John Mahoney played Martin Crane on Frasier for 11 seasons and had memorable roles in Say Anything…, Moonstruck, Barton Fink, and on the stage in New York and in Chicago. It’s natural that those highlights have defined his career in the appreciations that have appeared since his death yesterday. That’s how we condense almost 40 years of work so that it fits a headline or an article: with a couple of titles and distinctions like “character actor” or “supporting actor” when someone wasn’t usually cast as the lead. But of course, there was so much more, deep cuts that deserve remembrance and revisitation.
One of the first Mahoney roles I thought of when I learned he had died was a one-off 2006 appearance in the 13th season of ER where he played a closeted gay man and drag performer who is wrapped in a waking nightmare when his partner, James (Albert Hall), is rushed to the hospital with heart trouble.
ER’s best work came early in its run when an uncommonly talented ensemble tackled material that often focused on the tragedies and chaos that emergency room doctors and nurses deal with every day. It all felt remarkably fresh and daring at the time, but as other talented actors came and went, the show mostly struggled to stand out from its past with an increasing reliance on personal melodrama and by-now overly familiar character types and stories. 331 episodes is a lot of television, is what I’m saying.
I rewatched “Somebody To Love” last night and found the series in a broader place then I had remembered. One doctor (Scott Grimes) is late for his rounds because he just bought a new convertible and we find this out because we see him driving with the top down singing the theme song from The Greatest American Hero. A woman is shouting that she’s going to get (then Senator) Barack Obama involved in her alleged mistreatment by the hospital staff. And when we’re reintroduced to a desk clerk (Glenn Plummer) from the show’s early days, he matter-of-factly drops this bit of dialogue.
“I lived in the Kalahari for a while, selling biltong outside of Kakamas. Then I spent a couple years mining uranium in the Siberian tundra. Ran into a misunderstanding in Thailand, that landed me in the Bangkwang prison. But most of the ’90s is still a blur. […] Hell, I’d take Bangkwang over ER this time of year. As you know, them new interns will mess you up worse than Chinese hash.”
Mahoney is understated by comparison, looking slightly more aged and frail then he had at the end of Frasier just a few years prior. Though his eyes are wide and filled with panic as he enters County General Hospital in search of James, his actions are subdued as he introduces himself as James’ business partner. Around former rebel-EMT-turned rebel doctor Tony Gates (John Stamos), however, he lets his guard down, explaining that he’s gotten used to pretending that he and James aren’t in a relationship when around strangers — even after 15 years together.