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Remembering John Mahoney, The Tony Award-Winning Actor And 'Frasier' Star


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're going to remember John Mahoney, the British-born actor best known for playing Martin Crane on the long-running sitcom "Frasier." Mahoney died Sunday at the age of 77. As Martin Crane, he played a retired cop and the unlikely father of two pretentious psychiatrist sons. In this scene, his oldest son, Frasier Crane, played by Kelsey Grammer, is sitting at the table, showing off his fancy, new chess set.


KELSEY GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Oh, hi, Dad. You see my new chess set?

JOHN MAHONEY: (As Martin) Oh, yeah. It's nice.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Nice? The inlay was made from the same travertine marble they used at Hadrian's palace outside Tivoli.

MAHONEY: (As Martin) Really? Well, I'm going to celebrate with a beverage brewed from the crystal-clear waters of the majestic Colorado Rockies.


GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Good one, Dad. Say, how about a game?

MAHONEY: (As Martin) No, I don't think so.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Oh, come on, Dad. You know how to play, don't you?

MAHONEY: (As Martin) Well, Daphne showed me once. But really, checkers is more my speed.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Oh, come on. Checkers is a kids' game. Come on, Dad. I just got it. Please? Nobody will play with me.


MAHONEY: (As Martin) All right. I'll give it another shot. Those guys at the park make it look great - eating bologna sandwiches, smoking cigars. Sometimes, a fistfight even breaks out.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Well, let's just start with name calling and see where it goes.


GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Your turn. No, Dad, please, you don't have to rush. As a novice, you have the right to sit back, survey the board, take your time. I will not pressure you or hover like a vulture. Please feel free to ask any questions you might have.

MAHONEY: (As Martin) Is this a checkmate?


GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Why, yes it is.


MAHONEY: (As Martin) You mean I won?

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Well, yes.


MAHONEY: (As Martin) Hey. I won. How do you like that?

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Well, in all fairness, my mind was a bit distracted by having to monitor your side of the board, but touche (laughter). How about another game, Dad?

MAHONEY: (As Martin) No, I think one will do it for me. Thanks.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) All right. Fair enough.

MAHONEY: (As Martin) Boy, I really clobbered really clobbered you, though, didn't I?


MAHONEY: (As Martin) I got almost all of your prawns.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Pawns, Dad.


MAHONEY: (As Martin) I think the turning point is when I got that tower thingy.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) It's called a rook.

MAHONEY: (As Martin) But the real knockout blow is when I backed your little horsey guy into the corner.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Can we call it a night, Dad?

MAHONEY: (As Martin) OK - when I cornered your knight.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) No. I mean, can we call it a night?


DAVIES: Mahoney didn't start acting until he was 37 and soon after joined Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre at the invitation of actor John Malkovich. He went to New York with the Steppenwolf production of "Orphans" and won a Tony Award in the production of "House Of Blue Leaves." He appeared in the films "Eight Men Out," "Say Anything," the Coen brothers' "Barton Fink" and "The Hudsucker Proxy" and in Barry Levinson's "Tin Men." In the film "Moonstruck," he played a professor on a date with his college-age girlfriend. They get in a fight while they're at the restaurant, and she leaves. Olympia Dukakis, who's eating by herself, witnesses the scene and invites him to sit with her.


OLYMPIA DUKAKIS: (As Rose) Can I ask a question?

MAHONEY: (As Perry) Yeah. Go ahead.

DUKAKIS: (As Rose) Why do men chase women?

MAHONEY: (As Perry) Nerves?

DUKAKIS: (As Rose) I think it's because they fear death.

MAHONEY: (As Perry) Well, maybe. Listen. You want to know why I chase women? I find women charming. I teach these classes I've taught for a million years. The spontaneity went out of it for me a long time ago. I started out - I was excited about something. I wanted to share it. Now it's rote - multiplication table. Except, sometimes, I'll be droning along. And I look up, and I'll see a fresh, beautiful, young face. And it's all new to her. And I'm just this great guy who's brilliant and thinks out loud. And when that happens, when I look out there among those chairs and see a young woman's face and see me in her eyes - me, the way I always wanted to be - maybe once was - I ask her out for a date. It doesn't last long - few weeks - couple of precious months. Then she catches on that I'm just this burned-out, old gas bag, and she's as fresh and bright and full of promise as moonlight in a martini. And at that moment, she stands up and throws a glass of water in my face - some action to that effect (laughter).

DUKAKIS: (As Rose) What you don't know about women is a lot.

DAVIES: More recently, Mahoney appeared in the HBO drama series "In Treatment" and in the comedy "Hot In Cleveland." But acting wasn't Mahoney's first career. He was editing a medical journal when he changed course. Terry asked him about that when she spoke to him in 1990.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: When did you know that you were really unhappy in this job?

MAHONEY: It wasn't anything where you go home every night and bang your head against a wall and say, oh, my God, I'm so unhappy. It was just an insidious thing. You just keep doing it and doing it and doing it. And, gradually, you realize that you're smoking an awful lot and that you're drinking a little bit too much and that you're sleeping very late whenever you can. And it wasn't until I started to do my new job, which was acting, that I looked back and realized the absolute depth of my depression while I was doing the editorial work.

GROSS: It takes a lot of guts or a lot of despair to make a big change like that...

MAHONEY: Exactly.

GROSS: ...When you don't know what the outcome is going to be. Was there a pivot point - a moment where you said, OK, that's it - I'm quitting?

MAHONEY: Well, it's not so much that it made me say, I'm quitting. There was a point that made me say, my God, I've got to do that as opposed to what I'm doing now. And that was when I was in London, and I went to the National Theatre and saw a production of "Jumpers" by Tom Stoppard. It just ignited me, and I just was left limp at the end of it. And I thought, my God, I've got to do that. I've got to do that, no matter what. And if I can't do it, I've at least got to try to do it. And I just can't be 60, 65, 70 years old, looking back on a life and saying, oh, my God, why didn't I do that?

I came back to Chicago, and I saw that they were offering classes at St. Nicholas Theater. And I thought, OK. Well, this is it. This is my chance. So I enrolled in an acting class at the St. Nicholas Theater and, at the same time, quit my job because there was no time to rehearse with other actors or do anything if I were working. And looking back on it, it was madness. I mean, to give up a good, well-paying, prestigious job and embark on probably the most precarious career in existence, a career where, at any given time, 95 percent of the union is out of work, was just insanity.

GROSS: When you started to act - and you were already - what? - in your late 30s?

MAHONEY: Yeah, 37.

GROSS: Was it embarrassing or awkward being a mature man and being a novice as an actor? I don't know who the other people were who you were acting with and who were taking classes with you.


GROSS: You might've been older than they were...

MAHONEY: You know, it's funny...

GROSS: ...Less experienced than they were. Can make you very self-conscious.

MAHONEY: It would in a situation where you weren't so happy. I mean, I was never self-conscious in that situation. I'll tell you when I was more self-conscious in a similar situation - is when I went to - is when I started college.

GROSS: When you were younger.

MAHONEY: When I was younger. But I had been in the Army, and I'd emigrated. I'd gotten out of high school in England. I'd emigrated to the United States. I'd worked for a while. I'd been in the Army for three years. And I was quite a bit older than the rest of my class. And I was constantly mistaken for a teacher as opposed to a fellow student. And I always felt a lot different. I don't know whether it was because of the maturity that came with being an ex-serviceman or whatever it was. But there was always a little uncomfortable quality there. But with acting, even though I went into - even though I was in class with people who, on average, were probably 15 years younger than I was, I never felt any self-consciousness at all because I was too consumed with the excitement and the thrill of doing this.

GROSS: You grew up in England. What happened to your English accent?

MAHONEY: Well, I tried very hard to lose it. I emigrated to the States when I was 19. And I'm from the north of England. And I just - I'm not the sort of person who likes to stand out in a crowd, which might sound strange for an actor. I mean, I like to shine on the stage or in a film. But on one on one, I just like to be like everybody else. And even in those days, it used to drive me crazy when people would say, oh, I love the way you talk. Oh, isn't that wonderful? Or say this, or say that, or say banahna (ph). Or say, you know - and they were being nice. But it would drive me crazy.

And so I set out to learn how to speak like an American. And I was in the Army at the time, and I had to ask people, how do you pronounce this? How do you say hauf (ph)? And they'd say half. And I say, how do you say banahna (ph)? Banana. And I'd write them down. And I'd drill myself just like I was learning a foreign language. The only trouble was I was in the Army with people from all over the United States, so...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAHONEY: Somebody from Nebraska would tell me how to say one thing, and somebody from Brooklyn would tell me how to say something else. So I had this horrible mongrel accent when I got out. But when I went to school in Quincy, Ill. - I went to Quincy College. And by the time I got out of Quincy, of course I'd pretty much settle into this Midwestern thing that I have now (laughter). But I tried very hard to lose it, and it was to fit in. As boring as that sounds, it was to be like everybody else. That's why I did it.

GROSS: When you started acting in movies or on Broadway, did you feel like there was anything you had to fake because you weren't very experienced yet?

MAHONEY: That's very interesting. I - not so much fake, but I did - I was intimidated. I must admit. Being older than people didn't intimidate me, but being less experienced did. And I've - I don't know whether that's why I rely so much on a director. I hate being left to my own devices when it comes to developing a character. I relish a good, strong director.

I was more intimidated by my lack of experience than I - than anything else. In fact, I act a little differently than most of the - my fellow Steppenwolfians (ph). I remember John Malkovich telling me, you know, you're the only person I know who speaks in sentences. And I said, what do you mean? And he said, well, when you say lines, you can see where the period comes. You can see where the capital letter starts. You can see where the paragraph ends.

And I noticed when I watched other people in Steppenwolf work that that's true. They try very consciously to break things up to make it more conversational. But you see; conversational to me is sentences. I think I express myself well, and I don't know whether it's my education or my background or because my family did. I never did speak that broken way. So I felt, well, what should I do?

GROSS: So it must be hard for you to do Mamet then, huh?

MAHONEY: Should I try? Well, no. Actually, David at least writes in sentences. I'm trying to think of what would be more difficult. When we did "A Nightingale Sang," it was a little difficult because - or to do something like Virginia Woolf would be a little difficult because it's written with so many ellipses - but Mamet, no. Even though there were a lot of short, one-word sentences even, it's at least - you know what he wants, even, like, in this particular adaptation of "Uncle Vanya."

At one point, I say, eat; sleep; drink. I'm talking about the way my life is now. As opposed to working, all I seem to do now is eat, sleep, drink. They're all one-word sentences according to David, I guess, to stop you from doing that horrible thing that so many people do now. All I do is eat and sleep and drink, you know, that horrible way that people have learned how to talk from television. And I guess as a way to get around that, David very specifically made them sentences. And so it stops you from doing that, and it's great. I love it because I wouldn't do it anyway. And it's nice to know that I'm doing what David wants as well.

DAVIES: Actor John Mahoney speaking with Terry Gross in 1990. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1990 interview with actor John Mahoney. He died Sunday at the age of 77.


GROSS: You've said that you like to work with strong directors.

MAHONEY: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: In movies, some of the directors you've worked with are John Sayles, Costa-Gavras, Norman Jewison, Cameron Crowe.


GROSS: Give me a sense of something you've learned from working with a strong director.

MAHONEY: The directors you mentioned are all so different. Norman Jewison and Roman Polanski, for example, would be behind the camera jumping up and down, laughing, crying, cheering you on silently to such a degree that it's almost distracting to you. John Sayles and Barry Levinson, on the other hand, will be behind the camera, and you have no idea whether they like what you're doing. You get to the end of a take for Norman or Roman, and they say, wonderful, oh, great, great, great. That was wonderful. You get to the end of it take with John or Barry, and it's, OK, let's move on, or, OK, new setup. And you say, well, how was it? Oh, it was good - well, just good, (laughter) you know? Well, no, it was very good. It was very good. That's why we're moving on. They're just not very demonstrative.

And I like a little more structure. I like to be able to discuss something. I like to go up to, like, with Norman Jewison in "Moonstruck" and be able to say, Norman, do you think this whole thing is a line that he's used before? And Norman will say, well, OK, well, let's sit down and talk about this and then start to give me reasons, pro and con, and what his feelings are and how they should be played as opposed to a director who will say, well, let's see; what do you think...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAHONEY: ...Or, you know, which is always - which drives me nuts - or, well, just do what you feel, you know, or something like that. It's such - oh, it's just sluffing off responsibility because I think a director should be there for you and should be there to help you through things. And that's what I mean by a strong director. I don't mean somebody who - Erich von Stroheim or somebody who holds a whip and snaps it or something like that or makes you jump through hoops. But I mean somebody who has very definite opinions, who's thought about this and who will give them to you and will help you as opposed to somebody who might think that the sun rises and shines in you and therefore you do whatever you want. I don't like that.

GROSS: You know how you worked on your voice to get rid of your English accent?

MAHONEY: Uh-huh.

GROSS: When you started acting, did you do any work with your voice on enunciation? You have a beautiful voice and great enunciation.

MAHONEY: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Yeah. I mean, not over-enunciation.

MAHONEY: Thank you, yeah.

GROSS: But it's just really great.

MAHONEY: No, I think...

GROSS: Did you work that up? Was it natural already?

MAHONEY: That was pretty natural, yes. I'll tell you. I did - I worked on the timbre of my voice when I was doing "Orphans" before we moved to New York. I was going to be playing an alcoholic, and I wanted a rough quality of my voice that I didn't have. And so I worked very, very hard to get a gravelly quality to it, and my voice never quite recovered from that. And so it's - it sounds a little different now than it did when I first started out, but it's to my advantage actually because I guess I have a much more distinctive voice now than I used to have. People notice it and remember me by it, which I like very much.

As far as enunciation, no, that just comes I think from possibly being born and raised in England perhaps. Or I just do tend to enunciate, in fact, to such a degree that I've had other actors tell me that I do it too much. I remember I was doing "Born Yesterday" at Steppenwolf, and Glenne Headly used to tell me - she played Billie, and I played Harry Brock. And she'd sometimes tell me, you're hitting those final consonants much too hard. You know, people don't talk like that. And I said, well, Glenne, it's - people do talk like that because I talk like that.

GROSS: When you were working up the gravelly voice, what did you do?

MAHONEY: I used to lock myself in closets, and I used to do very, very strenuous vocal warm-up exercises. And I used to - people didn't want to be in the same room as me. I made these horrible sounds. I mean, I started slowly, and I warmed my voice up before I started doing that. And I - as far as I know - knock on wood - I haven't hurt it or damaged it. But people do say, especially as - at the end of an evening when my voice is pretty much shot or not at the end of an evening but at the end of a two-show day, people get worried about it and say, you all right? Is your voice OK? Is it - and I say, oh, yeah, it's fine - no problem. We'll be back tomorrow just the same as - and it always is. It's always there just as strong as can be. But it did - the things that I did did sound terrible. I know it shocked a lot of actors with the ferocity of my vocal warm ups. I shocked a lot of people in New York when I...

GROSS: My gosh, what were you doing?

MAHONEY: Well, I can't do it on the radio because for one thing, it's much too loud (laughter). And for another thing, it's just much too ugly, you know? If I could - if I back way away from the microphone, I might be able to give you a little demonstration here. It's just something like - (imitating vocal warm up).

GROSS: Wow (laughter).

MAHONEY: Now, I don't know what you heard there 'cause I backed away quite a bit.

GROSS: That's really something. So you'd lock yourself up in a closet and do that for a long time.

MAHONEY: Well, it's - no, no, I mean - and I'd - I wouldn't do it just right off the bat just like I did then. Like, I - what I'd be doing - what I - I'd do very gentle things first, you know, just sort of...

GROSS: Yeah.

MAHONEY: ...(Imitating vocal warm up) - Things like that until - for a good half hour. I spend a lot of time warming my voice up so that I don't damage it.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

MAHONEY: And I'm very happy with the way it turned out, actually (laughter). I think it's gotten me a lot of work to tell you the truth.

GROSS: Yeah, well, you really have a wonderful voice.

MAHONEY: Oh, thanks, Terry.

GROSS: You took a really big risk when you left writing and editing to work in acting. Once that risk, like, paid off not only in terms of success but in terms of just fulfilment, did you find yourself taking other big risks in life that you wouldn't have dreamed of taking before?

MAHONEY: I don't think I'm afraid to do anything or go anywhere. I have a tremendous amount of confidence now in myself as a person, in myself as an actor, in myself as a successful person, and I think it has carried over into all aspects of my life. I can't - I'm not intimidated by anybody or any situation. If I look out at an audience when I was doing "House Of Blue Leaves" and see George C. Scott out there or Jack Nicholson or Paul Newman or Henry Miller - Arthur Miller or - I'm not intimidated by anybody whatsoever or any situation whatsoever. And I guess this has a lot to do - that I guess my - the success that I made in the biggest challenge of my life had a lot to do with that.

GROSS: Well, listen; thanks so much for talking with us.

MAHONEY: It's been my pleasure.

DAVIES: Actor John Mahoney spoke with Terry Gross in 1990. He died Sunday. He was 77. After a break, we'll remember John Perry Barlow, an advocate for a free and open Internet. And David Edelstein reviews the new film "The 15:17 To Paris." Here's John Mahoney singing from an episode of "Frasier." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


MAHONEY: (As Martin Crane, singing) Can't you hear the pitter-pat? And that happy tune is your step. Life can be complete on the sunny side of the street. I used to walk in the shade with my blues on parade, but I'm not afraid. This rover crossed over. If I never have a cent, I'll be rich as Rockefeller - gold dust at my feet on the sunny side of the street.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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