John Mahoney is known to most television fans for playing Frasier Crane’s father on the long-running series Frasier, but the actor has spent much of his time in the years since the show ended pursuing roles on stage.
Mahoney, 73, has done some TV roles since Frasier ended in 2004 — like playing Betty White’s boyfriend on Hot in Cleveland — but he said the theatre is home.
“You just get such better parts on stage and that’s primarily what I’ve done,” he said in an interview. “I’m almost never out of work and it’s almost always on stage.”
The Tony-winning actor’s latest stint is at Northlight Theatre in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, where he stars in Chapatti. The piece is by Irish playwright Christian O’Reilly and tells the story of a man living in Dublin with his dog named Chapatti. It runs from March 7 to April 13 before going to Galway, Ireland.
The play’s director, Northlight Theatre artistic director BJ Jones, said Mahoney isn’t pretentious and describes him as “a real Chicago kind of guy.”
“He just likes to work,” Jones said. “It’s in his genes. It’s in his DNA. He’s the same guy he was before Frasier and all of the films he’s done.”
Mahoney came to acting in the middle of his life. He said he was 37 when he found himself unfulfilled in his job editing a medical journal. He decided to enroll in acting classes, remembering that he played Polonius in Hamlet at age 12.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t I try that again and see if this is what I should be doing,’” Mahoney said. “It was like life was just waiting for me to make that decision.”
Mahoney was invited to join Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company, home to actors like John Malkovich and Joan Allen.
In 1985, he starred in the Steppenwolf play Orphans directed by Gary Sinise. That production went to New York and the exposure “kicked off my career,” Mahoney said. The next year, he won the Tony Award for featured actor in a play for The House of Blue Leaves.
No more auditions
After that, Mahoney said, he didn’t have to audition for roles anymore.
Mahoney said he was a little leery when he heard about Frasier because he had previously done television shows that were cancelled after a handful of episodes. But once he read the script, Mahoney said he was in. He calls it the “defining moment” of his career.
“I’m very proud to have Frasier as my television legacy,” Mahoney said. “I’ve done a lot of good television myself. But still I think nothing can quite compare to Frasier.”
His role as retired police officer Martin Crane with his loveable terrier Eddie earned Mahoney Golden Globe and Emmy nominations. It also has resonated with fans around the world. Mahoney said he was in Istanbul when, “somebody yelled out to me, ‘Where’s Eddie? Hey Marty? How’s the dog?’”
Mahoney, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, came back to Chicago during his hiatuses from Frasier. He was born in England and came to the US at age 19. He received his undergraduate degree at Quincy University and his master’s degree in English from Western Illinois University.
“Chicago is always home,” he said. “No matter what, I wanted to come back to Chicago during those four months off. What better thing to do than do a play with my friends at Steppenwolf?”
Magnetism on stage
He’s done more than 30 productions with Steppenwolf and has performed in plays around the world. Audiences are drawn to Mahoney’s honesty and magnetism on stage, Jones said.
“I think an audience sees spiritually who John is,” Jones said. “They can sense he is a human being. They can see themselves in him. So an audience sees truth there. The kind of truth they can identify with.”
Mahoney though said he wants audiences to know he’s always giving everything he has with every performance. And he’s grateful for the opportunity.
“I’m just so lucky it’s scary really,” he said. “My life has been incredible and my career, I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”