Why John Mahoney is an inspiration to late bloomers everywhere

Changing lanes in later life and following your muse isn’t easy, but it can be done

When John Mahoney died last week, we were reminded of a complicated biography. Best known for embodying a very American class of blue-collar integrity in Frasier, he was, in fact, raised in Blackpool. Mahoney first acted in Manchester and didn't make it to the United States until he was a grown man.

More confusing still was the business of his age. Many will have been surprised to learn that Mahoney was just 77 at his death. That means he was only 52 when he first appeared as the title character's elderly father in Frasier. There is further surprising news. Mahoney had, at that stage, been acting professionally for a mere 14 years. He started out at about the same time as his co-star Kelsey Grammer (actually just 15 years younger than his "dad").

Mahoney had been working as the editor of a technical magazine when, approaching his late 30s, he decided to study acting at the St Nicholas theatre in Chicago

Hail the late Mr Mahoney. He demonstrated that not all of us must stick with the specific misery fate allots us in early adulthood. A determined few can escape.

Not many successful performers have made the decisive leap so late as Mahoney. Brendan Gleeson comes close. The great man was 36 when he gave up teaching to become a professional actor, but he had been appearing in highly regarded theatrical productions for years. Mahoney had been working as the editor of a technical magazine when, approaching his late 30s, he decided to study acting at the St Nicholas theatre in Chicago. He was almost immediately inducted into the legendary Steppenwolf Company. That's the way to avoid a mid-life crisis.

Alan Rickman is often identified as another late bloomer, but he was a relatively green 28 when he abandoned graphic design for Rada. One of Hollywood's most sinister and charismatic character actors, Sidney Greenstreet, did not appear onscreen until after his 61st birthday. That performance in The Maltese Falcon (some debut) led on to famous turns in Casablanca and The Mask of Dimitrios. Greenstreet had, however, been knocking about the theatre for 40 years.

Directors such as Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson and Jim Sheridan first got behind the cinema camera in their forties. None was, however, new to the narrative arts (and the two French film-makers had the small matter of the occupation to negotiate).

By the time mid-life beckons, many people are tied up with managing children, juggling debt and trying to hang on to a shred of job security

One finds more dramatic examples of the mid-life swerve in literature. The extraordinary Mary Wesley was queen of the late bloomers. The children's books she knocked out in her fifties failed to make much impression. Ms Wesley's literary career began properly when, at the age of 70, she published the sombre, incisive Jumping the Queue. Twenty years of lucrative productivity followed. Many are the great writers who "went off" before they reached the age at which Wesley achieved fame. Others matured late. Penelope Fitzgerald began at 58. Richard Adams worked in the British civil service until, in his fifties, Watership Down made him a middle-aged sensation.

These are special cases. By the time mid-life beckons, many people are tied up with managing children, juggling debt and trying to hang on to a shred of job security. If your ambition is to become a writer then it may be possible to compose stories about juvenile wizards between nappy changes and trips to imminently iconic coffee chops (referencing no writer in particular). The routes to an ambition as dancer, maritime architect or tightrope walker may, however, be already clogged with the weeds of unhappy circumstance. Let’s not get drift into unnecessary optimism here.

Nonetheless, the professional life has become less constrained than it once was. Until as late as the 1980s, a perception held that the average citizen would stay manacled to the same task for the duration of their working life. That was not just a fate. It was an aspiration. Students were encouraged to find a track and stay upon that track until it shunted you into the grave. This doesn’t quite cover the misery of it.

The notion persisted that, by the time you reached 30, you would have become the sort of person you would remain being until you ceased to be a person at all. The peerless 1970s sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin argued that, after a certain age, any attempt to redraft one's life was regarded as evidence of lunacy. Richard Yates's classic 1961 novel Revolutionary Road – later a so-so film – saw a couple obliterated by a reasonable desire for some alteration to comfortable circumstances.

We are no longer in that place. By 1996, only half of the British workforce had been working for the same employer for more than five years. Not all of us can become John Mahoney or Sidney Greenstreet. But few of us will be quite so nailed down as the conformists who shower Reggie Perrin with suspicion. Great! Super! (Get an adult to explain that last reference.)

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