Saturday 25 May 2019

Sitcom star John Mahoney all set for festival return

He's known to many as Martin Crane in 'Frasier', but actor John Mahoney's adopting a Dublin accent for his latest role

Stalwart: John Mahoney first acted in the Galway festival in 2002
Stalwart: John Mahoney first acted in the Galway festival in 2002

Sophie Gorman

American actor John Mahoney may be instantly recognisable as Frasier's dad Martin Crane, but the seminal sitcom is far from the beginning or end of his acting career, as visitors to the Galway International Arts Festival (giaf.ie) over the last decade or so can attest to.

Since 2002, John has been showing Irish audiences some of the many more strings to his bow with powerful stage performances. He returns this July with the European premiere of Chapatti, a new play by Irish playwright Christian O'Reilly.

"This is actually my fifth play in the festival, and I also have done a couple of musical things over the years with people like T Bone Burnett," John tells me.

"I just keep coming to Galway. It 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.

"I met Paul (Fahy, now the artistic director of the festival) the first time I came over and we struck up a friendship that goes beyond the theatre. I'm not just saying this to blow smoke up you, but my two favourite places in the world are Galway and Chicago."

John was personally involved in making Chapatti happen as a co-production between the festival and Northlight. "I came off stage one night at the Town Hall Theatre (in Galway) and went to my dressing room and there was a script on the floor. Christian O'Reilly (the playwright) had slipped under the door," he says.

"I recognised his name immediately for his work with Druid. I had seen his play The Good Father and was tremendously impressed by him. But I was wary about reading it. We were always taught in Frasier never to read unsolicited manuscripts or things that don't come through an agent because of legal repercussions that might arise with people claiming you stole their ideas or whatever. But, when I was on the plane coming home, my Kindle had run down and I had nothing to read, so I snuck it out like a spy and read it without almost breathing. And I just went crazy about it."

The play is set in Dublin, so how is John getting on with his Dublin drawl? "I'm going to be trying out my Dublin accent, but I fear it's a little bit like bringing coals to Newcastle and I'll admit I am very nervous about it," he says. "I have never done an Irish accent in Ireland, only in the United States, where you can get away with a lot more. If my accent isn't right, though, Gabriel Byrne is to blame. I acted with him in In Treatment and, on the very first day, he told me he'd heard I was making a Hugh Leonard play and he offered to record a few pages of the text for me to hear how it should sound, so it's his Dublin accent I will be attempting."

John was born in Blackpool, England, but is actually Mancunian. "When I was born, Manchester was being bombed, so they sent my mother to Blackpool, but I was raised in Manchester for 19 years until I emigrated to the United States, where my sister already was," he says. "I'm one of eight children, but there's just my sister Rita and I left now."

Given that John is from such a large family, is there an Irish link to his background? "Yes indeed, my grandfather Michael O'Mahoney was from Cork city, so there is real Irish blood in me," he replies.

John is adroit at juggling theatre and film and TV work, but where does his heart lie? "In the theatre, no question about it," he says. "I started with theatre and then got a small TV parts. Then, after I won a Tony (award) for The House of Blue Leaves in 1986, I got offered all these film parts without needing to audition, which was an entirely new experience for me.

"But now that I am reaching the autumn of my years, I am not that much interested in film and TV. I do occasionally take parts, but I have turned down at least 15 series since Frasier ended. I don't want to go out of town and they don't film much in Chicago. I was basically living out of a suitcase for 11 years when we made Frasier in LA."

With the enduring success of Frasier, did he ever wonder if he would get away from it? "I was not quite so obsessed with it as a lot of people were. It was great fun to do and I want it to be my TV legacy, but to tell you the truth I was glad when it was over. I did talk to them a couple of times to see if they could take me and Martin out of it.

"When the show was first pitched to me, it was about Kelsey (Grammer) and his dad, and then David (Hyde Pierce) arrived as Niles and he was so brilliant right off the bat that it went in a different direction and became about the two brothers.

"I started wondering why I gave everything up just to say a couple of lines in an episode, but they wouldn't let me out – they knew that Martin represented the audience, saying everything they wanted to say to these prim and precious brothers. The thing that made it easier to stay, though, was because I absolutely loved that cast. When I left England, I thought nothing would be harder than leaving my family, but it was just as hard to leave my Frasier family."

And was there just one Eddie (Martin's pet dog) over all those 11 years? "Actually, the original Eddie's son took over for the last four years – and we were all very grateful for that too!

"Eddie's real name was Moose and he was extremely unfriendly. He wouldn't bite you, but he just couldn't care less if he ever saw you again, and after all those years he wouldn't know me from Adam. They had to put liver pate behind David's ears, and I used to get my face coated in sardine oil to make him lick me as if he liked me."

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