John Mahoney 1940–2018
The Frasier star who found fame late in life
John Mahoney was a late bloomer. The Tony award–winning performer, best known for playing Kelsey Grammer’s crotchety, kindhearted father on the sitcom Frasier, didn’t start acting until age 37. Unhappy in his job as the editor of a medical journal, Mahoney began taking acting classes at Chicago’s St. Nicholas Theater. There he caught the eye of the young John Malkovich, then an unknown actor, who invited him to join the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1979. Still in its infancy, Steppenwolf desperately needed older actors to fill out its ensemble of up-and-coming performers. “By the time I started my career, most people had given up and started selling insurance,” Mahoney said. “I didn’t have so much competition.”
Mahoney was born in the northern English city of Blackpool to a baker and his homemaker wife, said The Guardian (U.K.). A 1951 trip to Illinois, where his sister had settled with an American sailor, “made such an impression on him that he returned eight years later under her sponsorship.” Mahoney earned his citizenship by serving in the U.S. Army, then worked as a teacher and a medical writer. He appeared “in dozens of Steppenwolf productions” before achieving any kind of national notoriety, said The New York Times. In 1986, he won a Tony award for his Broadway debut in The House of Blue Leaves, playing a zookeeper with dreams of being a songwriter. A string of film roles followed, including a memorable turn as an alcoholic professor in 1987’s Moonstruck.
A 1992 appearance on Cheers, “the sitcom that included Grammer as the pompous psychiatrist Frasier Crane,” set Mahoney on the path to TV stardom, said The Washington Post. When Frasier was spun off in 1993, Grammer pleaded with Mahoney to join the cast. As Marty Crane, a retired cop who moves into Frasier’s chichi Seattle apartment with his patched-up recliner and feisty terrier, Mahoney “often supplied a dose of plainspoken wisdom that punctured his sons’ cultural pretensions.” He earned two Emmy nominations for best supporting actor during the show’s 11-season run. But Mahoney never relished fame, and spent as much time as possible back in Chicago. “I can walk to all sorts of good places,” he said of the restaurants in his Oak Park neighborhood, “where the waiters and waitresses don’t want me to read their screenplays.”