Friday 6 December 2019

Obituary: John Mahoney

English-born actor who started out on the stage but found fame in his 50s as Marty Crane in hit TV sitcom 'Frasier'

STAR ROLE: John Mahoney as Marty Crane in ‘Frasier’
STAR ROLE: John Mahoney as Marty Crane in ‘Frasier’

John Mahoney, who died last Sunday aged 77, played Marty Crane in Frasier, the long-running American television sitcom that found success on both sides of the Atlantic.

The show, which was on NBC and Channel 4 from 1993 to 2004, was a spin-off from Cheers and followed the relationship between Marty, a cantankerous ex-police officer, and Frasier (Kelsey Grammer), the son he never really understood who had returned to his home town of Seattle. Marty, a widower with mobility problems, had come to live with Frasier and they were joined by Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves), his live-in carer.

While filming, emotions could run high between Mahoney and Grammer, who had been estranged from his real father. "Sometimes it gets very painful for both of us," Mahoney told The Sunday Telegraph in 1998.

During the 11 years of Frasier, Mahoney, who was nominated for two Golden Globes and two Emmys for his role, commuted weekly from Chicago to Santa Monica for filming. He was often seen with Eddie, his character's lovable terrier who could chase his tail on cue. The show resonated around the world, with Mahoney telling how in Istanbul "somebody yelled out to me, 'Where's Eddie? Hey Marty? How's the dog?'"

After 260 episodes, he felt the show had reached a natural end. "I was afraid we were beginning to vulgarise ourselves," he said. Thereafter, despite some television roles, he returned to his first love, the theatre, saying: "You get such better parts on stage."

John Mahoney was born in Blackpool, Lancashire, on June 20, 1940, the seventh of eight children of Reg, an Irish baker who would play Schumann on the piano to avoid talking to his wife, Margaret, a voracious reader.

The family had been evacuated from the Withington area of Manchester during the war and Mahoney would recall their fondness for holding grudges. "I've got sisters who wouldn't talk to each other for 30 years because of some imagined insult," he told Time Out. Like his mother, he found solace in library books.

At the age of 11 he played Polonius in a Stretford children's theatre production of Hamlet. Despite supporting Manchester City, his first job was selling peanuts at Old Trafford. His abiding memory of the city was "need and want and ration books… with dirt and smoke and smog and fog".

One of his sisters, Vera, was a GI bride who moved to Illinois to become a farmer's wife. While visiting her, Mahoney fell in love with the US and vowed to return. To expedite his citizenship he joined the US army at 19. "I lost my accent on purpose," he explained of his desire to blend in. Only his Catholicism remained from his past.

He studied at Quincy University and Western Illinois University, paying his way by working as an orderly at a hospital and teaching English literature, but he "couldn't light any fire in my students". With his medical experience and a master's in English he became associate editor on The Journal for the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals, based in a 45th-floor office in Chicago.

That gradually became dispiriting, with Mahoney recalling how he was "spending all my time at home, smoking and drinking beer". After a visit to Manchester, in which he saw Albert Finney and Leo McKern in Uncle Vanya, he realised "I had to do something or I was just going to be a miserable, complaining, crabby old man". Remembering his childhood thespianism, he decided to give acting a go "before it's too late".

He enrolled in an eight-week acting class with David Mamet, who cast him in The Water Engine in 1977. Soon he had a part in Ashes with John Malkovich, who invited him to join the city's Steppenwolf theatre. He funded this new life by selling his furniture and books.

Mahoney was now in his element, tackling plays by Pinter, Beckett and Ariel Dorfman. His biggest success was in Lyle Kessler's Orphans in 1985, which transferred to New York, and he won a Tony award for John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves on Broadway in 1986.

He was also in a handful of films, notably as a lonely college professor in Moonstruck (1987) and as the father of an over-achieving high-school graduate in Say Anything... (1989). He landed the Frasier part after a cameo in Cheers.

There were occasional visits to London, such as for a rare revival of Kaufman and Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner in 1998 at the Barbican and as a High Court judge in Mamet's Romance in 2005. His final stage role was in The Rembrandt with the Steppenwolf in Chicago last autumn.

From 2002 until 2014 , John Mahoney became a regular at the Galway Arts Festival. In an interview in 2014 he said it had "all started in 2002 when I was doing Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night with the Irish Rep Company in Chicago. We were invited to bring it to the Galway Arts Festival, and performing it there was one of the highlights of my career, genuinely".

Mahoney, who thanks to Frasier could resume acquiring furniture, considered himself blessed at being able to change direction mid-career. "Some of the greatest actors in the world are driving cabs, tending bars and waiting tables," he added.

Although Mahoney told of relationships with several women, he never married, saying that surgery for colon cancer in 1985 had curtailed his ardour. "I'm very happy by myself," he added.

© Telegraph

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top