John Mahoney was a fixture — on TV (as the father in “Frasier” for 11 years), in films (Moonstruck, Say Anything, Eight Men Out and Dan in Real Life, where he wore an “Oak Park High” sweatshirt), and at Steppenwolf, where he performed in The Rembrandt as recently as last fall.
But he was also a fixture in the Oak Park-Forest Park area, where he lived for at least three decades, most of that time in a condominium on Maple Avenue near Poor Phil’s, one of many local restaurants he frequented. As recently as last fall, we spotted him at George’s Pancake House with a group of friends.
On Sunday, Feb. 4, Mahoney died in Chicago, reportedly of a “throat ailment.” He was 77.
Born in England in 1940, he had “lost” his accent by the time he started acting, somewhat late in life, joining the Steppenwolf troupe in 1979. He loved Oak Park, he said, because people didn’t make a fuss over him.
A loyal customer at Val’s halla Records, he supported local causes, including appearing at a fundraiser for the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest, where he was interviewed at the Lake Theatre by Wednesday Journal theater critic Doug Deuchler, who recalled:
“John Mahoney was a wonderful, kind, and extremely generous man. In 2015, he and I did a benefit at the Lake Theatre for the Oak Park River Forest Museum. He was so much fun to work with. He really enjoyed himself and kept commenting on how happy and lucky he was to live in Oak Park. He loved all that the community had to offer.”
When Deuchler’s wife, Nancy, worked as manager of Barbara’s Bookstore on Lake Street, Mahoney came in for new mysteries. Nancy would save them for him, said Deuchler, and Mahoney would bring her a cup of coffee when she was stuck in the store all Sunday afternoon.
Born during the Blitz in England in 1940, Mahoney’s father was a baker who also was a classically trained pianist. An older sister, Vera, became an American war bride who settled with her G.I. husband in central Illinois.
Vera would eventually sponsor her brother, and he immigrated to the U.S. He earned his citizenship in 1959 after serving in the U.S. Army, went to college in Quincy and taught English literature classes at Western Illinois University in the 1970s for a few years before moving to Chicago.
Mahoney told Deuchler that after a series of unsatisfying jobs, including as associate editor of a medical journal in Chicago, he decided to change his career path in his late 30s.
“I was going through a dark night of the soul,” Mahoney told Deuchler in 2015. “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?”
The rest is history.
Mahoney met a young John Malkovich, one of Steppenwolf Theater’s charter members, in an acting class. Malkovich encouraged him to join the fledgling company, initiating a relationship with the Steppenwolf that would span more than three decades.
According to Deuchler, while most people knew Mahoney from playing Frasier’s dad, Marty Crane, on TV, or in films, he was proud of all his work, especially his stage performances. He called the theater his “real home.”
Mahoney won a Tony Award for his performance in The House of Blue Leaves in 1987. But he is best known for his work on the NBC hit sitcom Frasier — playing Marty Crane, a no-nonsense, ex-cop father of Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce — from 1993 to 2004.
“I loved his stories about ‘Eddie,’ the Jack Russell terrier who John said was ‘a little jerk,'” recalled Deuchler. “Apparently the dog was a real prima donna. Whenever they wanted Eddie to lick John’s ears or face, they would have to smear him with liver pate to get the dog to do it.”
When home in Oak Park, said Deuchler, “John loved to walk around and eat in the outdoor restaurants, like Poor Phil’s. He loved watching folks walking around. It was nothing to be in line at Whole Foods and realize he was in front of you in line. He appreciated the fact that most people never made a big deal about his being here.”
While preferring to keep a low profile at home in Oak Park, Mahoney stepped into the local spotlight in 2015 to headline a fundraising event — “From Harlem Avenue to Hollywood Boulevard: An Evening with John Mahoney” — for the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest.
The village president proclaimed the day of the event, Feb. 25, 2015, John Mahoney Day in Oak Park.
In a Wednesday Journal article previewing that event, Mahoney was quoted as saying, “I have been really lucky. 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.”