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This article was prepared for the March 2, 2005 issue of U.S. 1
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From TV’s ‘Frazier’ to Paper Mill
by LucyAnn Dunlap
Everyone, well, almost everyone, knows actor John Mahoney as Martin
Crane, the cantankerous father of Frasier and Niles in the hit
television series, "Frasier," who charmed audiences for 11 seasons.
However, there are other lives that this man has lived, and it looks
like he is ready to start another one, another chapter. Mahoney
reprises a favorite role for the current production of comedy/drama
"The Drawer Boy" by Michael Healy at Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse,
opening Thursday, March 3, and playing through Sunday, April 3.
"The Drawer Boy" is about two farmers in their 70s, who had been
boyhood friends and now live together on an isolated farm on the
Ontario, Canada prairie. Morgan, Mahoney’s character, is a subsistence
farmer, growing enough crops to live on, but not enough to sell.
Morgan is also the caregiver for Angus, who has memory loss caused by
a head injury during World War II. He likes to draw; hence, the play’s
title. Into their life comes a young actor, Miles, to research a part
he is going to play. This outsider is the catalyst for change in the
lives of the two older men. Secrets bubble up and their lives are
never the same.
This setup was inspired by a historic chapter of Canadian theater
history, "The Farm Play." In 1972 a group of Toronto-based actors
descended on cow-country farmers in southwest Ontario, lived with
them, gleaned their stories, and later built a play on these
interviews (not unlike the development of the popular American play,
"The Laramie Project"). "The Farm Play" is still produced in Canada,
and according to Mahoney "actually ushered in the modern Canadian
Mahoney was born in Manchester, England, on June 20, 1940. His father
was a baker/confectioner who made pastry in a big department store,
and his mother a stay-at-home mom – not surprisingly, with eight
children. Of the four siblings still living, his two sisters both live
in the United States, both wives of Midwestern farmers.
At an early age, Mahoney began his love affair with the theater. He
belonged to the Stratford Children’s Theater in Manchester. Unlike the
typical children’s theater fare here in the United States – Jack and
the Beanstalk or Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, Stratford Children’s Theater
mounted classics by Sheridan, Shakespeare, Moliere, and T. S. Eliot.
At the age of 11, Mahoney played the part of Polonius in Hamlet. "I
was a character man even as a child," he says. "I was never the lead
or the romantic hero, even though I wasn’t bad-looking when I was a
kid. It’s a different world over there. By the time I was out of high
school, we’d studied all of Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, and Pope."
He was introduced to the United States on a family trip to visit his
sister who had been a G.I. war bride. "It was just like going from
black and white to Technicolor. I couldn’t believe the cars, the food,
the clothes. I felt like I was in Oz. I said, ‘This is where I want to
Explaining his conversion to an American, he says, "Think of what I
was coming from: I grew up in the 1940s in England. It had been bombed
very badly – the blitz of Manchester. Most of my early life, I
remember rationing: clothes, food, candy. There was no money. What I
left behind was a very dreary, war-torn city building itself up
Beating the U.S. invasion of the Beatles out of Manchester by a good
four years or so, Mahoney, just out of high school, emigrated in 1959.
Signing a declaration of intent to stay, he joined the army to speed
up the citizenship process. He has said that when he arrived in this
country, he "knew I was going to live in America for the rest of my
life." First up: Losing his British accent so he would fit in. It is
ironic to think that his Frasier persona has become synonymous with
After his stint in the army, he went back to school, earning a
bachelors degree at Quincy College, Illinois. Working as a hospital
orderly, he paid his way through Western Illinois University, earning
a masters degree in English. "What I hadn’t learned in the U.K. was
American literature. I fell in love with it." He wrote his graduate
thesis on Nathaniel Hawthorne.
After trying a number of vocations – a teaching assistantship during
graduate school, an associate editor of the Journal for the Joint
Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals – and after a brief marriage,
Mahoney turned the page to chapter three of his life. At age 37, he
enrolled in acting classes at Chicago’s St. Nicholas Theater, an
organization co-founded by playwright David Mamet. Fortuitously, this
was about the same time that Mamet began to gain nationwide attention
as a playwright. He cast Mahoney in the world premiere of his play,
"The Water Engine." In a second play under Mamet’s direction, "Ashes,"
by David Rudkin, Mahoney played opposite the then-unknown John
Malkovich, who recruited him to join the fledgling theater company
In at the takeoff of this edgy, pioneering, storefront theater,
Mahoney, along with a number of actors, went on to spread what has
been termed "the Chicago style" of acting to theater and film
productions worldwide. Steppenwolf has grown to mammoth size and
reputation and now is housed in a factory-like complex in midtown
Chicago. Mahoney has appeared in more than 30 Steppenwolf productions.
In 1985, New York took notice, when the Steppenwolf production of Lyle
Kessler’s "Orphans" debuted Off-Broadway with company members Mahoney,
Terry Kinney, and Kevin Anderson. The reviews were "raves." A Drama
Desk nomination and a Theater World Award followed. This notoriety led
to Mahoney’s being cast as Artie Shaughnessy, the garrulous piano
player in John Guare’s "The House of Blue Leaves," for which he
received the 1986 Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Play.
With his high profile role playing a piano, he was nabbed as the
perfect last-minute replacement on the sit-com "Cheers" as Sy
Flembeck, a postman who plays the piano. This introduction prompted
Kelsey Grammer to lure Mahoney to the spin-off series, "Frasier." The
part: the cantankerous, low-brow, everyman father of Kelsey’s effete
psychiatrist and his equally elegant brother, Niles. Ensconced in his
battered, duct-taped La-Z-Boy chair amidst the chic world of his sons,
he won every viewer’s heart. The role of Martin Crane garnered Mahoney
both Golden Globe and Emmy nominations as Best Supporting Actor.
Leaving Frasier was difficult. "When I left England, I thought that I
would never go through anything more wrenching again in my life.
Leaving my family was hard. It turned out to be just as hard leaving
Frasier. Eight hours a day for 11 years, with just the week and summer
breaks is a long time. "We never sat in our dressing rooms. We always
sat in the green room and talked, chatted, gossiped, and read. It was
like an absolutely close-knit family." But he feels that it was time
for the show to end. He explains that each of the 24 episodes had two
story lines multiplied by 11 years. "There just wasn’t anywhere else
to go without starting to repeat ourselves."
Maintaining his home in Oak Park, Illinois, a quaint town dappled with
Frank Lloyd Wright houses, situated close to his beloved Chicago,
Mahoney had a rather long commute to Los Angeles for shooting Frasier.
But the television schedule was such that every three weeks, they had
a week off and he was off to Oak Park. He also owns a cottage on a
lake in Wisconsin, which also has Frank Lloyd Wright houses, though
Mahoney admits that style isn’t right for him. "Too big for me. I live
alone." His books and music are his company. He is an ardent opera and
classical music fan. (Wouldn’t Martin Crane be surprised!)
The Chicago area has held his heart since he first came to this
country. "There’s just something about Chicago. It’s a mixture of many
things. People who’ve never been there have no idea how gorgeous it is
with Lake Michigan, which actually looks like an ocean; miles and
miles of parks; great great architecture; one of the greatest
symphonies in the world; the Lyric Opera; one of the greatest museums,
the Art Institute of Chicago; and the friendly people." He begins to
sound like the city’s public relations rep. "We’ve got the best mayor
in the United States, who is such a patron of the arts." With my
prodding, he places New York City in second place. As for Los Angeles,
he simply quotes Gertrude Stein: "There’s no there there."
Mahoney’s numerous film credits include Moonstruck, Primal Fear,
Barton Fink, The American President, Eight Men Out, The Manhattan
Project, Reality Bites, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Tin Men. (And that’s
just a partial list.) His voice has enlivened a number of animated
films including The Iron Giant, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Antz.
His most recent movie is the independent film, "Fathers and Sons,"
which debuted at a festival in Sarasota, which he couldn’t attend
because of "The Drawer Boy" rehearsals.
Since the end of Frasier last year, Mahoney says he has set his sights
on returning to the stage, permanently, and it appears this will be
the next chapter of his life. In 2001 Mahoney noticed the Canadian
play "The Drawer Boy," by Michael Healy, and brought it to the
attention of Steppenwolf director and revered Northwestern University
professor Frank Gallati. The play won a number of major awards in
Canada where it received at least six major productions. The first
American production at Steppenwolf marked the company’s 25th
Mahoney and I talked by phone as he took a break from intense
rehearsals to incorporate a last-minute replacement into the Paper
Mill cast, Paul Vincent O’Connor, who will play Angus. Though he is
new to the part, he and Mahoney were appearing together in a
production of "The Weir" by Conor McPherson in Los Angeles when the
script for "The Drawer Boy" first came to Mahoney. "Paul was nuts for
it," says Mahoney, "and became a strong advocate for other productions
in the United States." His efforts and the play were obviously very
successful as it became the most-produced play in the United States
last year. Mahoney himself did the play twice in Ireland. "When I did
it in Dublin at the Abbey Theater, it was one of the biggest
money-makers they had ever had; it took Dublin by storm."
He doesn’t tire of the play, explaining its appeal. "It’s about
important things like friendship, responsibility, and truth. And it’s
also very funny – a very moving, funny play." After the Paper Mill
run, there is hope for a move to Broadway. "There’s lots of interest."
Mahoney is keeping his schedule free to be available for that
The last chapter will probably be another big move. "I could see
myself retired on the west coast of Ireland," Mahoney says. "It so
beautiful scenery-wise, and the people are so friendly." Mahoney’s
grandfather came from County Cork, and he goes there each year on
holiday and three times he has participated in the Galway Arts
Festival. "And they love Americans, which isn’t so prevalent in Europe
now." But it all ties together: Galway is Chicago’s "sister city."
Mahoney, apparently, would fit right in. He says: "The English hoard
their words like misers. The Irish spend them like drunks."
The Drawer Boy, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn.
Written by Michael Healey and directed by Anna D. Shapiro. March 3
through April 3. $31 to $68. 973-376-4343.
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