There’s an easy, matter-of-fact candor to John Mahoney the actor and, as we learned, to the man himself—a quality that bolsters his working-class Chicago persona. Yet Mahoney claims British roots: As a teen he left his hometown of Manchester, England, to follow his war-bride sister to the States, where he soon joined the Army. After years as a teacher and editor, Mahoney, at age 37, at last tried acting and, shortly after, became a Steppenwolf ensemble member. The Frasier dad and Tony winner stars in Better Late, a new comedy by Larry Gelbart and Craig Wright, about a couple who takes in the wife’s ex-husband.
Time Out Chicago: With Frasier, did you, as a stage actor, ever feel, Yeah this is good TV, but it’s still not good theater? John Mahoney: No, I’m not that kind of a snob. I think the medium is secondary to the quality of the work. Frasier was a classy gig. I didn’t for one minute think it was less prestigious or artistic than doing a play.
TOC: You left England when you were 19. What’s it like to go back now? John Mahoney: When I was growing up in England, Americans were heroes; we just worshipped them. And going back last year I did notice quite a bit of anti-American sentiment.
TOC: Do you think there’s any credence to that sentiment? John Mahoney: No, I don’t. I don’t think the United States has done anything whatsoever to merit any criticism by the British.
TOC: Some might point to the war. John Mahoney: Yeah.
TOC: You don’t buy that, though. John Mahoney: No, I don’t. I mean, some people will say that. I think basically it’s just a form of jealousy. Maybe they think they don’t need to indulge in hero worship anymore and maybe it’s some form of nationalism. But if anybody uses the war, that’s just an excuse.
TOC: You’ve talked about having learned an American accent as a kind of performance—was that training for you as a performer? John Mahoney: You know, I never thought about it that way but it probably was. When I had my Manchester accent, it drew attention to me. All the guys in the Army, they were always: oh say this, oh say that. I hated it. I just wanted to blend in.
TOC: That’s why I ask about that connection—not that you blend in as an actor, but you’re not the scene stealer either. John Mahoney: It’s all part of my personality. No, I’m not a scene stealer. I try to do justice to the writing. I’m not intimidated by other actors at all—or directors. I don’t care who they are. But I am intimidated by writers. I hold them in the highest esteem.
TOC: In everything I’ve read about you, I haven’t seen any mention of a partner or a romantic life. John Mahoney: Yeah, it doesn’t exist for me anymore. [Laughs] I think that’s dead and buried. 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.
TOC: Characters over 60 are often written by writers who aren’t. What’s the biggest error you see there? John Mahoney: That people over a certain age are doddering and forgetful. I’ll be 68 in June and I don’t dodder, I don’t have to search for words, I don’t cut myself shaving.
TOC: Speaking of age, because you were older when you joined Steppenwolf, you often got cast in dad roles. Were you cast as dad offstage too? John Mahoney: No, they never offered me an arm to cross the road. They just gave me as much grief as they gave each other.
TOC: Any relationships in particular that stand out from that time? John Mahoney: John [Malkovich] and I were always really close because he brought me into the company. I always have a huge love of John because of that, and Gary Sinise also. But all of them—I mean, there are a couple of people I could do without in the company, to tell you the truth.
TOC: But you won’t name them. John Mahoney: No, I won’t. [Laughs] I come from a very Irish family that loves to hold grudges. I’ve got sisters who wouldn’t talk to each other for 30 years because of some imagined insult. And at Steppenwolf I’d hear them raging at each other, and I’d think, Oh my God the company is about to fall apart. And then they’d go across the street and have drinks.
TOC: In film and TV, you’ve always been more of the supporting actor than the lead. Why is that? John Mahoney: A lot of it has to do with my age. I noticed the same thing, that’s why I don’t do too many movies anymore. I don’t need the money after 11 years on Frasier, and there aren’t that many great roles onstage left for somebody my age. I’m more interested in playing those roles than I am in playing bit parts in movies.