The Untold Truth Of John Mahoney

Veteran stage actor and sitcom star John Mahoney passed away on February 4, 2018. For 11 years, he played Martin Crane, the irascible father of Frasier and Niles Crane on NBC's hit Cheers spin off, Frasier. It was a completely against-type role for the congenial British actor, who was once described by a neighbor as "a delight." The role also turned Mahoney into an instant star, which afforded him the luxury of pursuing his lifelong passion, theater. But he actually didn't set foot on a professional stage until he was almost 40. So what was he doing all those years before his Frasier fame, and how did the sitcom's success affect his left afterwards? This is the untold truth of John Mahoney.

Martin Crane was his role to refuse

In a guest entry for Frasier writer, Ken Levine's blog, Frasier co-creator, Peter Casey, recounted the story of how the show came together, including how they used — and eventually landed — their dream cast of David Hyde Pierce and Martin Crane in their pitch to NBC and Paramount Studios. "When we pitched the character of Martin, we said to picture John Mahoney. Warren [Littlefield, then-NBC Entertainment president] said if we could get John, he was also pre-approved," Casey wrote.

In another bit of serendipity, then-chairman of Paramount Television, Kerry McCluggage, just so happened to have a relationship with Mahoney, so he arranged a meeting between the showrunners and the actor, who liked the concept, but wouldn't commit without reading a script. After reading it, Mahoney was in, having supposedly chosen it over "a two foot stack of pilots" he'd previously rejected.    

His love for Martin Crane didn't last

Though he was initially excited about the Frasier role, Mahoney felt that over time his character was diminished into more of a gimmick than a substantial part of the plot. In an interview with, Mahoney said the original focus of the show was to be the dynamic between Frasier and Martin, but that all changed when audiences seemed to connect so well with Niles.

"I started wondering why I gave everything up just to say a couple of lines in an episode," Mahoney said, adding, "But they wouldn't let me out — they knew that Martin represented the audience, saying everything they wanted to say to these prim and precious brothers." Oof, that sounds...not good, although Mahoney has always been quick to add how much affection he has for not only the cast, but also for being a part of such a tremendous piece of television history.

Speaking with Broadway Buzz, Mahoney said he was ready for the show to end in order to preserve the "prestige and glory we had." He also predicted his exact future in the medium, saying, "I'm not that interested in getting in front of a camera again. I certainly am not interested in doing another series. If I wanted a television legacy, I couldn't do better than Frasier. I'd do guest spots, but never another series."

With his longest run on a TV show after Frasier being seven episodes on the HBO drama, In Treatment, we'd say it was clear he wasn't joking around about that.

He was't crazy about LA either

Despite Frasier being set in Seattle, the show was largely shot on sound stages in LA doubling for the the Emerald City. This was not a selling point for Mahoney, a Chicagoan to his core (more on that in a minute), who once told The Guardian, "I love the show, I'm immensely proud of being on a show that has been so honored, but at the same time it's not where I live, and that's what drives me crazy. It's geographical, totally. If the show shot in Chicago, I'd shoot it for 20 years."

Mahoney took an even sharper dig at Tinseltown in an interview with The Chicago Tribune where he said, "I get bored out of my mind in L.A. It's such an industry town. Here [in Chicago] I have old friends who aren't in the business. I can walk to all sorts of good places where the waiters and waitresses don't want me to read their screenplays." Zing! Take that, Hollywood! Also, OK, maybe Mahoney does sound just a teeny bit like Martin Crane in real life.

Sweet Home Chicago

While attending Quincy University in Illinois, Mahoney would travel to Chicago on weekends with friends. It was there that he fell in love with the Second City's theater scene, as well as the "museums, miles of parks and beaches, the lake that's as big as an ocean," he told Broadway Buzz, adding, "They say home is where the heart is, and I always felt that it was home."

A Chicago Tribune portrait of Mahoney paints him as something of a low-key hero in his quiet Oak Park neighborhood, which is technically a tony suburb of the Windy City. We already mentioned his neighbor who called him "a delight." Then there's local gallery owner John Toomey, who described Mahoney as "always a gentleman," and one who never expected to be catered to while shopping there for the "arts and crafts style" furniture that adorned his eight-bedroom apartment.

Chicago also happens to be home of The Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the troupe of stage actors who took Mahoney under their wing and fostered his fledgling acting aspirations, particularly founding member, John Malkovich. Speaking of whom...

He loved John Malkovich's gravy

In multiple interviews, Mahoney credited John Malkovich with jumpstarting his career via the Con Air actor's invitation for Mahoney to join the legendary theater company. Speaking with Broadway Buzz, Mahoney described the opportunity as "a huge step," because "It was a very prestigious theater even back then, and I was a newcomer who had only done one professional show. But John had faith in me."

Now that we've sufficiently buried the lede, let's get right to that Malkovich gravy, which Mahoney specifically mentioned, not once, but twice in the few print interviews we could find with him. First, he told The Guardian in 2002 that Malkovich came over to his house for Thanksgiving one year and made "the best gravy I've ever tasted." Five years later, Mahoney downgraded Malkovich's homemade condiment status to just "terrific," which is still pretty good, but has us wondering if another famously quirky actor came along and unseated him.

Basically, we're saying we're going to need an invite to Nic Cage's house this November to truly sort this out.

Eddie was kind of a jerk

For those who don't remember, Eddie was Martin's faithful sidekick, a seemingly loveable Jack Terrier with whom Martin was inseparable. However, the real-life dynamic between Mahoney and Moose (the dog who "played" Eddie) couldn't have been further from what was portrayed on screen. In fact, according to series star Kelsey Grammer, Mahoney "hated" the pooch because he would bite the elder star "whenever he'd sit on his lap."

Mahoney also confessed to Moose's moody nature, but he was a bit kinder in his criticism, describing the mutt to as "extremely unpleasant," and having to be coaxed into licking his costars with either liver pate or sardine oil. As far as the biting went, Mahoney told Fox News that it only happened twice, and both times he was actually to blame. Once, he accidentally closed Moose's tail in a car door. The other time, Mahoney says he surprised the mercurial mongrel by picking him up from behind, which he didn't like. "He was a temperamental actor as far as I'm concerned," Mahoney joked.   

He fell in love with America at first sight

Having grown up in war torn Manchester, UK, Mahoney got his first glimpse of the U.S. when he was 11 years old and his family visited his sister, a "GI bride" who settled on an Illinois farm with her American husband. "It was like I had died and gone to heaven!" Mahoney told Broadway Buzz of the visit, comparing his time in America "eating chicken for the first time and seeing my first banana and driving around" with the bleak reality of his post WWII hometown which he described as "full of broken down buildings and air-raid shelters and everything rationed and dreary and dark and dull."

For the next eight years, Mahoney "worked and saved every dime" until he returned to the States and promptly enlisted in the Army, where he worked to ditch his limey accent. "I knew I was going to live in the US the rest of my life and I didn't want to be on the outside looking in," he told The Telegraph. "[His army buddies] made a big deal about it — anyone from the United Kingdom is automatically regarded as brilliant beyond belief. I didn't want to live with that. I'm not a nonconformist. I wanted to be like everybody else."

The identity swap was obviously successful, as Mahoney's acting work consisted of many roles in which he "excelled at portraying working-class Americans," according to NBC News.   

9 to 5? No thanks!

After his military service, Mahoney enrolled at Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois, where he "studied literature" and supported himself by "working as a hospital orderly," according to The Guardian. The combination of that training led to a decent job as the editor of The Journal for the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals, which led him to his beloved Chicago, but also left him wanting more.

"I'd come home from work with a six-pack, turn on the TV and just vegetate there, getting deeper and deeper into myself," Mahoney told The Guardian. "More and more miserable, drinking, drinking, drinking... I knew I had to do some thing [sic] with my life. I had a terrific job, I could come and go as I pleased, but it was so stultifying."

At this point, Mahoney quit his job and enrolled in acting classes at Wisdom Bridge Theatre, where, according to The Chicago Tribune, he "almost immediately" landed a part in David Mamet's 1977 production of "Water Engine." Four years later, Malkovich asked Mahoney to join Steppenwolf, and the rest is gravy history.

Born on stage

Theater was hands-down the love of Mahoney's life. He described his beloved Steppenwolf Theatre Company to The Chicago Tribune as "my brothers, my sisters, my father, my mother, my wife ... It is everything to me." In fact, his love of the stage was so strong that while he was starring on what was arguably one of the best sitcoms of all time, he still managed to get on stage for any live production he could squeeze in.

"I never stopped doing plays — even when I was on Frasier," Mahoney told Broadway Buzz. "I did one on every hiatus, but not in New York. There's nothing quite like it, especially Broadway. It's every actor's dream."

Still not convinced about Mahoney's passion for theater? He also told The Tribune that despite his disdain for participating in publicity events, even for Frasier, the show that made him independently wealthy, he had no problem doing them for Steppenwolf. "I would do anything for this theater," Mahoney said, adding, "It is my emotional home."

'A solitary sort of life'

A self-described "hermit," Mahoney's propensity to sidestep the press apparently also translated to his personal life. According to The Guardian, while he enjoyed the occasional all-nighter playing cards with his theater crew, Mahoney mostly lead "a solitary sort of life in his Chicago suburb, eating out and going to the cinema on his own, and spending quiet weekends with his fishing rod."

That Chicago suburb is Oak Park, a culture rich, well-preserved Victorian oasis that was also the boyhood home of Ernest Hemingway, and a lucky locale blessed with several works by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. According to The Chicago Tribune, Mahoney's little slice of Oak Park heaven was an apartment "in an unprepossessing building on a quiet tree-lined street, a large but cozy place in which he listens to music and reads."

He was a lifelong bachelor

Though he comes from a large Irish Catholic family of eight children, Mahoney never married, and never had any children of his own. He speculated to The Guardian that this was likely on account of observing his parents' dismal marriage, which mostly consisted of them either ignoring each other or getting into "big, pretty terrible arguments." As a result, none of Mahoney's "several long term relationships" ever panned out, although he did point out that all of his siblings managed to have healthy relationships.

"I was never very mature in my relationships with women," Mahoney said, adding, "First sign of conflict, I was gone. Wouldn't discuss it, because I was afraid it would lead to an argument." He also once told Time Out Chicago, "Twenty-three years ago I had cancer of the colon. I had to have major surgery, and I have a colostomy. I really couldn't have sex after that. I'm very happy by myself and with my friends, but no, I'm definitely not involved with anybody. Nor do I ever look to be." 

Welp, mystery solved. Anyone else feel really terrible that the guy was asked about marriage so many times, he finally revealed that little tidbit? Yeah, us too.