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John Mahoney and why he was so good at his job

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Barely audible at first, at a nearby table for two, an argument simmers between an NYU communications professor and one of his students, his latest eight-weeks-and-so-long lover. The professor says something callous; the student throws a glass of water in his face and leaves in a huff. The professor is played by Mahoney, and after he apologizes to Rose for the disruption, she invites him to join her table.

The scene, followed by a shorter one on the street, is wonderful a dozen different ways, starting with the slight, flustered delay Mahoney fills so beautifully after Dukakis asks him why men chase women. His one-word blurt of an answer: "Nerves." From there the professor grows unexpectedly reflective, and melancholy, and then superficially charming again. The wolf in the sheep's clothes returns. Mahoney's touch is feather-light but completely true. It's like watching a character really think, hard, about difficult matters for the first time in his life, before scurrying back to safety.

Mahoney was a kind man. During my first drama critic gig, at the Dallas Times-Herald, in the late 1980s, I reviewed a local production of "Orphans" and talked briefly about Mahoney's performance in the New York production. Mahoney, as it happened, was shooting a movie near Dallas at the time, "Love Hurts." On Holiday Inn stationery, he wrote a thank-you note he really didn't need to write.

Decades later, in Chicago, we talked about his work in the Steppenwolf production of "I Never Sang for My Father," for a feature on director Anna D. Shapiro. He struggled with that role, and acknowledged his dissatisfaction with the results; the character was a tough, unyielding bully and maybe all those episodes of "Frasier" made it extra difficult to find the key.

"I couldn't find anything to like about that character," he told me. "Anna didn't coddle me. I'd look for places to soften him, but just like Jerry Zaks did with me on 'The House of Blue Leaves' (in New York), she said: 'Don't. Don't do it. The audience won't necessarily like you, but they'll understand your motives.' "

Mahoney won a Tony Award for "The House of Blue Leaves." He won the hearts and the respect of hundreds of colleagues across a career spanning storefront Chicago theater in the '70s to "Hot in Cleveland" on TV.

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Through their work, other actors have made equally persuasive arguments for a late start on an acting career, when the performer is good and ready. But at the moment I can't think of any.

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