Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Elegy to the Outgoing Tide: Remembering the Remarkable John Mahoney (1940-2018)

On Monday evening, when news broke about the passing of actor John Mahoney--at age 77, of complications from throat cancer--reports and tweets from national news outlets and widespread fans primarily referenced his role on the NBC sitcom, Frasier.

This is certainly understandable, as the 11 years Mahoney spent starring as the lovably irascible Martin Crane--father to Kelsey Grammer's title character and his brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce)--undoubtedly represent his highest profile acting credit.

And he was great in the role.

But truth be told, I never watched Frasier all that much. I loved Cheers, from which Grammer's pompous psychiatrist was spun off onto his own show. Yet while I liked the characters of Frasier, Niles and Martin, I just wasn't compelled to tune in with regularity. Even in reruns.

Nonetheless, my admiration and appreciation for Mahoney could hardly be higher, and my sorrow over his passing feels considerably more acute than for most celebrities.

Before he was on Frasier, I enjoyed his work in the movie Say Anything with John Cusack and Ione Skye. I think this was the first I was aware of him.

He was also excellent on film in Barton Fink, Primal Fear, She's the One and more. 

Though I never had the pleasure of meeting Mahoney, I firmly believe the many wonderful things people have said--long before his passing, and profusely since--about what a nice man he was. 

And the story of his life, far beyond the success he found on Frasier, is rather remarkable. 

Per Wikipedia, Mahoney was born in Blackpool, Lancashire, England on June 20, 1940 and opted to move to the United States while still a young man.

He studied at Quincy University, in Illinois, before joining the United States Army to speed up the U.S. citizenship process, and received citizenship in 1959.

In the early 1970s, he taught English at Western Illinois University before settling in the Chicago suburbs of Forest Park and then Oak Park and serving as editor of a medical journal through much of the decade.

Dissatisfied with his career, he took acting classes at St. Nicholas Theatre, and soon decided to pursue acting full-time. After a production in Chicago in 1977, John Malkovich encouraged him to join the Steppenwolf Theatre, where he would receive raves in a play called Orphans, among several performances.

In 1986, Mahoney won a Tony Award for his performance in John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves on Broadway.

Frasier began in 1993, and after its highly successful run ended in 2004, Mahoney continued to occasionally act in TV & film.

John Mahoney in The Outgoing Tide, Northlight Theatre
But he returned to live in Oak Park and quite prolifically resumed his theater careeer on Chicago area stages.

I first saw him at Steppenwolf--where he had remained in the esteemed ensemble--in 2004, in both I Never Sang for My Father and The Dresser. I would also see him there in The Seafarer (2009), The Birthday Party (2013) and The Herd (2015).

He also appeared at Northlight Theatre in my hometown of Skokie, where 2011's The Outgoing Tide--about an aging man facing Alzheimer's and the end of his life--was one of the best plays I've ever seen anywhere.

I also really loved him in Chapatti (2014), got a kick out of seeing him act alongside the wondrous Mike Nussbaum in Better Late (2008) and enjoyed him in 2010's A Life.

Mahoney was part of Ravinia's 2005 concert staging of the Stephen Sondheim musical, Anyone Can Whistle, and in 2014 served as emcee as the Auditorium Theatre celebrated his 125th year with a showcase called Living the History.

So that makes 11 times I saw John Mahoney onstage, and every time was a treat, as I commonly shared in reviews (note the hyperlinks above).

At some points during the past decade, he appeared alarmingly frail--yet always acted terrifically--and it was heartwarming to note him being far more hale in more recent shows, though I last saw him in 2015.

Per this article, Mahoney fought cancer 20 years ago, and overcame a Stage 3 bout three years back, sharing in October 2017 that "according to my doctors, I’m clear of it now."

John Mahoney in Chapatti, Northlight Theatre
And indeed, from September to November of last year, the actor starred at Steppenwolf in The Rembrandt.

Regretfully, I didn't get to it.

Reviews of the play weren't outstanding and Cubs playoff action and various other shows kept me busy enough to not make it a priority.

Obviously, I now wish I had.

Reports are that he died on Sunday in hospice care due to complications from throat cancer. He had no direct survivors, but based on the outpouring of love, far and wide, myriad admirers.

Friends of mine from Oak Park have even shared personal anecdotes about Mahoney's accessibility and kindness.

I will acutely miss him and will always think of him fondly, not just for his good nature but for--at age 37--deciding he wanted to be an actor, and soon becoming great it.

Chase your dreams, no matter where the starting point.

And while I can't tell you what The Rembrandt was about, from all my observations it seems rather obvious that John Mahoney himself was quite a masterpiece.

1 comment:

Ken said...

By all accounts a great man and a great artist. Will miss him greatly. Thanks for this biography of his life. Much appreciated.