Theatre yesterday and today



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John Mahoney (1940-2018) died yesterday, succumbing to throat cancer, at the age of seventy-seven. I will never forget my first time coming across this wonderful actor in 1985, upon his New York stage debut in Lyle Kessler's Orphans, imported from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. This was still early in the days of this company's particular brand of viscerally charged theatre, having first broken upon the New York theatre scene in 1982 with their rediscovery of Sam Shepard's True West (starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinese), a play critics had dismissed a few years earlier in its initial Off-Broadway production. Though not a founding member of Steppenwolf, Mahoney was one of its earliest "finds," representative of one of the finest actors on the Chicago theatre scene back in the late 70s and early 80s.

John Mahoney with Kelsey Grammer from Frasier's final episode (2004).

But Mahoney was different from his dynamic cohorts, due to the fact that he was their senior by as much as twelve to fifteen years. All the better for him, as it meant he was getting the lion's share of older (and often scene-stealing roles). “I think they found me attractive only because of my age ... finally, they would have somebody who actually looks old enough to play a father." Having come to the acting profession at the late age of thirty-seven, Mahoney rescued himself from a dead-end, soul killing job as an editor at a medical journal. It took time and dedication, but in the three-character Orphans, Mahoney showed enormous reserves of power opposite the kinetic and literally off-the-walls performances given by Kevin Anderson and Terry Kinney. When it played Off-Broadway's Westside Arts Theatre in 1985, Mahoney was so good in the role, I had to see it twice. I had never encountered a middle-aged actor burst onto the scene this way, nor do I suspect did casting directors, either. As a direct result of Orphans, Mahoney became a go-to character actor in films, with two credits in 1986, then four in 1987, including Moonstruck, where he scored brilliantly with his brief scenes opposite Olympia Dukakis, who won an Academy Award for her performance. By 1993, before he began his eleven seasons on TV's Frasier, among Mahoney's many credits were two pictures for the Coen Brothers, one for Clint Eastwood, and a performance as Ione Skye's father in Cameron Crowe's Say Anything that was so good, it should have garnered him his own Academy Award nomination.

Terry Kinney, John Mahoney (tied up) and Kevin Anderson in Orphans (1985).

In 1986, Mahoney was cast in the Lincoln Center Theatre's revival of John Guare's masterpiece, The House of Blue Leaves. To this day, it is the only play I have ever returned to the box office the following day to buy tickets to see again. Frank Rich in the New York Times called Mahoney "exceptionally impressive," and it won him the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play. I eventually returned to see the play a third time, in search of the secret of how Mahoney managed to effortlessly blend the comedic and tragic aspects of his character, matched blow for blow with that of Swoosie Kurtz as his wife, Bananas. Even thirty years later, I've rarely seen acting get much better than that.

"Hi! My name is Artie Shaughnessy, and I'm going to sing you songs I wrote!" I love this crazy, bizarre commercial ...

With the financial independence that 263 episodes of Frasier brought him, Mahoney continued to work in the theatre for the better part of the rest of his career. Even if in 2009 he said, "You're supposed to say how wonderful the stage is and how you only do film and TV for the money, but that sounds a bit whorish to me," Mahoney still chose time and again to work in the theatre. He returned to Broadway just once, in a 2007 revival of Craig Lucas's Prelude to a Kiss, and did stage work in Los Angeles only sparingly. Mainly, he confined himself to Chicago, his adoptive home town, where he acted for scale in such great roles as James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Irish Repertory of Chicago, or at his beloved Steppenwolf, where he totaled more than thirty productions over his thirty-nine years with them. He also shared a close collaboration with the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, whose artistic director BJ Jones was quoted in an obit saying that Mahoney was "the essence of a Chicago theater creature. He defined it."

Many people were probably unaware (until reading about it yesterday) that Mahoney was born in Manchester, England. According to the Chicago Tribune, he was "a wartime evacuee to Blackpool on the Lancashire coast ... who first came to Illinois when he was 11 years old to visit his sister Vera, a war bride. That visit made such an impression on his boyhood self, Mahoney found his way back to Chicago eight years later, under his sister's sponsorship. And he never went back to Britain to live, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1959."

Of all the performances I've mentioned, if you want to see Mahoney reach depths of real despair and emotion, I urge you to watch his seven episodes on HBO's In Treatment, that aired in 2009. His work as a businessman, whose life is going down the tubes, is indisputably great.

As Walter Barnett on In Treatment (2009).

"I can't tell you why my heart is so full of Chicago, but it's where I want to be. When I'm not here, I'm not as happy." And for audiences who appreciated an actor of his talent and dedication, no one is happy now that John Mahoney has left us; no longer gracing theatres in whatever city was fortunate enough to have him playing its stages.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at