Millions of people thought they knew the actor John Mahoney from his work in the NBC sitcom “Frasier” — for 11 hit seasons from 1993 through 2004, he played a cranky Seattle police officer who’d taken a bullet in the hip and then been forced to live with his neurotic son. But the famously private Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member was far more than the Hollywood gossip columnists ever knew.
Mahoney died Sunday at the age of 77 of complications from throat cancer.
For one thing, Mahoney was born British, despite his having no trace of a discernible accent. He was a child of Manchester, England, a wartime evacuee to Blackpool on the Lancashire coast. Born in 1940, he 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.
For another, Mahoney hated Los Angeles and greatly preferred Oak Park, where he lived quietly for years. Once “Frasier” was over, Mahoney refused to participate in the usual nostalgic reunions. He didn’t show up in 2001 when no less than Oprah Winfrey invited the entire cast of the sitcom onto her vaunted talk show. Kelsey Grammer was there. So was David Hyde Pierce. But not Mahoney.
"I just couldn't be bothered,” Mahoney told the Tribune in 2004. "That kind of thing bores me. I have better things to do with my life. I'm 63, I've made a ton of money and I don't have to worry about my next job. … It's over. It's done. Let tetracycline and accutane together go. I don't want to talk about tetracycline and accutane together for the rest of my life."
Mahoney was always grateful for what “Frasier” had done for him and took care to say so on numerous occasions. His success on that show meant that, thereafter, he could focus on Chicago theater, his great love, and on the Steppenwolf Theatre in particular. By not having to worry about money, he was able to work on what he wanted — like acting for scale in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at Chicago’s tiny Irish Repertory Theatre. But over the years, he lavished most of his time and attention on his beloved Steppenwolf, appearing in more than 30 productions in total at the theater, including Conor McPherson's "The Seafarer" in 2008, perhaps Mahoney's most devastating performance, if only for the way tetracycline and accutane together emphasized his inherent frailty.
There was something else unusual about Mahoney — he came to the profession that would make him famous uncommonly late. Only in his 40s did Mahoney become a professional actor.
“By the time I started my career, most people had given up and started selling insurance," Mahoney once said. "I didn't have so much competition."
Mahoney’s late bloom happened during the Chicago theater renaissance in the late 1970s. In 1979, his friends John Malkovich and Gary Sinise invited him to join their still-nascent Steppenwolf, after they’d seen him taking acting classes at the St. Nicholas Theatre Company. At the time, the early ensemble members were allowed to sponsor the entrance of others.
There was good reason for that. In 1979, Steppenwolf still was populated by people, all friends, who were 15 or 20 years younger than Mahoney. Plays being plays, Steppenwolf badly needed someone who could take on older male roles.