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The Roles Keep Rollin' In : Name Recognition Isn't the Goal for John Mahoney--He Just Wants to Act

August 21, 1996|CHUCK CRISAFULLI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

His face is generally better known than his name, and actor John Mahoney says that's fine with him as long as the work keeps coming his way.

"It happens all the time," said the actor probably best known as the Crane brothers' gruffly sensible father, Marty, on TV's "Frasier." "People come and say, 'We loved "Moonstruck," we love "Frasier." . . . What's your name again?' I've got a sturdy ego, and it doesn't bother me. As long as writers, directors and the people who can employ me know who I am, I'm fine."

The accomplished 56-year-old actor seems better than fine during an interview at "Frasier's" Paramount sound stage the day after taping the first show of the fall season.

His sunny smile and gregarious manner don't fade for a moment as he speaks of a career that has included smart comic turns in such films as "Tin Men" and "Barton Fink," villainous doings in "Suspect" and "Primal Fear," Tony Award-winning work on Broadway and an almost 20-year association with Chicago's prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre. In short, he is a man in love with his work.

"I dance down the street," he said. "I can't tell you how happy I am to be doing exactly what I want to be doing. People call me the happiest person they know. When I meet a new bunch of people on a film, they can't believe it. They say, 'You must have bad days.' I don't. Every day I go to work, there are thousands of people who want to be doing what I'm doing, and I'm the one lucky enough to be doing it."

Audiences will have their next chance to see Mahoney happily at work this week, with the release of "She's the One," writer-director Ed Burns' follow-up to last year's immensely popular "The Brothers McMullen." The film is a gently charming light comedy in which Mahoney plays Mr. Fitzpatrick, a father of two sons who is considerably more gruff and less sensible than Marty Crane.

"I loved 'The Brothers McMullen' and I wanted to do this film as soon as I read the script," said Mahoney, who is unmarried and has no children. "It seemed a little strange to be playing a father of two grown boys again, but the characters were all very different. Fitz is the kind of guy who gives well-intentioned fatherly advice that ends up wrecking his kids' lives and his own, too, while Marty's basically the only one in his family who has a grip on reality."

Burns was aware enough of Mahoney's work that he didn't need to meet Mahoney to offer him the role, but the offer was contingent on the availability of Burns' first choice for the part. "The film was developed at Sundance, and so Ed offered the father part to Robert Redford," Mahoney said. "Redford was too busy to take it. And frankly, I'll take Robert Redford's leftovers any day."

Mahoney was 37 before he was in a position to do any acting work. He lives in Chicago when not working in L.A. or elsewhere, but despite the soft Midwestern twang in his speech, Mahoney was born and raised in Manchester, England. He came to the United States at the age of 19 and, in order to fit in while in the Army, used phonetic flashcards to drill away all traces of a British accent. Returning to civilian life, Mahoney opted for "respectability" over a life of the arts and, after earning a master's degree in English from Western Illinois University, took a job as editor of a medical trade journal.

"I did that for years and years," he said. "And then I thought--what is this?--I'm going to write about hemorrhoids and cataracts the rest of my life? No thanks. I went to visit my family in Manchester and saw a production of 'Uncle Vanya' with Albert Finney and Leo McKern. That exploded in my head. Something deep in me that I'd been repressing came out, and I realized that was what I wanted to do."

Back in Chicago, Mahoney quit his job and enrolled in a drama class taught by David Mamet, selling off his books, records and furniture for rent money. From the class, he was cast in a Mamet play and from there teamed up with Steppenwolf, where he worked alongside such talents as John Malkovich, Gary Sinise and Laurie Metcalf. That led to an off-Broadway production of "Orphans" and then, in 1986, to a film role in "Tin Men." He's been working ever since.

Mahoney said he is still occasionally mystified by the second career he's carved out for himself.

"To tell the truth, I don't know where I got the gall to jump into all this. I had a nice office as an editor, making good money. I gave it up to make $75 a week at Steppenwolf, but I was so immensely fulfilled. I remember going on to the set of 'Tin Men' and just being in shock that I was going to be doing scenes with Richard Dreyfuss. During 'In the Line of Fire'--my God, I was working with Clint Eastwood. And I have an even greater feeling of awe for the directors I've worked with--John Sayles, the Coen brothers, Costa-Gavras. How could I not be happy?"

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