John Mahoney of ‘Frasier’: We Love Supporting Actors. We Should Tell Them More Often.
The best sitcoms are never purely star vehicles. From the Mertzes on I Love Lucy to Hot Lips Houlihan on M*A*S*H to the endearingly wacky crew around Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory, the right “supporting cast” can jack a show up from good to great.
That’s one of the reasons John Mahoney, who died in Chicago Sunday at the age of 77, will both be missed and will live on — because as the father of Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier Crane on Frasier, he made the show better.
The British-born Mahoney, who played dozens of TV, movie and stage roles over several decades, scored his biggest splash relatively late — from 1993 to 2004, as he was moving into his 60s. That’s when he created Martin Crane, the guarded, sometimes world-weary, sometimes sharp-tongued, and ultimately poignant father of the neurotic Frasier and his almost-as-neurotic brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) on one of TV’s best-ever sitcoms.
Martin was a retired cop who became a security guard because he hadn’t gotten law enforcement out of his blood. This gave him a grounding in sensible, rational thinking that placed him in humorous contrast to his son Frasier, who as a psychiatrist was nominally in the business of guiding people toward rational, sensible thought, but whose own life was a maelstrom of insecurities.
Unlike many sitcom parents — often mothers in recent years — Martin didn’t live for situations where he could thrust himself into his sons’ lives.
In fact, he had a life of his own, establishing friendships with people like Roz (Peri Gilpin), the Good Old Girl who produced Frasier’s call-in radio show, and even solving a long-nagging cold case from his detective days.
Martin didn’t leave a book of cracking one-liners because Frasier, like all the best sitcoms, wasn’t written to set up stand-alone jokes. Martin did better than that. His humor ran toward reflections like, “In school, we learn the lesson before we take the test. In life, we take the test before we learn the lesson.”
That didn’t mean he didn’t occasionally step up. One time he talked about putting a boot on his daughter-in-law’s car, and when someone suggested that must have been tough, Martin said nah, “The real trouble was getting four guys to pick up and move it closer to the hydrant.”
Unlike many sitcom characters whose shtik is that they are totally unfiltered, Martin had walls. He still hadn’t recovered from the death of his wife six years before he moved in with Frasier. He admitted he had problems with relationships, and he had been distant from both Frasier and Niles for many years.
These shadowy backstories fueled the comedy nicely at the same time it raised questions about what Martin was silently nursing.
The reticence also created an interesting parallel to Mahoney’s own life. The seventh of eight children, he left a rather unhappy home as a teenager and decamped to the American Midwest on the sponsorship of his sister Vera, a war bride.
He became a teacher and edited a medical journal for years before deciding in his mid-30s that because acting had always fascinated him, he needed to give it a try.
He enrolled in acting school and spent a decade in theater, winning a Tony for The House of Blue Leaves, before he landed roles in a series of movies that included Tin Men, Eight Men Out, In the Line of Fire and The American President.
In The American President he played Leo Solomon, the boss of Annette Bening’s Sydney Wade, and scored one of the film’s most memorable moments when he warned her against dating Michael Douglas’s President Andrew Shepherd.
Doing that puts you on an egg timer, he tells her, and it will subsume your own life. No sooner has he said this than his secretary walks in and casually refers to Sydney as “the president’s girlfriend.”
“There’s never an egg timer around when you need one,” Leo says.
Mahoney also had a memorable TV run as one of Gabriel Byrne’s patients on the intense In Treatment. But many of his roles, like on Hot in Cleveland, drew on the kind of dry, understated, almost casual humor he had practiced on Frasier.
Off-screen, Mahoney was known largely for not being known. He stayed in the Midwest, he never married and he spoke little about his private life. But if he didn’t have another role that rivaled Martin Crane, Martin was enough to make him an essential piece of a television show that made television better.