'I've been everybody's father'
GALWAY ARTS FESTIVAL: A WORD OF ADVICE. If you ever meet John Mahoney in a lift, don’t ask, “Hey, how’s Eddie the dog?” Don’t even make a funny face and tell him, “You know, I go to bed with you every night.”
Mahoney – you probably think of him as Frasier’s dad from the TV sitcom – is an actor and a gentleman. If you do say either of those things, or any of the half-dozen other hilarious quips that might occur to somebody who has just met Frasier’s dad in a lift, he will smile and nod and shake your hand and even laugh along with you. But just so you know, he has heard those particular lines a thousand times. Maybe a million times.
I see the Frasier effect at work in the lobby of the Meyrick Hotel in Galway, where a group of guests around a table, chatting and sharing a lunchtime glass of wine, suddenly fall silent as they realise who is standing beside them. You can see the penny drop as their faces change. One minute they’re ignoring the tidy American tourist in the plaid shirt, the next they’re going, “OMG, it’s Martin Crane from Frasier.” You can practically see them glance behind him, looking for the dog, the cane and the tatty reclining armchair.
Mahoney is at Galway Arts Festival with Bruce Graham’s play The Outgoing Tide. Written especially for him, it’s a three-hander in which he is joined by Rondi Reed – best-known here, as it happens, for her role as the mom in another TV sitcom, Mike and Molly – and Thomas J Cox, who’s not known here at all but, as the founder of Lookingglass theatre group, is a well-regarded actor in the US.
The Outgoing Tide is a difficult play to describe without getting into the plot-spoiler business. Mahoney is meticulous about not giving anything away – but, reading between the lines of the carefully worded reviews and press releases, his character, Gunner, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, plans to end his life while he’s still lucid so his wife and son can reap an insurance bonanza. Horrified, they try to talk him out of it.
Mahoney is playing another dad, albeit a very different patriarchal proposition from Martin Crane. How does he go about constructing a father figure? Is it a matter of language, of gesture, of something authoritarian in the body language?
“A little bit of all those things, to tell you the truth,” he says. “I don’t take much from my own father, because he was a very austere, quiet, private man who would come home from work, go to his parlour and play Beethoven on his piano. What I mostly do is take the script, analyse the hell out of it, see what’s in there, see what kind of person I’m dealing with, and then forget I’m playing a father and just play a person who exemplifies all those things.”
He laughs. “At Steppenwolf I’ve been everybody’s father,” he says. “John Malkovich’s. Laurie Metcalf’s. Joan Allen’s.” Hang on a second, John Malkovich? Was he a difficult “child”? Mahoney grins wickedly. “He was. Very. No. John was wonderful – always.”
It was Malkovich who brought Mahoney into Steppenwolf Theatre Company in the first place. “That’s how I learned how to act. I learned by doing it. I didn’t start acting until I was 37. So I do a play, John Malkovich is at it, he says, ‘Will you come and do something at our company?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And all of a sudden I’m on stage with John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Joan Allen, Gary Sinise, Gary Cole and Glenne Headly. Can you imagine? During rehearsal I’m dumbstruck. I can hardly open my mouth, I’m so afraid of making a fool out of myself.”
Born in Blackpool, England, the seventh of eight children – his Irish father was a baker – Mahoney did some acting at school and was offered a placement with a Birmingham theatre at the age of 18. Instead he decided to cross the Atlantic to join his sister Vera, a GI bride who had fetched up on a farm in Illinois.
“I didn’t want to be the archetypal sponging brother-in-law, so I didn’t go into acting when I got to the States. I thought, No, I’ll go to school and then I’ll be an English teacher; that’ll be fun.’ But I was horrible as a teacher. As hard as I tried, I just couldn’t inspire those kids to take an interest in Milton and Shakespeare and Donne.”
After working in an administrative position at a Chicago hospital he got a job as an editor on the Journal for the Joint Commission of Accreditation of Hospitals. Was it as dull as it sounds?
“Oh, God. It was horrible. Editing an article on the need for more sterile services in hospital or something like that. I lasted one year, and then I thought, If I have to stay here one more minute I’m going to lose my mind.”
He signed up for an eight-week acting class with David Mamet, and when he was cast in Mamet’s play The Water Engine he chucked in his salary and his 45th-floor office and went for a career as an actor. “I must have been desperate,” he says. “I’ve always been a very cautious person. Should I do this? Should I do that? But I was so happy to get back to acting I was dancing down the street.”
Half a century and five Emmy awards later he’s still dancing, so to speak. At 72, he says, he has as much energy as ever. Getting plays off the page, however, is a different matter. “Over the last, let’s say, two years it takes me twice as long to memorise a script.”
Last year he was cast in Enda Walsh’s Penelope at Steppenwolf. “And I was having the hardest time. I thought, My God, what am I going to do? It was the first time where I thought I really wasn’t going to get it.” In the end he had to drop out of the play when his brother died in England.
“But, yes, it’s getting tougher and tougher. I don’t mind doing the small parts at all. Next I’m doing Petey in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party.
“And that’s probably what I’m going to have to look at doing from now on. Supporting roles, small roles, walk-ons, cameos. No Hamlet for me, that’s for sure. No Claudius. Even no Polonius, maybe.”
He chortles at the idea of being already too old to play Polonius. But then he played Polonius when he was 11. How did he play it?
“Ha! With lots of shakes. I had a white pointed beard and I hobbled everywhere and quivered my voice. It was my idea, at that age, of an old man. God knows, I wish I could see it again, just to have a good laugh at it.”
Obviously no video footage exists, or it would have turned up on YouTube alongside all those clips featuring Mahoney’s finest moments – and they are legion – from Frasier. The one where he sings O Holy Night. The one where he dyes his hair for Halloween. The one where he pretends to be a former astronaut. Does he remember the show with fondness or does he get a bit fed up with it following him around?
“It follows me everywhere,” he says. “I get approached an awful lot here in the hotel, for instance. But the people are always very nice. A lot of the women say, ‘Oh, I go to bed with you every night,’ or, ‘How’s the dog?’ and this, that and the other.
“It’s nice. It doesn’t bother me at all, because I’m very proud of the show. I thought it was brilliantly written, brilliantly directed, brilliantly cast, and I just had a wonderful time doing it. And if that’s my television legacy, I couldn’t be happier. If people want to remember me for Frasier, that’s fine.
“Although I must admit I get a wonderful feeling if, instead of saying, ‘How’s Eddie?’ or, ‘I go to bed with you every night,’ if somebody says, ‘Oh, I saw you in House of Blue Leaves on Broadway and you were wonderful,’ or, ‘Oh, I saw you in Orphans and I’ll never forget it.’ Because, you know, they’ve gotten up, they’ve gotten dressed up, they’ve spent money and they’ve gone to the theatre to see something – and they were pleased with what they saw. That’s great.”
The Outgoing Tide is at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway until July 21st