When the phone rings and you see the name "John Mahoney" on the caller ID, it's a no-brainer that you're going to be talking about the actor's memorable roles in television and film and on stage with Chicago's Steppenwolf ensemble. Less predictable, on the other hand, are the topics of Speedos, the pronunciation of the word "Wednesday," and the fact that the man who has famously played no-nonsense, all-American characters -- was not actually raised in the United States.
"I was born in 1940 in England," Mahoney begins. "The reason I came to the United States was because one of my sisters was a war bride. She married a serviceman who was stationed near Manchester -- which was my home -- and she came over here and became a farmer's wife in Carthage, Illinois. My whole family came to visit and I just loved it. I always wanted to come back and live here, so when we went back to England, I finished school, saved up my money, and my sister sponsored me to come over here."
"I didn't really know what I wanted to do, so I went ahead and joined the Army, possibly to get my citizenship faster, and possibly to get a loan to go to school when I was through," he says. "I lost my accent on purpose, because I didn't want to sound like a foreigner all my life. I just wanted to sound like everybody else. So by the time I got out of the Army and started college, nobody knew I was from England. My accent was completely gone, and it never comes back."
But a notable exception occurred during his tenure as the gruff, frequently exasperated Martin Crane on the long-running sitcom Frasier. Mahoney explains, "When we were doing Frasier, there was a line where I had to say, ‘Come back next Wednesday.' You might have noticed that I pronounce the first d in Wednesday. It's just the way that they do it in England, and it's something I never got over. I remember the director, Jimmy Burrows, saying, ‘What are you saying?' and I said, ‘Wednesday, like it says in the script.' He corrected me, and I said, ‘What about the d?' He said that it's not pronounced, and I said that it is . . . so we changed it to Tuesday. I just couldn't get it."
However, random pronunciation glitches aside, Mahoney is every inch a consummate Midwesterner: unfailingly polite, pleasant and sincere, answering every question with enthusiastic aplomb, and prompt to the minute -- calling from his home in Oak Park, Illinois, at the exact time the interview is scheduled.
"I never left Chicago," he says. "When I was doing Frasier for eleven years, all I did was rent a furnished apartment in Santa Monica, and came back to Chicago most weekends, plus every fourth week, a couple of weeks at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and four months in-between seasons. So even when I was doing Frasier, I was spending over six months of the year in Chicago."
And there is no greater ambassador for the Chicago theater scene, the city itself, or even the Midwest in general. "I acted in plays at the Steppenwolf while I was doing Frasier, and all my friends would come and see them, Kelsey [Grammer], David [Hyde Pierce] and Jane [Leeves], and a lot of the producers and writers. They'd all come to Chicago to see what I was doing, and then they started coming here just for fun, telling me, ‘We understand why you don't want to move away from here. This is gorgeous; this is great.'
He continues, "It's got everything any other major city in the world has, I think: first-class opera companies, symphonies, museums, everything. Plus, it's laid out beautifully, and it's got a Midwestern tenor -- by that I mean it's just easygoing, friendly and helpful. Chicago is the best of everything as far as I'm concerned."
Mahoney's path from the Army to becoming a working actor wasn't particularly direct. "I knew deep down somewhere that I wanted to be an actor, but I didn't want to be the archetypal sponging brother-in-law, and I wanted to be able to earn a living. I have a master's in English, so I thought, well, I'll be an English teacher. So I got a bachelor's at what is now Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois, and went to Western Illinois University for my master's, and taught there on an assistantship. That was when I realized, Oh, God, I'm not very good at this. Right about that time I moved to Chicago. I'd worked my way through college and graduate school as an orderly at a hospital in Quincy, so I had six years of medical background plus a master's in English, so I went to work on a medical journal."
On the surface, his career seemed to be on track, but Mahoney knew it was going in the wrong direction. "I had a great office in the Hancock building, working for the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals as an associate editor. I don't know where I ever got the guts to quit, because I was never that daring. It must have been a very, very deep dissatisfaction with my life and the way it was going, the realization that I had to do something or I was just going to be a miserable, complaining, crabby old man. I asked myself what I had ever done in my life that thrilled and excited me, and realized it was when I was acting in children's theater as a kid. I thought, ‘That's what I want. I've got to try it before it's too late.'
"Everything fell into place. It couldn't have been easier. I enrolled in an acting class with St. Nicholas Theatre with David Mamet and Steven Schachter, got cast out of that into a play I did with John Malkovich called Ashes, and John invited me to join Steppenwolf. It was just like life had been waiting for me to make that decision, and then when I finally made it, it said, 'Okay, now let's go.' And everything just worked out."
He's quick to admit, however, that his experience isn't universal. "The only problem is that a lot of people have been inspired by my story and tried it, too, but it ended very, very badly for them," he says. "I've been very lucky, I realize that; some of the greatest actors in the world are driving cabs, tending bars and waiting tables."
Mahoney didn't begin acting professionally until the age of 37, and his early years at the Steppenwolf were invaluable both in terms of learning and exposure. "These days, Steppenwolf is known all around the world," he says. "We've performed everywhere, from Australia to London to Ireland, but at the time the Steppenwolf was just sort of a well-regarded small theater company in Highland Park. But the more I saw their work, I thought, I'm going to do it more to learn than anything else, to be on stage with John [Malkovich], Laurie Metcalf, Joan Allen, Gary Sinise, Gary Cole and all these wonderful actors that I so admired. I accepted their invitation so I could learn from actors I regarded as masters. I don't know if I would have had a career had I not joined."
Mahoney joined the Steppenwolf ensemble in 1979, but it was his 1985 role in the production Orphans that put him on the map. "We transferred the play to New York, and all of a sudden the three of us -- Kevin Anderson, Terry Kinney and I, and Gary Sinise who directed it -- were the toast of New York. I still get people talking to me about Orphans."
A subsequent role in The House of Blue Leaves  on Broadway garnered the actor a Tony Award, after which time Mahoney went on to play roles in beloved films, appearing most notably as a lonely college professor in Moonstruck , and as the loving, but flawed, father of an overachieving high school graduate in 1989's Say Anything. "In film, probably the role that I'm most identified with is Moonstruck. Virtually everybody talks to me about Moonstruck. My favorite, though, is Say Anything. I just think that was a great movie. I had a wonderful part in it, I thought John Cusack was great, Cameron [Crowe] did such a great job directing it, and it was a fascinating story."
But Mahoney never stayed away from theater for long, particularly the Steppenwolf stage. "I definitely find the most fulfillment on stage. I love doing movies and TV, but there's just something about the immediacy of having the audience right there. If you're doing a film, you look in the direction of the camera and you'll see the cinematographer and the gaffer and the crew, and they've seen it all. But the audience in a theater is totally different. You feed on that energy. Plus, nine times out of ten, the writing for the theater is just a lot better. It's a verbal medium as opposed to a visual one -- which movies are -- so you usually get much better writing in theater than you do with film and television."
Accordingly, Mahoney jumped at the chance to appear in Penelope, running December 1 through February 5 at the Steppenwolf. "Any chance I get to work at Steppenwolf, if it's something that I think is interesting, I'll do it," he says.
When asked about his character, who is described in the play's promotional materials as one of "four Speedo-clad men," Mahoney laughs. "A Speedo? I think so. I haven't talked to the costume lady yet, but I have a feeling that it's not going to be pretty. But I don't care. I really don't. Whatever's real, that's more important than how pretty it is. I'm way past pretty.
"I didn't pick the role, the role picked me, because the guy is described as old and bony and not very attractive, balding, with a little pot belly, looking every one of his 70 years -- and that had a lot to do with why I was offered the part. I really enjoy working with [Penelope director] Amy Morton, and I love the cast that they have set for this, too. I would have played any part they wanted me to, but obviously physically, I'm playing the part that I'm supposed to play."
Mahoney is obviously excited about the production, although he finds it difficult to summarize the plot. "It's very, very interesting, and funny, and shocking and bloody, but it's just so hard to describe, it really is. It's obviously a take on the Odyssey . . . it's a lot of people looking for the most important thing in the world -- which they regard as love -- in many different ways. Penelope represents love, and the play is about man's quest for love. It's four men trying desperately this one last day before they're all going to die at the hand of Odysseus to make contact and to sort of . . . it's so hard to describe . . .
He gives up, laughing. "I'll be there in my Speedo . . . but come anyway."
Dec 1-Feb 5
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
1650 N Halsted, Chicago