If you’ve lived in this community for a while, no doubt you’ve seen, and possibly even met, celebrated actor John Mahoney. Lots of folks have stories about this famous longtime Oak Park resident.
“I was in the check-out line at Whole Foods and Mahoney was right ahead of me,” a neighbor of mine told me yesterday. “He’s a helluva nice guy.”
But even though John Mahoney, award-winning star of stage, screen, and television, is often quite visible locally, he seldom makes appearances on the talk show circuit and has rarely granted interviews. He seems to shun publicity, enjoys his quiet life, and cherishes his privacy. That’s why it’s especially exciting that he will be appearing on stage at the Lake Theater with me next Wednesday. “From Harlem Avenue to Hollywood Boulevard: An Evening with John Mahoney” takes place on Feb. 25,
This event is a fundraiser for the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest, which, as you may know, is hoping to move into their new rehabbed exhibition space at Lombard Avenue and Lake Street later this year.
We’ll look at clips from the actor’s career, discuss everything from how he got started in theater to his favorite things about Oak Park, and also take questions submitted from the audience.
An official village of Oak Park proclamation has declared Feb. 25 “John Mahoney Day” in Oak Park.
An array of alter egos
If you ask most people who John Mahoney is, they will quickly say he’s the actor who played Marty Crane, the no-nonsense, ex-cop father of Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce on the NBC megahit sitcom Frasier from 1993 to 2004. But that’s just one of Mahoney’s many successful and popular roles. Since the late 1970s he’s had an extensive career on stage, especially in Chicago, and has appeared in numerous feature films — from Moonstruck to Barton Fink, Eight Men Out to Say Anything. He won a Tony Award for his performance in The House of Blue Leaves on Broadway in 1987.
But the actor did not go into acting until he was in his late 30s. What did he do before that?
Well, John Mahoney was the seventh of eight children born in England on June 20, 1940 to an Irish baker who played classical piano, and his wife, an avid reader. The family was evacuated from Manchester during the Blitz — the heavy bombing by the Germans during World War II.
When he was in his teens John visited his older sister Vera, a war bride who’d married an American G.I. and settled in central Illinois. Young John decided to emigrate as well and was sponsored by his sister. He earned his citizenship in 1959 by serving in the U.S. Army. He lost his British accent in the Army.
Dark night of the soul
Mahoney was an English professor at Western Illinois University for a while in the ’70s. Next he became an associate editor of a medical journal in Chicago.
“I was going through a dark night of the soul,” he admits. “Is this going to be it for me? Am I just going to be spending the rest of my life writing about cataracts and hemorrhoids?”
It was then that young John Malkovich, one of Steppenwolf Theater’s charter members, met him in an acting class and encouraged him to join the fledgling company. After over three and a half decades Mahoney continues to appear in Steppenwolf productions. Although he has been enormously successful in films and on television, he considers live theater his “real home.” In fact, he opens in a comedy, The Hero, at Steppenwolf in April.
“I have been really lucky,” John Mahoney has said. “I’m not putting myself down. I’m not saying I don’t have talent. I must have to have gotten this far. But I honestly believe many of the greatest actors in America are tending bar or waiting tables or driving taxis, and it will just never happen for them. I was lucky.”
Mahoney, who turns 75 in June, has lots of stories. Remember “Eddie,” Marty Crane’s sidekick Jack Russell terrier on Frasier? That canine star, who was actually named Moose, was not particularly friendly. Whenever they wanted the dog to lick Mahoney they’d put sardine oil on his face or liver pate behind his ears.
Won’t walk on glass
“An Evening with John Mahoney” promises to be fascinating and fun. For someone like Mahoney, who has said he turns down almost all such appearances (“I would rather walk across broken glass”), he has generously shown his commitment to our community doing benefit shows like the one at the Lake Theatre.
The proceeds from this fundraiser will support vital renovation of the long-vacant 1898 firehouse on the southeast corner of Lake & Lombard in east Oak Park, the future home of the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest (which currently resides on the second and third floors of Pleasant Home in Mills Park). The 117-year-old structure needs lots of work before it can be occupied.
The Historical Society is enjoying putting the spotlight on such a kind and talented local guy and hopes to do further “From Harlem Avenue to Hollywood Boulevard” events with other notable natives who have distinguished themselves on the stage and screen. And this Mahoney evening could be the first of a series.
Ticket sales have been brisk and will be sold in advance until every seat is filled.
Doug Deuchler, local theater critic and tour guide, is a longtime educator who teaches film history classes at Oakton Community College. He is a playwright, occasional stand-up comedian, and author of six history books, including “Legendary Locals of Oak Park.” Doug has been actively involved with the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest for 25 years. He’s a former board member who usually plays a character in the annual Tale of the Tombstones Cemetery Walk in the fall. He also leads discussions of First Tuesday Club films at the Lake Theatre each month.