Leaving behind a deadening life as the associate editor of a medical journal in Chicago, Mahoney began studying acting in his late 30s and, after meeting John Malkovich in an acting class, joined the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1977. The company was young then, but in the next few years it would shake the national theatre scene to its very core with its kinetic, roughhousing brand of theatre. Silver-haired and gravelly voiced, he distinguished himself in a series of dramas, including Steppenwolf's landmark revival of Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead and Lyle Kessler's Orphans, in which he played a wily wiseguy. He won the Tony Award for his first—and, until now, only—appearance on Broadway, in the 1986 revival of John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves. This spring, he finally returned to New York, in a new production of Craig Lucas' Prelude to a Kiss. Mahoney talked to Playbill.com about his years away and his strong return to the stage.
Playbill.com: It's been 20 years since you did Broadway. Why do a show now?
John Mahoney: Well, you know, I've always wanted to come back, but I had an 11-year commitment to "Frasier," which made it pretty near impossible. I was able to do plays in smaller places, like at Steppenwolf. Wherever they were willing to let a three-month commitment happen, including rehearsals. I didn't have time to do it in New York. Nobody wanted so short a commitment. I had to wait until "Frasier" was over. That's pretty much why I haven't been back here. I pretty much stayed in Chicago. After "Frasier," I did a couple plays at Steppenwolf and one at the Paper Mill Playhouse, but they were all short runs. Then all of a sudden this came up. I got a call from my agent.
Playbill.com: Did you know the play?
JM: Yeah. I had seen it about 12 years ago in Chicago, a wonderful production there where Mike Nussbaum played the old man. I always thought, what a fascinating play and what a great part. Now that I'm 67 myself, they don't come along as often as they used to, these terrific parts. I didn't hesitate. When they asked me if I wanted to do it, I said "absolutely." Another great thing about it was Dan Sullivan was going to direct it and I'm a huge fan of his.
Playbill.com: You mentioned the other plays you've done since "Frasier." You've really come back to the theatre in a strong way since the series ended.
JM: Yeah, I have. You know, I never gave up the theatre while I was doing "Frasier." I did a play while "Frasier" was going on—The Weir at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. It just meant I couldn't do Tuesday night performances, because that's when we filmed the show. I was able to rehearse "Frasier" during the day and rehearse The Weir during the evening. It worked out great.
Playbill.com: There was recently news about you doing a play called Better Late with Mike Nussbaum at Northlight in Chicago soon.
JM: It's going into rehearsal in March 2008. It's being written as we speak, by Larry Gelbart and playwright Craig Wright. They were working on Craig's play Lady at Northlight when they heard Mike Nussbaum and I were going to do a play there called Heroes. And they said that they would like to write a play for us. I said, "Oh, great." It's based on a true story about a man and a woman who are married. The man is Mike. They divorce and she remarries me. Then her first husband gets very sick and she talks her second husband into allowing the first husband to come into their house and live with them in a sort of hospice environment until he dies. From what I understand, it's very funny and it's also very touching. Playbill.com: I imagine you've known Mike Nussbaum for some time.
JM: Oh, for donkey's years! We've replaced each other so many times. I replaced him as Willy Loman. He replaced me in Death and the Maiden. We've known each other forever. We're both looking forward to getting on the stage together instead of replacing each other.
Playbill.com: You've been with Steppenwolf for 30 years now. Where do you think Steppenwolf is right now in its history? It started out by shaking things up, but now it's really the establishment, isn't it?
JM: Yes, it is, there's no question about that. The only thing is, I think we still are a very ferocious group. It's just we're attacking plays that are not quite as cutting edge as we used to. But I think our approach to theatre and acting has remained the same. We bring people into our company only after we've worked with them and we think they regard theatre in the same way we do and have the same approach to creating a character. But our choice of material over the years has definitely become more conventional.
Playbill.com: Do you sometimes come to the company with a script you'd like to do?
JM: Yes. Sometimes it's OK and we do it. Sometimes, the artistic director, Martha Lavey, will say it's just not what we're doing right now. For example, I've wanted to do The Front Page for a long time. I don't care what part I play. I just think it's a great, fun play. But it's fallen on deaf ears. It's not what they're looking for at this point. Years ago, I begged them to do Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. That never happened. But other things did. I took Drawer Boy there, which was a huge success for them.
Playbill.com: Drawer Boy has been done everywhere, but not in New York.
JM: I had already done it at Steppenwolf and the Abbey Theatre in Ireland and the Galway Arts Festival. Then I agreed to do it at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, and I thought "It's bound to come to New York." I was really hoping for it. It didn't have to be a Broadway production. Off-Broadway was as tempting to me. But it just didn't happen. I don't know why. I'd definitely be interested in doing it again.
Playbill.com: Have you been to see your "Frasier" co-star David Hyde-Pierce in Curtains?
JM: No. We have the same schedule. But we finish Prelude on April 29th. I'm going to stay in New York an extra two days so I can see him. I'm looking forward to seeing David. We all went out the other night. Peri Gilpin came in from L.A., so David and Peri and I, and also Edward Hibbert, who was in "Frasier," went out to Orso's and had a great dinner and caught up. I'm godfather to some of their children.