John Mahoney died three days ago at the age of 77. Everyone remembers him—justifiably—as "Frasier's dad," a part he performed wonderfully opposite Kelsey Grammer for eleven seasons. I want to pay tribute to two other performances Mahoney gave before Frasier took off, the two performances I always associate with Mahoney, and to a aspect of his life I've only learned about since his death.
Eight Men Out
One of my favorite movies—and, in my opinion, the best baseball movie out there—is Eight Men Out, the story of the 1919 World Series scandal that ended the careers of eight players for the Chicago White Sox. Mahoney plays Kid Gleason, a veteran ballplayer and now the manager of the Sox. Mahoney doesn't have a lot of scenes in the film, which gives much more attention to the players involved in the bribery scandal—Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), Buck Weaver (John Cusack), Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker), and Shoeless Joe Jackson (DB Sweeney). But in his handful of scenes, Mahoney evokes enormous pathos. Gleason is a father to his players. He's proud of them and trusts them, not just to win ballgames but to play to the standard he has seen them set.
As the World Series unfolds, we see Gleason confronted with evidence he doesn't want to believe. He goes to his players, tries to get them to open up to them, and when they won't, we see, in a wonderfully subtle performance, his heartbreak. During the court case that follows, we see Gleason try to salvage his boys' reputations by standing up for them in the face of all the evidence against them. It's hopeless, and we know it even if he doesn't. It's tragic, and Mahoney plays it excellently. His pride, his disbelief, and finally his disappointment—who hasn't felt their heart pricked upon hearing "I'm disappointed in you" from their father?—command your sympathy and sadness.
Watch Mahoney in his handful of insert shots in the Game 3 montage, at the emotions he takes the viewer through in just a few seconds of screentime.
The second film—and my favorite Coen brothers movie—that has made me respect Mahoney is his comic turn in Barton Fink. As in Eight Men Out, Mahoney does a lot with a relatively small supporting part. Barton Fink is the story of a socialist playwright who makes the move from New York to Hollywood just before World War II. There, with an enormous opportunity to spread his message and make some good money, he develops writer's block. While Barton is still trying to adjust to the Hollywood lifestyle, he encounters Mahoney's character, WP Mayhew, for the first time—a dapper Southern gentlemen puking his guts out in a restaurant bathroom. His first line to Barton, while washing his hands: "Sorry 'bout the odor."
Mayhew is an alcoholic writer whose critically acclaimed modernist novels have, like Barton's plays, attracted the attention of Hollywood, where he's been slumming ever since leaving the South. (Mayhew is, incidentally, loosely based on William Faulkner, and Mahoney in his bowtie and mustache is a dead ringer for the man.) With just a handful of scenes, Mahoney creates a character whose magnificence lies well behind him, and contributes mightily to Barton's disillusionment with Hollywood in general and writing in particular. After the initial shock of meeting Mayhew wears off (almost immediately, given the circumstances), Barton has almost nothing good to say of his one-time idol: "He's a big fat phony!" and, after Mayhew's put-upon secretary and lover weeps over a drunken Mayhew and says how sorry she feels for him, "He's a son of a bitch!" And, thanks to Mahoney's performance in what could have been a straightforwardly slapstick role, you can see why both characters feel the way they do.
Mahoney the man
Since his death a few days ago, I've learned a little about Mahoney the man. I try to avoid reading about the personal lives of actors since they're usually sordid and disappointing, but I was happy to learn a bit more about Mahoney. The respect and humility he brought to his craft were remarkable, and I think, in hindsight, that it shows in the finished product. He viewed acting as his vocation and approached it as an outgrowth of his faith:
I’ve always prayed to the Holy Ghost for wisdom and for understanding and knowledge. I think he answered my prayers when I stopped in the church that day. My life was totally different from that day on. I saw myself as I was, and I saw into the future and saw what I wanted to be. And I sort of rededicated myself to God and begged him to make me a better person. It wasn’t fear of hell or anything like that. I just somehow knew that to be like…what I was, wasn’t the reason I was created. I had to be better.
And the prayer he would pray before each performance he gave:
Most glorious blessed spirit, I thank you for all the gifts and talents that you’ve given me. Please help me to use all these gifts and talents to their fullest. And please accept this performance as a prayer of praise and thanks to you.
Not a bad approach to our daily work, whatever it may be. Nor is this humble prayer a bad way to approach our fellow man:
Dear God, please help me to treat everybody—including myself—with love, respect, and dignity.
Actor John Mahoney, RIP.