A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN MAHONEY
Cathleen Falsani, dear friend of The Porch, shares her beautiful 2005 conversation with the wonderful actor John Mahoney, who died this week.
“God is the personification of love and forgiveness. He constantly forgives you and constantly loves you.” - John Mahoney (1940-2018)
She was squishing my heirloom tomatoes, and I wanted to slap her. The sullen, vaguely menacing clerk at the greengrocer was roughly bagging my purchases, including the two perfectly ripe beauties I had carefully picked for dinner. When I handed over my credit card, I even had asked, nicely, if she wouldn’t mind, please, putting the two tomatoes on top. She ignored me. When I reached into the bag to move the pretty yellow-and-red-striped one, she grunted and shoved the bag at me. It was hot, she was inexcusably rude, and I was about to lose my cool. But a single thought suddenly stopped me: What would John Mahoney do?
So instead of being ugly back at her, I smiled, picked up my bag of slightly molested groceries, said thank you, and held the door for another customer on my way out.
I’d like to think it’s what John would have done. He is truly the kindest man I know. We’ve been acquaintances for a number of years—he lives a few blocks from me in Oak Park, Illinois, an artsy, historic suburb (birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, we like to brag) just west of the Chicago city limits—and his unfailing magnanimity is well known in our community. But it wasn’t until we had a discussion about his spirituality over lunch at a local Italian joint a few days before the tomato incident that I came to realize that being charitable is, for John, an act of faith. And it should be for me, too.
Most people know John as the dad—Martin Crane—on the television show Frasier, a role he played for eleven years, until the sitcom ended in 2004, and for which he won an Emmy. But he is also a Tony-award-winning stage actor, a member of Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company since 1979, who was leaving for London not long after we spoke to begin rehearsals for a six-month run in David Mamet’s latest play, Romance. John also has appeared in a dozen films, including Moonstruck (he was the guy who had the drink thrown in his face by an angry date) and Say Anything …, in which he played lone Skye’s controlling father, the nemesis of John Cusack’s iconic Lloyd Dobler.
Of course, those are just characters, and most aren’t anything like the real John Mahoney. “I’m more spiritual than anything else, and Christianity is probably the most important facet of my life,” he tells me, after returning from the salad bar with a small plate of vegetables and cottage cheese. “I try to live my life in a way that is definitely spiritually based. I pray a lot. It’s the first thing I do when I get up in the morning, and it’s the last thing I do before I go to bed. I have a little mantra that I say probably twenty or thirty times throughout the day: ‘Dear God, please help me to treat everybody—including myself—with love, respect, and dignity.’ That’s why it’s important for me to be liked.
“If people like me, it means I’m treating them well and it’s sort of proof that I’m doing the right thing,” he says, interrupting himself momentarily to thank the waitress when she brings his cup of chicken soup to the table and to ask her gently when my artichoke ravioli might be arriving. “I try to be charitable. I think that’s the greatest virtue. I was always taught that it is the greatest virtue, and I feel that. I try to be very loving to people, and I try to be very patient with people, which is my biggest failing. I’m a very impatient person. I work constantly on that.
“I’m not sure who to pray to for that. I don’t know who the patron saint of patience is,” he says, laughing.
Later I did a little checking around and, surprisingly, there doesn’t appear to be a patron saint of patience. But there are two patron saints of actors: Genesius and Vito. Both were martyred in 303—Genesius was beheaded and Vito boiled in oil. I suppose you could argue that both knew a little something about patience and long-suffering.
When John talks about the importance of being kind, his mind drifts back to a time well before he was an actor, a vocation he chose to pursue full-time at the age of thirty-seven. Born in Manchester, England, the sixth of eight children, John emigrated to the United States when he was nineteen, joining the Army for three years before becoming a citizen and enrolling in Quincy College, a Franciscan school in downstate Illinois. He worked his way through college as an orderly in a local hospital.
“I must have given a thousand enemas and catheterized a thousand people. I just think that somehow being around all that sickness and illness, yet seeing people’s resilience and faith, I noticed that the people to emulate were the people who loved, and loved God, and loved their fellow man, and weren’t selfish,” he says.
“Charity is more important than telling the truth. I think sometimes the virtue is making sure you don’t hurt anybody’s feelings, as opposed to patting yourself on the back saying, ‘Oh, well, I had to tell them the truth,’” he says, as he begins to tell the story of a patient who was in the last days of her battle with cancer. “She was in excruciating pain. She had gray hair but had always wanted to have red hair, so one day the nurses said, ‘Would you like us to dye your hair for you?’ When they finished, it looked kind of carroty, but she was thrilled that before she died she was going to have red hair. She just loved it.”
But then, her daughter showed up at the hospital for a visit and threw a fit, telling her mother that her hair looked ridiculous and raising holy hell with the nurses for making her mother look like a clown. “One of the nurses said, ‘Your mother’s dying. That’s what she wanted. Why are you so cruel? Why are you saying that to her?’ And the daughter said, ‘Well, I can’t lie to her, can I?’ Yes. She could have. It would have been much more charitable to say, ‘Oh, how pretty!’ even if you hated it. If I go to see a play and somebody’s not very good in it, or it’s not their best work, I would never tell them that. I mean, why? All you’re doing is being proud. You’re congratulating yourself for always being truthful.” John’s raspy voice sounds genuinely pained. “When they asked Jesus what the greatest virtue was, he said it was to love God with all your heart and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself. Sometimes to love your neighbor, you have to tell a lie. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
John’s focus on kind living evolved over time. “I was very, very selfcentered when I was young,” he says. “I thought the world revolved around me. It even affected my work when I became an actor. I used to think about how great I had to be and how wonderful I had to be on that stage instead of honoring the playwright or honoring the screenwriter and becoming a part of something that was wonderful.”
While he can’t put an exact date on it, John believes his mind began to change when his heart did, around the time he had what he describes as an “epiphany” in a Roman Catholic church in downtown Chicago around 1975. “I was in the Loop, and I went into St. Peter’s and went to Mass, and it was just about the most emotional thing that ever happened to me. I don’t know where it came from, I just had a little breakdown of some sort, and after that, made a conscious effort to be a better person, to be a part of the world, and to try to revolve around everyone else in the world instead of expecting them to revolve around me.
“I think maybe it was the intercession of the Holy Ghost,” he continues. “I’ve always prayed to the Holy Ghost for wisdom and for understanding and knowledge. I think he answered my prayers when I stopped in the church that day. My life was totally different from that day on. I saw myself as I was, and I saw into the future and saw what I wanted to be. And I sort of rededicated myself to God and begged him to make me a better person. It wasn’t fear of hell or anything like that. I just somehow knew that to be like this, like what I was, wasn’t the reason I was created. I had to be better. I had to be a better person. And I think I am now. I like myself,” he says, breaking into one of his patented head-back-eyes-closed-mouth-open laughs.
“I’m pretty much in a spiritual state most of the time. Even when I’m out drinking with my friends, and even when I drink too much, God’s never far from my thoughts. I’m not a freak, asking ‘What would Jesus do?’ and stuff like that. I don’t think things like that. I don’t pride myself on being able to do what he did anyway. We don’t really know. I just try to live a good life.”
Before John goes onstage each night, he says a prayer. “‘Most glorious Blessed Spirit, I thank you for all the gifts and talents that you’ve given me. Please help me to use all these gifts and talents to their fullest. And please accept this performance as a prayer of praise and thanks to you.’ I always say that,” he says, adding that occasionally it leads to special spiritual inspiration. “It’s only happened to me about three times, where I was totally struck by divine intervention, where it was the most rewarding thing I had ever experienced, where I felt totally at one with the actors, with the playwright, and I couldn’t do anything in that part that was not right. The way I crossed my legs, the way I folded my arms, whatever. I was just totally engulfed by the character. It was one of the most glorious feelings I’ve ever had, but I’ve only had it about three times.”
The first time, he was playing a flamboyantly gay character in the play Loose Ends, directed by Austin Pendleton. John says he was doing it over the top, and Pendleton told him just to play it straight. “I started doing it the other way, and BOOM! That was it! There was an actual feeling that fused through me, where I just knew I was inspired. Truly inspired.” Another occasion John was in what he might call the Holy Spirit Zone was when John Malkovich directed him in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. (It was Malkovich who invited John to become a member of Steppenwolf in 1979, not long after Mahoney started acting professionally.)
“Once again I was too fussy and doing too much. And he told me, ‘I want you to double through this, forget the pauses that are written. Just go—vroom!—right through it.’ And I said, Okay, and I did. And about threequarters of the way through, BOOM! I was suffused with inspiration, and it became a joy to do because everything was right.”
We’re finishing up lunch, and our conversation about faith is winding down. John hurries out for a couple of minutes to feed the meter where his car is parked a block away. When he returns, he’s got something else he wants to tell me.
“I was just thinking how wrong it is to second-guess God. Everything I’ve ever wanted in my life, I got. Everything—except a wife and family,” he says, with a hint of sadness in his eyes I’m not used to seeing. “But had I had a wife and children I probably would be dead by now.”
He’s not exaggerating. In the late 1980s, John was diagnosed with cancer. He says if he hadn’t been so happy with his life as a full-time actor, he probably would not have had the will to fight the disease. He’d made the leap of faith several years before the diagnosis, when he left a job he hated as an editor in Chicago. “I was finally doing the one thing that I wanted to do. I was gloriously happy and joyful for the first time I can remember. I was just walking down the street, clicking my feet in the air, thinking, I’m a working actor in Chicago. I get paid for this and I love it!
“And then I got struck with cancer. I was determined, because my life was finally so great, that I didn’t care. I was going to go ahead. I had a colon resection, and I’ll tell you something that very few people outside my life know: I had a colostomy. I’ve had it for almost twenty years now. The doctors at the hospital said they were amazed at how fast I recovered. I was out of the hospital in a week, and the following week I was in Paris wrestling Harrison Ford under a table shooting a movie. I was so thankful for the life I had, and I’ve had almost twenty glorious years since that,” he says. “I see that when the one thing came along that would finally fulfill me as a human being—acting—I was able to do it because I wasn’t married with children. There would have been mortgages and tuitions and things like that, and I never would have been able to just throw away my job to get seventy-five dollars a week at Steppenwolf. I had to sell almost every piece of furniture I had. I was sleeping on the floor. Sold all my records, all my books. But I was so happy. I finally understood why God withheld a wife and children from me.
“I’ve achieved remarkable success, and I think it all goes back to my faith, especially after I became an actor and realized that was God’s plan for me and surrendered myself to it joyfully,” he says. “It enabled me to shrug off the disappointments because I figure the only reason I didn’t get a part was that something better is awaiting me. Unless there was a plan for me, God would not have let me quit my job at thirty-seven to become an actor where at any given time 95 percent of the union members are out of work. So I might be disappointed I didn’t get a part, but I’d think, Forget it. There must be something better up ahead. And there always was.”
John Mahoney’s God is a kind God. But that’s not the God he knew as a child. “My original idea of God was an extremely vengeful, powerful God. Love never entered the equation,” he says. “If I had children, what I would mostly want them to understand is exactly the opposite of what I was taught when I was a kid. I’d want them to know that they will always be forgiven, that they will always be loved, that they will always get a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance, and a fifth chance and however many chances it takes. I would want them to know that, unless they are really, really vicious and mean and totally horrible, that they are going to heaven. They don’t have to worry about a thing. God will always love them and forgive them. That’s what I’d really want them to know,” he says, smiling so warmly it brings tears to my eyes. I want to jump up and hug him.
“Yes, you make mistakes. And yes, you do things that you shouldn’t do, but you will be forgiven, and you will be loved, and you won’t be loved less. You will be loved just as much as you were before you made the mistakes.”
Even if you squish the tomatoes. On purpose.
From our friend Cathleen Falsani's The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People
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