By Lisa Schmelz
Editor’s Note: This story ran in our spring 2013 magazine. We are saddened to hear of his passing and remember fondly our time spent with him for this interview.
On a sunny weekday morning, acclaimed actor John Mahoney — best known for his role as Martin Crane on “Frasier” — is cocooned in his suburban Chicago home, nearing the end of his daily cerebral crunches, a pen still in his hand.
“I was just finishing up the New York Times crossword puzzle,” he says via phone, his voice instantly recognizable. “I always use a pen, but I go over it lightly.”
While he may tread lightly over The Times crossword with his ink, he does not tread lightly when he’s on stage, television or in feature films. A late comer to the acting arena, perhaps he feels there’s no time to waste. In 1977, when he was 37, the British-born Mahoney was putting his masters in English to work as an associate editor for a national medical journal. Deeply dissatisfied, though, he eventually summoned the courage to walk out of his office in Chicago’s John Hancock Building and find his way to the stage he dreamed about for decades.
To say he was a quick study in acting school would be an understatement. By 1979 he’d joined Chicago’s esteemed Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where he is still an ensemble member today. His first feature film role came in 1980, and by 1986 he’d won a Tony for lead actor for his role in the “House of Blue Leaves.” In 1993, he joined the cast of NBC’s “Frasier,” where he earned two Emmy nominations.
“It is amazing how fast that all happened,” he recalls. “It was just incredible and it’s just extremely unusual.”
Mahoney also doesn’t tread lightly on his adopted Midwestern roots. After his sister became a war bride to a U.S. serviceman from Illinois, he saved every pound he could and followed her across the pond. Even when he was playing the straight-talking father to those pretentious Crane boys on
“Frasier,” he knew neither California nor television would ever be his home. So during the hit show’s 11-year run, he did what any sensible Midwesterner with a lucrative gig on the West Coast would do: On Friday nights, he locked the door to the furnished studio apartment he rented in Santa Monica and hopped a flight back home to Chicago. Sunday nights, he’d head west again.
“I don’t hate California by any means. It’s just not where my heart is, and that’s where your home is, right? I didn’t want my whole life to be consumed by show business, which it tends to be if you’re in California and an actor. People used to ask me all the time, ‘Why do you want to go back to Chicago on the weekends in the winter? What the hell do you want do that for?’ But home is where the heart is and my heart is here, in the Midwest. Having sunshine every day bores me to death. There’s a lot more to life than good weather.”
A true Midwesterner at heart, it’s no surprise that Mahoney enjoys the four seasons not only from his home near Chicago, but also from the Walworth County lakefront residence he’s owned for the past 12 years.
“I always thought it would be nice to have a place to get away on the weekends,” he says of his motivation. “It’s a gorgeous place and it’s so easy to get to. I thought about Indiana and Michigan, but this is perfect.”
You don’t have to spend much time with Mahoney to learn he’s a down-to-Earth, regular soul. Yes, his work means that people in 70 countries can spot him at 50 paces. In Istanbul, a Turkish man inquired about his Frasier canine sidekick and loudly asked, “Where’s Eddie?” But after just a few minutes with him, you realize this is a man who’d rather walk down his pier to his pontoon boat than suit up for the red carpet strut.
How long does he think he’ll make weekly treks north to Wisconsin, where he has to pick up his copies of the Times, and the other two daily papers he reads religiously, from Piggly Wiggly?
“Ad infinitum,” he says. “I love it up there. I go up as often as I can and most weekends that I’m not working.”
Will he leave the Midwest, and his beloved Steppenwolf stage work, if the right television series or film offer comes along?
“I’m not interested in doing any more television or movies,” he says. “I still get a lot of offers, which is great, but I don’t want to leave home again. I don’t want to do film or TV. I did it, it was good to me and I don’t need to do it anymore. Instead, I can do exactly what I want, and what I want is to stay home as much as possible and do stage work.”
John Mahoney On Wisconsin
For the past 12 years, acclaimed actor John Mahoney, best known for his role as Martin Crane on the hit NBC series “Frasier,” has made a lakefront town in Walworth County Wisconsin his second residence.
“I think I’d have to say it’s the people that keep me coming back. It’s that Midwestern tenor.”
How he navigates the water:
On his pontoon boat. “I don’t fish. I enjoy just going out, throwing a CD on and floating around.”
Chef’s Corner in Williams Bay. “I love that place. I love to go there and talk.” Mars Resort in Como. “I’ve never tasted ribs anywhere as good.” Bibliomaniacs, a used bookstore in Delavan, but he doesn’t go to visit the two felines that call the place home. (Laughs) “I don’t know, those cats are kind of weird and they’re way too friendly.” Delavan’s Brick Street Market. “It’s a great, great cheese store in downtown Delavan, which I spend a lot of money at.”
I pledge allegiance to the:
Bears and Cubs. “I’m not a fan of [Wisconsin] sports because I live in Chicago, and I’m not about to say anything nice about the Green Bay Packers or the Milwaukee Brewers.”
On Wisconsin sustenance:
“I love bratwurst. I’m thrilled to death with it.”
John Mahoney Trivia
- Born the seventh of eight children on June 20, 1940, in England.
- Found his way to the U.S. after his sister became a war bride and married a U.S. serviceman.
- Holds a masters degree in English and has worked as a college professor.
- Quit his job, at 37, as an associate editor for the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Hospitals Organization to go to acting school.
- Became an ensemble member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1979.
- Made his ﬁrst feature film in 1980.
- Won a Tony Award for lead actor in 1986 for his role in “House of Blue Leaves.”
- Joined the cast of “Frasier” in 1993.
- Worked hard to lose his accent, but was told by “Frasier” director Jim Burrows during a scene read that he said “Wednesday” like a Brit. Despite his best efforts to Americanize the word, he couldn’t nail it. The day was changed to Tuesday in the script.
- Unlike his character on “Frasier,” whose canine companion Eddie got his own fan mail, Mahoney does not own a dog.
- His favorite work in feature ﬁlm was in 1989’s “Say Anything,” which was also Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut.
- A Chicago resident who commuted during “Frasier’s” 11-year run, he bought a lakefront home in Walworth County in 2000 and plans to keep coming north “ad infinitum.”