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Steppenwolf ensemble member John Mahoney has died, starred in ‘Frasier’

Actor John Mahoney, photographed on the set of "Chapatti" at Northlight Theatre in Skokie. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

Veteran actor John Mahoney, best known for his role as the curmudgeonly retired cop Martin Crane on the hit NBC series “Frasier,” has died, it was confirmed late Monday. He was 77.

The actor was also a critically acclaimed ensemble member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, where he most recently starred in “The Rembrandt.”

A spokesperson for Steppenwolf said the theater cancelled its opening night Monday for “You Got Older” out of respect for Mr. Mahoney’s passing and encouraged opening night ticketholders to gather at the theater Monday evening for remembrances and a moment of silence.

Though no official cause of death has been disclosed, Steppenwolf Theatre artistic director Anna D. Shapiro, who was a longtime friend of Mr. Mahoney, said he was in frail health in recent months.

“He was fragile and he was supposed to be having a routine procedure. But having just beat Stage 3 throat cancer, I think he was just too weak,” Shapiro said. “And John was incredibly private. He did not like complaining. He suffered a lot of what he suffered, in private. … By the time he did ‘The Rembrandt’ he was clean of cancer. … But other health issues came up and he was just too fragile.”

John Mahoney as the ancient Greek poet Homer in Jessica Dickey’s play,”The Rembrandt,” at Steppenwolf Theatre. | MICHAEL BROSILOW

From 1993-2004 on “Frasier,” Mr. Mahoney starred as Martin Crane, the down-to-earth father to elitist psychiatrists Frasier (played by Kelsey Grammer) and his brother Niles (played by David Hyde Pierce). He received an Emmy nomination twice for the role.

His film credits included “Say Anything,” “Moonstruck,” “Flipped” and “The House of Blue Leaves,” the latter based on the John Guare stage play for which Mahoney received a Tony Award. His television credits aside from “Frasier” included “ER,” “Burn Notice” and “Hot in Cleveland.”

Mr. Mahoney was a veteran of many Chicago’s stages, having appeared in more than 30 productions at Steppenwolf alone, including “Orphans” (directed in 1985 by ensemble member Gary Sinise who also co-starred) and “You Can’t Take it With You” (directed by ensemble member Frank Galati and co-starring Sinise, Laurie Metcalf, Jeff Perrry and Rondi Reed), which Shapiro called his seminal performances.


“He was absolutely impossible not to love, absolutely impossible not to respect,” Shapiro said. “Everything he did [on stage] felt true. And he did it with such grace. He was such a role model of humility and kindness. He was born to act. He was grateful to act and he brought that to the experience. That affected the artists he worked with and the audiences who saw him.”

At Northlight Theatre, Mr. Mahoney starred in numerous productions including  “A Life,” “What the Butler Saw,” Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” Christian O’Reilly’s “Chapatti,” and Bruce Graham’s “The Outgoing Tide.”

“Aside from being one of the greatest collaborators, he was a role model to all the young actors in Chicago because of his generous and warm and loving spirit,” said Northlight Theatre artistic director BJ Jones. Jones and Mr. Mahoney collaborated on four productions presented by the Skokie-based theater company. Two of the shows, “Chapatti” and “Outgoing Tide” were also presented at the prestigious Galway Theatre Festival, where “the shows were completely sold out,” Jones added.

In this March 23, 2004 file photo, John Mahoney, who stars as Martin Crane, appears on the set during the filming of the final episode of “Frasier” in Los Angeles. | AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File

“John loved Chicago, he loved Chicago theater and he really was of our community. When he had the opportunity to move to Los Angeles or New York he chose to stay here because he loved working here,” an emotional Jones said of his longtime friend and collaborator. “He was the essence of a Chicago theater creature. He defined it. He was very good to me, to our theater and he was great to Chicago audiences.”

Mr. Mahoney was a longtime resident of west suburban Oak Park, though he was born in Blackpool, England, in 1940. That’s where his pregnant mother had been evacuated for safety from Nazi attacks, but the family soon returned to its home in Manchester.

In a 2015 interview with The Associated Press, Mahoney recounted memories of huddling in an air raid shelter and playing among bombed-out houses. The accounts his four older sisters shared with him, he said, included tucking him into a baby carriage outfitted with a shield against feared gas attacks.

He moved to the U.S. as a teen to live with one of his sisters (who had married a U.S. sailor) in Illinois. He studied at Quincy University and later taught at Western Illinois University.  He began to pursue an acting career in earnest in the late 1970s.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a statement Monday evening praising the late actor for his contribution to Chicago’s theater scene: “John Mahoney was a fixture on the Chicago stage for over 30 years through countless award-winning performances. Even as his fame grew through his fantastic work in movies and television, John stayed connected to his artistic home here in Chicago in theaters and as a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Though he will be missed, his work and impact will endure for generations to come.”

A frequent presence on Chicago’s stages, Mr. Mahoney could often be seen in the audience of local productions, supporting the city’s vibrant theater scene as a patron as well as performer. His love for Chicago ran deep, according to those who knew him well.

“John was the only actor who had an out-of-town contract while he starred on ‘Frasier,'” Shapiro said with a chuckle. “Nobody else had that. I remember once he caught the flu when he was out in L.A. and he thought he was going to die. He caught a plane home to Chicago because he told me later there was no way he was going to die in Los Angeles. That’s how much he loved Chicago.”

Shapiro said Mr. Mahoney asked her at a recent gathering to promise there would be no public memorial service in the event of his passing. She said the theater plans to abide by his request.

“The lake, the skyline, the museums, the symphony, the Lyric Opera,” Mr. Mahoney told The AP, in extolling the city in 2015. Add in reliably friendly Midwesterners, Mahoney said, and it’s “my favorite place in the world.”

John Mahoney and his beloved onscreen dog Eddie in a scene from an episode of “Frasier.” | NBC