John Mahoney, the Tony-winning actor best known for playing cranky, barcalounger-loving Martin Crane on Frasier, died Sunday at the age 77.
Mahoney’s publicist confirmed the death to TMZ, noting that Mahoney passed away in hospice care in his adopted city of Chicago. The Chicago-Tribune reported that the actor had been suffering from cancer.
In spite of being best known for playing gruff Americans, Mahoney was actually born in Lancashire, England. He moved to the U.S. as a teenager—following one of his seven siblings to Illinois—and joined the army, an experience he said helped inspire him to shed his accent.
“When I had my Manchester accent, it drew attention to me. All the guys in the Army, they were always: oh say this, oh say that. I hated it. I just wanted to blend in,” Mahoney told Time Out.
After becoming a U.S. citizen, Mahoney worked his way through college as a hospital orderly. Afterwards, he edited a medical journal but realized, in his late 30s, that he felt very much unfulfilled.
“I don’t know where I ever got the guts to quit, because I was never that daring,” Mahoney told The Times of Northwest Indiana in 2011. It must have been a very, very deep dissatisfaction with my life and the way it was going, the realization that I had to do something or I was just going to be a miserable, complaining, crabby old man. I asked myself what I had ever done in my life that thrilled and excited me, and realized it was when I was acting in children’s theater as a kid. I thought, ‘That’s what I want. I’ve got to try it before it’s too late.”
Mahoney, then 37, signed up for an eight-week acting class in Illinois, which happened to be taught by David Mamet. Mamet and John Malkovich, another Illinois-based actor, eventually convinced Mahoney to join the Steppenwolf Theatre.
“I thought, I’m going to [join] more to learn than anything else, to be on stage with John [Malkovich], Laurie Metcalf, Joan Allen, Gary Sinise, Gary Cole and all these wonderful actors that I so admired. . .I don’t know if I would have had a career had I not joined.”
In 1986, Mahoney won a Tony Award for his work in a production of The House of Blue Leaves. The following year, he made his film debut in Barry Levinson’sTin Men. Roles in Moonstruck, Say Anything, Barton Fink, Primal Fear, Reality Bites, and In the Line of Fire followed.
Mahoney was so well-respected that, in 1993, Paramount reportedly pre-approved the actor to be cast as Martin Crane in Frasier. Mahoney played the hilariously blunt, lowbrow father to Kelsey Grammer’s title character for eleven seasons of television, earning two Golden Globe nominations and two Emmy nominations. Though some stage actors scoff at sitcoms, Mahoney told Time Out, “Frasier was a classy gig. I didn’t for one minute think it was less prestigious or artistic than doing a play.”
Ultimately, Mahoney grew tired of commuting between Los Angeles and his beloved Chicago, and decided not to renew his contract.
“I’m immensely proud of being on a show that has been so honored,” Mahoney told The Guardian. “If the show shot in Chicago, I’d shoot it for 20 years. But I just miss home so much. And I miss stage work.”
In 2002, decades after first joining Steppenwolf, Mahoney revealed that he and his former company friends still reunited in Chicago for regular poker games.
“We all meet at my house in Oak Park, or in my little cabin in Wisconsin, and have marathon sessions of a game called May-I,” Mahoney told The Guardian. “Laurie Metcalf springs to mind as a really cutthroat card player. John Malkovich is a moaner. He’s always bitching because he didn’t get any wild cards. Ha ha! And we sit there all night. Pizza, beer, potato chips, spaghetti and meatballs if we feel particularly ambitious.”
Despite his career success, he often underplayed his talent, saying, “Believe me, I’m an aberration. With me, it was all the stars aligning at exactly the right time. There was so much luck involved.”
The Steppenwolf Theatre Company has cancelled its Monday night opening of You Got Older in honor of the actor.
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