John Mahoney, Actor Best Known for ‘Frasier,’ Is Dead at 77
Posted February 6, 2018 2:29 p.m. EST
Updated February 6, 2018 2:30 p.m. EST
John Mahoney, the gravel-voiced, Tony Award-winning, British-born actor who came to embody all-American grass-roots fatherhood on the hit sitcom “Frasier,” died Sunday in Chicago. He was 77.
The death, in a hospital, was confirmed by Paul Martino, his longtime manager, who did not specify the cause.
Mahoney was trained at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and worked frequently onstage. But he was best known as Martin Crane, the blue-collar father of two painfully pretentious white-collar sons on “Frasier,” seen on NBC from 1993 to 2004.
While Frasier and Niles Crane, both psychiatrists, worried about wine vintages, cappuccino bars and opening nights, Marty, a retired police officer, cherished his dog, his duct-tape-accented recliner chair and the solid values of his generation. Once, when his younger son declared a certain restaurant’s cuisine “to die for,” Marty corrected him. “Niles, your country and your family are to die for,” he said. “Food is to eat.”
Mahoney received two Emmy nominations for the role. He also won a Tony Award for playing Artie Shaughnessy, a Queens zookeeper who dreams of being a songwriter, in the 1986 Broadway revival of John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves.”
Mahoney had started out with the Steppenwolf Theater when it was in its infancy and he was nearing 40. “I think they found me attractive only because of my age,” he once said. “Finally, they would have somebody who actually looks old enough to play a father.”
Charles John Mahoney was born on June 20, 1940, in Blackpool, Lancashire, England, one of eight children of Reg Mahoney, a Manchester baker, and the former Margaret Watson. The family had been evacuated to Lancashire when Manchester was a bombing target in World War II.
After the war, John traveled to the United States to visit an older sister, who had married an American and lived in Illinois. He decided he wanted to make his life there when he grew up. In his late teens, he returned and earned his U.S. citizenship by serving in the Army.
After his military service (during which, he said, he deliberately shed his British accent), he went to college, earning a bachelor’s degree from Quincy College in Illinois (now Quincy University) and a master’s in English from Western Illinois University in Macomb. He taught for a while, then settled into a life of office work. At 37, he was an editor at a medical journal and desperately dissatisfied.
“I had to do something or I was just going to be a miserable, complaining, crabby old man,” Mahoney told NWI Times, an Indiana publication, in 2011. He had enjoyed doing children’s theater long ago, so he decided to give acting a try. And, as he said in the same interview, “Things fell into place.”
He took acting classes at the St. Nicholas Theater in Chicago, where his teacher happened to be playwright David Mamet. That same year he appeared in Mamet’s “The Water Engine.” One of his fellow cast members happened to be John Malkovich, then an unknown actor, who invited him to join the fledgling Steppenwolf Theater Company, founded in 1974.
Mahoney appeared in dozens of Steppenwolf productions, including “Of Mice and Men,” “Born Yesterday,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and “The Dresser.” One production, “Orphans,” transferred to New York in 1985, and Mahoney found himself with a Theater World Award for his performance as a mobster kidnapped by small-time criminals.
A year later he was starring at Lincoln Center, alongside Stockard Channing, Christopher Walken, Ben Stiller and Swoosie Kurtz, in “The House of Blue Leaves.”
He returned to Broadway only once, in 1992, just before “Frasier” began. He played the frail character, known only as Old Man, who magically trades bodies with a healthy young woman in Craig Lucas’ “Prelude to a Kiss.”
Mahoney never married. He told one interviewer that his love of theater was his family substitute — and another that he would never consider a romantic relationship after dealing with serious medical problems.
He is survived by a sister, Rita Sullivan. Mahoney appeared in some 30 films, beginning in 1981 with “Hudson Taylor,” a religious drama about a British missionary. The big-name directors soon came calling.
For Joel and Ethan Coen, he played an alcoholic Southern novelist in “Barton Fink” (1989) and a gruff newspaper editor in “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994).
He had a particularly good year in 1987 when Barry Levinson cast him as an aluminum-siding salesman in the highly praised “Tin Men,” and he won a small but meaty part in Norman Jewison’s “Moonstruck” as a silver-haired college professor who joins Olympia Dukakis for dinner at an Italian restaurant — and walks her home — after his student-age date had thrown a drink in his face.
Other roles included Ione Skye’s seemingly upstanding father in “Say Anything” (1989) and a Washington lobbyist in “The American President.”
After “Frasier,” he continued to work in television, making memorable appearances on the HBO drama series “In Treatment” (2009) as an insomniac executive with deeper problems, and on the comedy “Hot in Cleveland” (which also starred his “Frasier” co-star Jane Leeves) in a recurring role (2011-14) as Betty White’s love interest.
His last screen appearance was in a 2015 episode of the British drama series “Foyle’s War,” set in his childhood environment, 1940s England. He played a dying rich man — American, of course.
Mahoney was never fond of being interviewed. “I would rather walk across broken glass,” he told a reporter for The Chicago Tribune in 1996.
He was not crazy about Hollywood, either, and spent as much time as possible in Chicago, his adopted hometown, which he praised for its combination of culture and Midwestern friendliness.
“I can walk to all sorts of good places,” he said, describing the restaurant scene in his longtime Oak Park neighborhood, “where the waiters and waitresses don’t want me to read their screenplays.”