Actor John Mahoney died Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, in Chicago after a brief hospitalization. He was 77.
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Obituary tributes to famous people, particularly actors and musicians, are a roll of the dice. One man’s cultural icon is another man’s also-ran. But the exercise is worth the time for the examination of a simple, yet profound question: What makes people who are not famous relate, in a personal way, to famous people they have never met?
What makes an ordinary American grieve the loss of Prince, or Tom Petty, or Mary Tyler Moore?
One answer is talent. While a great many Americans who are famous are famous only for being famous, the ones who endure, over time, and retain public affection even after they leave the stage, almost all possessed great talent, usually singular talent. Whether you are talking about Gene Kelly, or Leonard Bernstein, or Frank Sinatra, there is a sense, with the true icon in the arts, entertainment, or sports that we will not see his or her like again.
But a second, and in a way more interesting, answer is that some famous people, who are somehow or other beloved, touch a deep human chord — they connect with something fundamentally human within us. That would be true of Tyler Moore, for example. Or Jimmy Stewart. Or Mohamed Ali. And it would be true of John Mahoney, the actor who played Frasier’s dad, Martin Crane, on the sitcom Frazier, for 11 years.
Mr. Mahoney died this week, at 77.
He was not the star of the show. A character actor, he played an almost caricatured character, as indeed all the principals of Frasier did. Marty was wisecracking, beer swigging, rather spoiled and all too quick to take offense and lose his temper.
Yet Mr. Mahoney’s Marty Crane was somehow the heart of the show. And that is because Marty and Mr. Mahoney himself — the real person bleeds into the part in long-running TV shows — epitomized something: decency.
The wounded cop, who lived with his son with whom he had little in common, and who had boundless love for both his sons, led his life with zero bitterness and with boundless compassion. He was a mensch.
By all accounts so was John Mahoney. He was able to show his full acting range in a few films, and even more so in theater — his first and last love. After Frasier, he returned full-time to his beloved Chicago to do nothing but plays – one after the other. His artistic home was the Steppenwolf Theater, and even in his Hollywood days he returned to it regularly. But, after Hollywood, he mostly turned his back on film, stayed in Chicago, and did play upon play. And the size of the theater company didn’t matter if he liked the play. His last was The Rembrandt, in November, 2017, in which he played a dying poet.
Not since the The Honeymooners has a working class guy been been so lionized, and humanized. And never as well. The fictional Martin Crane was a homage to the sort of salt of the earth man or woman most of us would feel honored to know even once in our lives. People loved him because he showed that character is, in the end, impossible to define but definitive; a big heart always trumps a clever mind; and love crosses all the chasms families and friends must face.
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