We all have a different John Mahoney “aha!” moment. That’s how it goes with character actors who serve their material while showing us a little something of themselves: They bring us to them through the story they’re telling, rather than demanding our attention at the expense of it.
For some the “aha!” came in 1989’s “Say Anything,” in which Mahoney, in one of his many gruff but humane dad roles, shared screen time with John Cusack and Ione Skye and carefully tethered Cameron Crowe’s teen romance to something resembling planet Earth.
For others it happened two years earlier, in Barry Levinson’s “Tin Men,” Mahoney’s sixth feature but the first big one. Without a speck of grandstanding, he anchored the early ’60s aluminum siding sales office populated by Richard Dreyfuss, Seymour Cassel and other mugs. Mahoney seemed like he’d been around forever, in the best way. That growly voice, so delightfully at odds with that marvelous, malleable, indelible face, made you listen, even at a whisper.
By then, like so many others, I’d seen Mahoney on stage, in a Steppenwolf play, “And a Nightingale Sang.” The 1982 production remains a peak theatergoing experience for me — my working definition of fluid ensemble performance. A few years later, off-Broadway, Mahoney dined out on the role of the mysterious businessman and adoptive uncle in Lyle Kessler’s “Orphans.” That was the one that kicked his screen career into gear. It wasn’t much of a play, but some plays get by as showcases for the right talent. Mahoney, wielding a Tiparillo like a magic wand, turned on dime after dime in that part, his entire demeanor shape-shifting from warmth to ice in a nanosecond.
Mahoney, a longtime Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member widely known for his work on the NBC sitcom “Frasier,” died Feb. 4 at the age of 77.
As director Gary Sinise told Backstage in 2007: “It was a perfect role for him. You never quite knew if he was a mob guy, or an angel sent to protect the boys.”
By the time Mahoney slipped into “Moonstruck,” the 1987 romantic comedy starring Cher and Nicolas Cage, his camera sense was well honed and unerring. He’d done so much theater by then, yet just enough on screen to seem like a natural in any medium.
His two scenes in “Moonstruck” add up to my favorite early work of his, comprising a perfect little one-act play in the middle of a movie that has gotten even better with age. Just like Mahoney, come to think of it.
Everybody knows him from “Frasier,” deservedly; the casting and performance polish on that 11-year NBC sitcom really was miraculous. But earlier work such as “Moonstruck” reminds us what Mahoney could do before he became a fixture.
“Moonstruck” screenwriter John Patrick Shanley sets up the vignette this way: It’s a restaurant encounter. Rose, played by Olympia Dukakis, dines alone at a neighborhood bistro. Her husband has strayed; her entire family’s romantic complications are a mess.
Barely audible at first, at a nearby table for two, an argument simmers between an NYU communications professor and one of his students, his latest eight-weeks-and-so-long lover. The professor says something callous; the student throws a glass of water in his face and leaves in a huff. The professor is played by Mahoney, and after he apologizes to Rose for the disruption, she invites him to join her table.
The scene, followed by a shorter one on the street, is wonderful a dozen different ways, starting with the slight, flustered delay Mahoney fills so beautifully after Dukakis asks him why men chase women. His one-word blurt of an answer: “Nerves.” From there the professor grows unexpectedly reflective, and melancholy, and then superficially charming again. The wolf in the sheep’s clothes returns. Mahoney’s touch is feather-light but completely true. It’s like watching a character really think, hard, about difficult matters for the first time in his life, before scurrying back to safety.
Mahoney was a kind man. During my first drama critic gig, at the Dallas Times-Herald in the late 1980s, I reviewed a local production of “Orphans” and talked briefly about Mahoney’s performance in the New York production. Mahoney, as it happened, was shooting a movie near Dallas at the time, “Love Hurts.” On Holiday Inn stationery, he wrote a thank-you note he really didn’t need to write.
Decades later, in Chicago, we talked about his work in the Steppenwolf production of “I Never Sang for My Father,” for a feature on director Anna D. Shapiro. He struggled with that role, and acknowledged his dissatisfaction with the results; the character was a tough, unyielding bully and maybe all those episodes of “Frasier” made it extra difficult to find the key.
“I couldn’t find anything to like about that character,” he told me. “Anna didn’t coddle me. I’d look for places to soften him, but just like Jerry Zaks did with me on ‘The House of Blue Leaves’ [in New York], she said: ‘Don’t. Don’t do it. The audience won’t necessarily like you, but they’ll understand your motives.’ ”
Mahoney won a Tony Award for “The House of Blue Leaves.” He won the hearts and the respect of hundreds of colleagues across a career spanning storefront Chicago theater in the ’70s to “Hot in Cleveland” on TV.
Through their work, other actors have made equally persuasive arguments for a late start on an acting career, when the performer is good and ready. But at the moment I can’t think of any.