How John Mahoney gave ‘Frasier’ its soul

How the late actor's performances made the classic comedy an instant hit

Frasier may have focused on the pompous pursuits of two effete brothers, but the real star of the show was their straight-laced, retired cop father. Martin Crane, portrayed by John Mahoney, provided the putdowns and the pathos. As we mourn Mahoney’s passing, Sam Lambeth looks back on his formidable presence on the show.

There are so many wonderful scenes to choose from when it comes to the hit US sitcom Frasier. Whether you want a rendition of formidable farce, a gentle comedy of manners or some bludgeoning pathos, it was provided in perfect measures. To choose a scene that demonstrates the emotional dexterity of John Mahoney, however, proves incredibly difficult – almost every scene ‘Marty’ Crane appears in is a scene-stealer.

As the blue-collar, curmudgeonly straight man to his sons – Frasier and Niles, two snobbish psychiatrists focused on the finer things in life – Marty transformed Frasier from a farcical hit to a painful portrait of family interaction. One particularly prevalent scene takes place on Halloween, where Niles has come along dressed in the same flannel shirt, grey thatch and cane that distinguish his dad.

A neat back-and-forth between our central characters talk about, while in the guises of Sigmund Freud and Elton John (among others), what they feel their ‘costume’’s greatest disappointment is. Throughout the evening, Niles’ increasingly inebriated performance as his father has begun to irk Martin, where the ripples of Mahoney’s rage are agonisingly accurate but so deliciously subtle.

“My kids wouldn’t know a baseball if it hit them in the face,” Niles / Martin begins. “They didn’t care about baseball, they didn’t care about anything that was important to me…they never learnt how to be regular guys. So if I had to pick my two biggest disappointments…” At this point, the real Martin is visibly hurt. “Stop right there,” he commands. “You will not put these words in my mouth. I was always proud of you boys, and I will not be portrayed as some drunken, judgmental jackass.” It was these moments where Mahoney could wring heart wrenching emotion from his strained relationship with his sons, delivering straight and painful truths that cut straight to drama without missing a beat.

There were so many great Mahoney moments on the show. Some were serious, grounded, heartbreaking – any actor that can reduce an audience to near heartbreak over the mourning of an awful recliner deserves all the awards under the sun – some were sarcastic, withering, hilarious – his advice for Frasier to call the police’s “fine arts forgery department”, the ‘RDWR’, the way his blue-collar shtick collided so wonderfully with his sons’ haughty hobbies.

But throughout the show, Mahoney’s performances gave Frasier its core. Martin Crane was the ironic voice of reason, who relished taking his sons down a peg or two but always did it for the right reasons. While Niles and Frasier would flaunt the arrogance of youth or their upper-crust credentials, Martin was the one with the common sense, and his love and admiration for both of them – as well as his sidekick, the reputable Jack Russell Eddie – shone through with every sly remark.

Flashback scenes of Martin the day he was shot saw both his disappointment at his own lot in life and his disconnection with his sons. A powerful early scene, where Martin proclaimed he had an affair (when it was actually his deceased wife and the boys’ mother), saw Marty say it was him as “me, you’ve already got problems with.” Such sobering awareness is what made Martin, ironically, the most complete, complex and hilarious character in a show where Frasier and Niles hogged the limelight.

Now Mahoney has sadly passed at aged 77, I think back to that moment where Frasier is discussing death. “When the time comes, we’ll collect your ashes and scatter them over that chair where they’ll probably go unnoticed,” sneers Frasier. In a way, he’s right – that chair would be the perfect place, but like that iconic piece of furniture, Mahoney’s presence on the show and towards television (as well as his noted theatre work) will forever be remembered.

Words by Sam Lambeth 

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