he didn’t want to do was talk about being on Frasier. He was the only Frasier cast member to skip an Oprah Winfrey tribute to the show on the occasion of its 200th episode, later saying, “That kind of thing bores me. I have better things to do with my life. I’m 63, I’ve made a ton of money, and I don’t have to worry about my next job.” He returned to television from time to time, with roles on In Treatment and Hot in Cleveland, but for the most part kept to his post-Frasier plan of living and working in theater in Chicago. He appeared last fall in the Steppenwolf production of The Rembrandt. Here’s John Mahoney, in 1990, describing his late-in-life career change:

I remember walking to work one day when I was doing a play called Funeral March for a One-Man Band, and I was just sort of leaping in the air in this joy that I had never felt since I was a child. It’s an amazing feeling when you’re finally doing what you want to do more than anything else in the world.

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Matthew Dessem

Matthew Dessem is Brow Beat’s nights and weekends editor and the author of a biography of screenwriter and director Clyde Bruckman.