J ust before the metaphorical curtain rose on a February preview performance of Prelude to a Kiss, a woman in Row I paged through her Playbill, took note of the top-billed actor, and launched a reasonable remark: “I’m sure John Mahoney’s like, ‘I’m not just Frasier’s dad!’”
The joke was in the tone—fraught, full of protest—and versions of it must be getting cracked a hundred times a night as the Roundabout Theatre Company preps its revival of the 1988 body-switch comedy. (It opens March 8.) Mahoney, of course, gets the joke: You don’t put in a long run on a smash sitcom—NBC aired Frasier from 1993 to 2004—without a sense of humor. But he’s also tickled by it. Sixty-six and satisfied, with three decades of stage work behind him, Mahoney is anything but anxious, a theater veteran happy to be imprinted on pop consciousness as Marty Crane, the crabby dad of a pair of fussy shrinks.
“Yesss,” he says, chuckling cozily when the line’s repeated over a Bouchon Bakery lunch the next day. “A lot of people put sitcoms down, but it’s the closest thing to being in the theater. You rehearse all week. You do it in front of a live audience. It’s like being in a rep company and doing a different play every week. I always love when somebody comes up to me on the street and instead of saying, ‘Where’s Eddie?’ they say, ‘Oh, I remember seeing you in House of Blue Leaves.’ That feels very good, I must admit, but I’m never gonna apologize for being Frasier’s dad.”
As David Hyde Pierce—who, not just Frasier’s brother, is readying himself for the Broadway run of the Kander and Ebb musical Curtains—says, Mahoney helped make the show a hit by deploying an “inner wickedness” as Marty Crane: “John’s got a highly developed imp inside him. Marty’s irascible, and he’s a cop and all those things. But the extra quality—the little-kid quality that John has himself and that he brings to his acting—put a sparkle in what otherwise might have been just a dark, unhappy character.”
In Prelude to a Kiss, the imp actually inhabits two characters, each unhappy in his or her own way. Craig Lucas’s play (adapted for the movies in 1992) concerns a tense young bride and the dejected Old Man who shuffles into her wedding reception and steals a chaste kiss to supernatural effect. The two souls switch bodies, and the second act finds Rita with her spirit trapped in the Old Man’s shell, desperately hunting down her old self. The part invites a showy approach, but Mahoney’s not the fireworks type. “He doesn’t try to force things to happen,” says Annie Parisse, his Prelude co-star. “That takes a lot of courage.”
“It’s funny,” Mahoney says. “I find myself connecting more with Rita than I do with the Old Man. I can understand her desperation.” The actor got rather too deeply in touch with his own despair in the seventies as a 37-year-old with a dull job, a Chicago apartment, and not much else: “I’d just sit and drink and smoke and watch TV. I was disconnected. And I remembered that my happiest times were when I was a kid and belonged to a theater company.”
That was in Manchester, England, where Mahoney grew up poor, the seventh of eight children. At 19, he followed a war-bride sister to rural Illinois and joined the Army, which sped his acquisition of both American citizenship and a new accent to match. After college and grad school, he tried teaching and hated it. Another brief career as an editor at a medical journal was, somehow, worse: “I was making good money, but every year I was getting lower and lower and lower.”
He signed up for an acting class run by the young David Mamet and William H. Macy, which soon led him to a theater company called Steppenwolf, now hallowed as the launch pad for John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. (The Mahoney solution to a midlife crisis requires grand talent and greater serendipity. Do not try this at home.) He first made it to Broadway in 1986 as the zookeeping Artie Shaughnessy, the lead role in John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves. “Of course, the huge thing was getting a Tony,” Mahoney says, just by the way. Kelsey Grammer, first wonderstruck by Mahoney’s gleeful performance opposite Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck, later worked with him on an episode of Cheers: “That was what made me think of him for Marty Crane.”
Prelude to a Kiss is the sixth play Mahoney’s done since stepping away from Marty’s ratty recliner and settling back in Chicago. There’s also been a recent guest spot on ER and a turn as Steve Carell’s father in the upcoming romantic comedy Dan in Real Life. He turns down TV pilots in favor of chewy stage roles. “I’d love to do Polonius,” he says, mentioning that he last played the part at age 12, back at the theater company in Manchester. Frasier’s dad wouldn’t be anywhere if he weren’t Hamlet’s stepdad first.