Actors die all the time, but none has left me with such a feeling of overwhelming sadness as that of the passing of John Mahoney, who died on Sunday at the age of 77.
Blackpool born Mahoney was a distinguished movie and TV actor who is best known for playing Frasier Crane’s father, Marty Crane, in the TV sitcom Frasier, which ran from 1993 to 2004 on NBC. Once asked, in my role as critic, what my favourite TV shows of all time were, Frasier topped my list; it still does. Never a week goes by without my watching at least half a dozen episodes, and I still regard it as the most perfect TV show ever. Writing, storytelling, acting, laugh aloud comedy, timing, production – it ticks every box at the highest level.
Mahoney was central to the success of the show. As executive producer and writer Joe Keenan wrote upon hearing of Mahoney’s death, Marty was the “moral center” of the piece. He was. From the very first episode, when Marty disrupted not only Frasier’s social life but his aesthetic space (with his hideous chair), he was the fulcrum around which his dysfunctional sons balanced their chaotic lives. As Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) competed as siblings for social and professional one-upmanship, Marty was forever the bemused voice of reason with his feet always firmly on the ground.
There are so many episodes that spring quickly to mind. One is when an overdressed Frasier and Niles are forced to go to their father’s favourite steak house, where, upon entering, their ties are instantly cut in half. They make fun of the service, the décor, the food, and Marty’s irrepressible joy at being totally at home in the environment is in stark contrast. His hurt at his sons’ reaction, citing how ashamed their mother would have been, brings me to tears even just writing about it. If ever there was a moment in acting where the adage less is more holds absolutely true, this is it.
They behave equally snobbishly when their father hooks up with Sherrie, a brash brunette whom the boys find embarrassing to be around. It is another example of Marty’s connection to the real world that is anathema to his sons. It his influence that enables them to learn from their mistakes . . . until they go out and make a whole lot of different mistakes.
Mahoney brought immense poignancy to the role. In one episode, Frasier and Niles turn against Marty, believing that he once had an affair. It transpires that it was their mother who had been unfaithful, but out of respect for her, Marty had not wanted to taint the boys’ memory of her. Protecting his sons from harsh realities that might hurt them – the role of a fine father – is another aspect of this rich character.
Then there is Eddie, Marty’s constant companion, a dog with whom he shares a secret language. They understand one another, comfort one another, and theirs is the strongest relationship in the show. I like to think of Moose (who played Eddie) being reunited with his owner in a galaxy far away. Call me an old softie.
Frasier regularly fulfils one of the traditional fundamentals of British theatre – every individual must be alone with each character at some point during the play (I have no idea if this still holds true). In Frasier, those moments often take place in the kitchen (stage left), which provides a conspiratorial backdrop to the action taking place in the living room.
“Dad/Niles/Frasier, can I see you in the kitchen” is a familiar refrain – my favourite being when Frasier invites station manager Tom over for dinner as a blind date for his father’s live-in physio, Daphne (Jane Leeves). Tom gets the wrong end of the stick and thinks Frasier wants him for himself, and Niles and Marty (as is the audience) are in on the misunderstanding in the kitchen. The genius of the episode (written by Joe Keenan, a master of the farcical) is that you just hear Marty’s uproarious laugh in the distance.
It’s good to hear that John was also a joy to work with and, according to all the tributes, a wonderful man who was greatly loved by all who had the good fortune to cross his path. I never met him, but he will always have a place in my heart as one of the true greats.