Sensible man suddenly turned actor in mid-career Taking the jump: John Mahoney is landing good parts in television ('Frasier') and movies ('Primal Fear'), but once he worked for medical trade publications.

April 21, 1996|By Jay Dedrick | Jay Dedrick,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

John Mahoney had always loved acting and the theater. But like the sensible Martin Crane he plays on TV's highly rated "Frasier," he followed the sensible path.

As a young adult he settled in Chicago, earned a bachelor's degree in English literature at Quincy College, then a master's degree from Western Illinois University. His education earned him a career as an editor of medical trade publications.

But at 37, he set aside the journals and followed his muse.

"It was amazingly simple," Mr. Mahoney says. "It was a huge challenge, but it's a fairy story, because to go from a well-paid job in middle age into a profession that at any given time 90 percent of its union members are out of work is a rather silly, cavalier move to make.

"But I was never as happy in my life, and it must have been the right thing to do, because everything fell into place. I've never been without a job, and I haven't lost one ounce of that exhilaration and happiness."

Mr. Mahoney got his stage start with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 1978; he rose to film prominence as Richard Dreyfuss' "Tin Men" partner in 1986. Most recently he appeared in last year's "The American President" (as Annette Bening's boss), and his steady character work also bolstered such films as "Reality Bites," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Betrayed," "Say Anything" and "Moonstruck."

Rehearsing for "Frasier"

The 55-year-old actor is being interviewed by phone during a break in rehearsal for the last episode of "Frasier's" third season, set to air in May.

The story rewinds to what was happening in the lives of acerbic retired cop Martin (Mr. Mahoney) and his unlikely brood, pontifical psychiatrists Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce), just before Frasier arrived in Seattle from Boston and "Cheers."

Mr. Mahoney is promoting "Primal Fear," the courtroom drama with a twist or two starring Richard Gere as a cross between his "Pretty Woman" character and lawyer Johnnie Cochran. Mr. Mahoney plays the state's attorney whose closeness to a murder case (he was friends with the victim) and push for the death penalty lead to some head butting with Mr. Gere.

"We got to do some rehearsal, which is not very common when making a film," Mr. Mahoney says of the confrontational scenes. "We sort of improvised a little bit . It was great, because Richard and I are both from very similar backgrounds. His stage background is extensive, and we both sort of approach those scenes the same way: You always do them a little different so you don't get stale.

"One take we might make it a little more menacing, then one ironic, then one straightforward. Every time that happens it becomes new and fresh -- you listen to the intent behind the words."

Mr. Mahoney enjoyed the William Diehl book that the movie is based on, and acknowledges that public interest in the O. J. Simpson trial may have whetted the appetite for courtroom suspense.

"People are fascinated by the law and lawyers," Mr. Mahoney says. "It's not just O. J. Simpson, necessarily. I look at all the best sellers -- I mean look at John Grisham -- and I'd say maybe four out of 10 new books all have law titles and catch phrases."

Films don't disappoint

In the court of career choices, Mr. Mahoney would make a good defense lawyer. He doesn't accuse any of his films of disappointing him.

"I've always enjoyed them all, but I'm surprised at the reaction to some of them," he says. "I was amazed that 'Betrayed' received such negative reaction from critics."

Indeed, Leonard Maltin's "Movie & Video Guide" refers to Costa-Gravas' 1988 work as "an appalling botch of a film about the stupidest FBI undercover agent in movie history."

"It was such a fascinating story, and I thought it was going to be something huge," Mr. Mahoney says. "I was also very disappointed at the reaction to [Joel and Ethan Coen's] 'Hudsucker Proxy.' I was very moved by it. It had some beautiful visuals but critics said it didn't have any heart, that it was sort of a pastiche."

The movie Mr. Mahoney most agrees with fans and critics on, though, is 1989's "Say Anything." Cameron Crowe's ode to romantic overachievement inspired young Romeos -- with boom boxes in hand -- to blast Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" toward the balconies of their would-be Juliets.

"I'm amazed at how many people remember and love that movie," Mr. Mahoney says. "When people bring me laser discs or something like that to sign, eight times out of 10 it's 'Say Anything.' When it came out it was sort of lost among some other teen movies, although it was on the Top 10 lists of Siskel and Ebert and some other critics. It's just a good film, multilayered, with fascinating characters.

"It's funny, when I talk to the public about my movies, the women mostly want to talk about 'Moonstruck,' and the men want to talk about 'Tin Men.' And for kids -- and now people in their late 20s and early 30s -- it's 'Say Anything.' So right there you've got a whole spectrum of audiences."

Universal appeal is what continues to make "Frasier" a hit, too, Mr. Mahoney figures.

"I think people really identify an awful lot more than they know with Kelsey and David," he says. "A lot of people say, 'How could Martin have such twitty sons when he's so down to earth and sensible?' "

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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