Since its earliest days, one of the defining characteristics of the Galway Arts Festival is the way it has forged strong friendships with its featured performers and invited them back for repeat visits.
In recent times Fraiser star John Mahoney has become one of the festival’s best friends and this year sees him perform here for the fifth time, in Bruce Graham’s play The Outgoing Tide. Mahoney relishes his trips to Galway as much as audiences here enjoy seeing him, as he reveals over an afternoon phone call from Chicago. “I’m so looking forward to coming to Galway again,” he enthuses. “I even come there when I’m not in the festival. I was there for a few days just six months ago, I popped in there showing off Galway to some friends I brought from Chicago. So you never know when I’m sneaking around your city!”
Mahoney’s love affair with Galway began with his first arts festival appearance, in Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 2000. “That was so great,” he recalls fondly. “I remember going out with Tom Murphy afterwards and saying to him ‘Gee Tom, the audience were there for nearly four hours and I never heard a sweet-wrapper open or a chair squeak or anything’ and he answered ‘John, what they’re watching up there, that’s sacred to us’.
“I thought ‘Wow, that’s really something’. You’re used to hearing people saying they got into acting because that’s where all the cute girls were or whatever but you don’t often hear someone say acting is a sacred profession and that really made me feel great.”
The Irish connection
Mahoney was born in 1940 in Blackpool, where his family had been evacuated due to wartime bombing raids on their home city of Manchester. Though he came from Irish stock, it wasn’t until adulthood that he developed his own sense of Irish identity.
“My great grandfather was born Michael O’Mahoney in Cork city and his son moved to England,” he tells me. “I can’t say I was raised in an Irish household, I never particularly felt Irish until I went to Ireland. After I had been in the United States for a while I went on vacation there with actress Joan Allen. I remember flying in to Dublin, seeing a show in the Abbey, driving across to Galway and then spending nearly a month driving all over Ireland and by the time that month was over I felt totally, utterly, Irish and have ever since. That’s why I go there at least once every two years, I’ve been over at least 20 times.”
Mahoney emigrated to the United States as a young man when his older sister, Vera, a GI bride, sponsored his move. After graduating from Illinois University he worked in teaching and as editor of a medical journal. It was not until he was in his thirties that his childhood love of acting resurfaced and prompted him to make a dramatic career change.
“I did a lot of theatre at school,” he states. “My first role was Murder in the Cathedral at St Gregory’s Catholic Boys High School in Manchester, then I did Moliere’s Le Bourgeouis Gentilhomme and I just loved doing it. I joined the Stretford Children’s Theatre and did a lot of stuff there from Agatha Christie to Shakespeare. When I emigrated to the States I didn’t want to be like a leeching brother-in-law so I decided to do something I could earn a living at and became a teacher and hated every minute of it. Then, when I was 37, I thought I was going to have to do something before I killed myself because I was so bored and my mind flashed back to the wonderful times with the Stretford Children’s Theatre and I decided ‘I’m going to try and be an actor’. I enrolled in an acting class with David Mamet who’d just started a school and he cast me in his new play, The Water Engine and then I did a play with John Malkovich and he invited me to join Steppenwolf and since then I’ve done 30 plays with them.”
Interestingly, Mahoney’s debut with Steppenwolf was in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come. “It’s weird the way things work out,” he says. “I did that play because someone dropped out and they were desperate for a replacement,” he reveals. “It was just like the job in Frasier. I got a job on Cheers which led to the part in Frasier because somebody walked off that show too, so it seems I happen to be around to get parts that somebody else has turned down and then they have done huge things for my career.”
Mention of Frasier brings us to the role with which Mahoney will always be associated, Martin Crane, father of Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier. He featured in the show from its inception in 1993 to its final episode in 2004. He describes how his cameo appearance in Cheers led to his getting his most famous role.
“The people who wrote the episode of Cheers I was in were the ones who wrote and created Frasier,” he says. “They asked would I be interested in playing Kelsey’s dad in a new show they were writing. I said I’d like to read a script and they said ‘As soon as we have one we’ll get it you’. So I went back to Chicago and after about six weeks they called and said ‘We have a script, we’d like to come and give it to you!’ I said ‘Fine’ and they came to Chicago, I took them to dinner; they sat at one end of the table eating, I sat at the other end reading the pilot of Frasier and I remember just thinking to myself ‘My God, yeeeeesssss!.’
“It was the most brilliant TV script I’d ever read. So I said to them, ‘Yes, absolutely, I’ll do it’ but even then I had no idea it was going to be as big as it was. That’s how it happened. And Kelsey would be calling me all the time while I was waiting for the script saying ‘Please come and be my Daddy!’”
The success of Frasier brought Mahoney a whole new level of fame and he describes the impact that had on his life. “After just three or four episodes had aired my whole life changed totally,” he says. “People were wanting autographs, pictures, people were offering me jobs without me having to read for them, I was getting seats in restaurant without reservation, and everyone on the street was recognising me and waving and yelling at me, all sorts of things.
"Some of it is hard to deal with, and some of it is great. You’d get folk coming up and saying ‘Hi I love the show’ or ‘Hi, where’s Eddie?’ Stuff like that is fine but what’s hard to deal with is when people think they know you so well they try to get a little too close to you. You’ll be eating dinner and someone you’ve never met will come and sit at your table and talk to you as if you’re a long-lost friend because they see you in their home every week on the TV, and they think they know you and they can just sit down and talk. That took a lot of getting used to.”
The Outgoing Tide
While enjoying success in TV and film, Mahoney has continued to perform regularly in theatre and The Outgoing Tide was greeted with rave reviews when it premiered in Chicago last year. Both poignant and funny, the play casts Mahoney as a retired union negotiator, Gunner, who realises his faculties are fast diminishing and has hatched a plan to secure his family’s future – but his plan meets resistance from both his wife and son.
“Gunner has been a good provider for his wife and son,” says Mahoney as he describes his character. “He was a hard worker, made money, has a holiday home for them to go to every year but he is the boss. What he says goes. At one point he says ‘My son hates it here’ and at another point he says ‘my wife hates it here’ but he likes it so they’re there. What Gunner wants Gunner gets, regardless of anyone else’s feelings. And yet he is not a cruel person at all.”
Mahoney outlines the qualities of author Bruce Graham, whose writing credits include the film Dunston Checks In and TV series Roseanne. “One of his great qualities is his dialogue, he writes so beautifully,” Mahoney observes. “Even after we did the play at Northlight and went back into rehearsals for this Galway run the lines were still almost intact in our heads. It’s so conversational, the way he gets his ideas across in the most basic language. He’s also a wonderful plotter. And there is a very sly sense of humour which I think audiences will love.”
Audiences will also love the work that John Mahoney and his fellow cast members Rondi Reed and Thomas J Cox deliver in Graham’s absorbing drama.
The Outgoing Tide runs at the Town Hall from Tuesday July 17 to Saturday 21 at 8pm nightly, with 2pm matinee shows on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. For tickets see www.galwayartsfestival.com