John Mahoney takes star turn in ‘Salinas’

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on May 7, 2003.

John Mahoney is one of the Chicago area’s best-known actors, but he rarely gets the chance to play the lead role in a feature film.

Mahoney, who has lived in Oak Park for the past 12 years, didn’t start acting until he was in his mid-30s.

In the three decades since, he has earned a strong reputation playing both lead and supporting characters on the stage, while gaining fame through his role as Frasier Crane’s father on the NBC sitcom “Frasier.”

He has worked with many of the best film directors in the business, including the Coen Brothers, John Sayles, Costa-Gravas, Barry Levinson, Cameron Crowe and Roman Polanski. His speciality has been character actors. It’s not often that you see the name John Mahoney above the title of the movie.

But Mahoney gets the top billing in his latest film, “Almost Salinas,” an independent film shot three years ago that is finally getting theatrical distribution and opening in the Chicago area Friday. Mahoney will speak at a screening of the film Friday at the Lake Theatre.

“I would have loved to have starred in movies. Who wouldn’t have?” Mahoney said, sitting down for an interview recently at Cucina Paradiso, one of his favorite dining spots in town. “My career has always been more like English actors.”

Mahoney compared himself to British actors who are major stars and critics’ favorites on the stage, while playing bit parts on the big screen.

In “Almost Salinas,” Mahoney plays Max, the owner of a roadside diner in the tiny town of Cholame, Calif., where James Dean was killed in a famous car crash.

Max decides to open up a vintage-style gas station alongside the restaurant. A magazine reporter (Linda Emond) shows up to write a feature story, then a director making a movie about Dean arrives in the sleepy town.

Mahoney said he decided to act in “Almost Salinas” almost as soon as he had read writer-director Terry Green’s script.

“I was just blown away by it,” he said. “I couldn’t believe this was a first-time screenwriter.”

Next came the “gargantuan task” of financing the movie, he said.

Mahoney went with Green to meetings with potential investors, eventually wrangling up enough money. The actors they signed up for “Almost Salinas” included Virginia Madsen, Lindsay Crouse, Ian Gomez and Ray Wise.

“We all worked for the least amounts our unions would allow us to work for,” Mahoney said.

After being involved in many corporate projects with “a lot of suits walking around,” Mahoney found it refreshing to act in a low-budget film with a talented young group of filmmakers and actors focused on making the movie they had envisioned.

“It reinvigorates you,” Mahoney said. “Everybody’s doing it for the absolute love of making the movie.”

He said he often learns things by working with people who have less experience than he does.

“Some of my best ideas are not mine,” Mahoney said “I’m a sponge.”

Listening to Mahoney speak, it’s not obvious that he grew up in northern England. He came to the United States when he was 19 and enlisted in the U.S. Army. While in the service, he used homemade flash cards to practice the American way of pronouncing words.

“I knew that when I emigrated, I wanted to be an American. I wasn’t an American as long as I sounded like the North of England every time I opened my mouth,” he said. “By the time I got out of the Army, no one could tell where I was from.”

Mahoney, who will be 63 next month, has trouble now speaking in the accent he grew up with.

“I’ve so totally lost it,” he said. “I have to think just as hard as anybody else to do a North of England accent.”

He didn’t became an actor until he was 37, when he was working at a medical journal.

“I was just depressed all the time… rotting away in front of the television,” he said.

Mahoney recalled asking himself, “What am I doing with my life?”

He thought back on acting in a school play and decided to audition for the stage in Chicago.

“I didn’t want to write about hemorrhoids and cataracts the rest of my life,” he said. “I thought I’ve got to try it before I get one day older.”

Mahoney said it was lucky that that he started out working with a then-unknown playwright named David Mamet.

These days, Mahoney is known by many people as a “sitcom actor,” a category of acting that many people look down upon.

“The irony is that doing sitcoms is the most like doing a play,” Mahoney said.

Unlike movies, which are usually filmed out of sequence with multiple takes, “Frasier” is performed straight through twice in front of a live audience, with four cameras capturing the action from various angles.

Despite the similarities between stage and sitcom acting, the transition back to live theater always takes some work, Mahoney said.

“The camera picks up everything. The great film actors, they do very little,” he said.

“When I leave ‘Frasier’ to do a play, all of a sudden I have to use my voice again,” he said. “You have to start acting bigger, with bigger gestures and not-so-subtle facial expressions… Everything seems so unnatural at first.”

Mahoney spends about six months of the year in Oak Park and the other six in California doing “Frasier” or in various other places, acting in plays and films.

He said it’s likely that the next season of “Frasier” will be the last.

“It’s been a great 10 years,” he said. “They want to go out still having a good show… It’s getting harder and harder to come up with good stories.”

Mahoney said he’s looking forward to having more time to work on the stage at places like the Steppenwolf and Goodman.

“I don’t care if I ever go in front of a camera again,” he said. “I’m dying for it (“Frasier’) to end.”

But he said the end of the series will be bittersweet. He expects he’ll feel the way he did when he left England.

“It killed me. I was so homesick, and I know that’s what it’s going to be like when ‘Frasier’ ends. But the great part is I won’t be living out of a suitcase as I have for the past 10 years.”

Mahoney laughed and added, “It’s been a great suitcase.”

Although Mahoney enjoys working in California, he said he can’t think of it as his home.

“It’s just not where my heart is,” he said.

He prefers the variety of Chicago weather. “I love the uncertainty of waking up and not knowing whether I’ll be wearing the parka or a pair of shorts,” he said.

He said Oak Park reminds him of the way he pictured America as a boy growing up in England.

“When you think about America, this is what I remember from my childhood dreams,” he said.

He spends much of his time walking around town, and people who recognize him often say hello.

“I’m in everyone’s living room almost every day. People think they know you. They treat you like a friend.

“They’re always very nice,” he said, except for the occasional people “trying to prove something,” who insist upon telling Mahoney that they don’t own televisions.

“Oh, yeah, and the moon is made of green cheese,” he said.