There’s a moment in the Joel and Ethan Coen’s Barton Fink that I’ve treasured since I first saw it. In the scene, John Mahoney plays W.P. Mayhew, a character seemingly modeled on William Faulkner (though the Coens deny this). Mayhew is speaking to the titular character, a intense playwright who has come to Hollywood and is struggling as he tries to remain uncompromising about his political agitprop artistic vision. Mayhew, a seasoned compromiser within the entertainment machine who is precariously taking on an impromptu mentorship role, listens to Fink expound on his process.
“I’ve always found that writing comes from a great inner pain,” Fink seethes. “Maybe it’s a pain that comes from a realization that one must do something for one’s fellow man to help somehow ease the suffering. Maybe it’s personal pain. At any rate, I don’t believe good work is possible without it.”
Mahoney’s Mayhew looks at the young man who’s just delivered a verbal manifesto. He offers an amused rejoinder.
“Hmm. Well, me, I just enjoy making things up.”
The line is delivered with gentle perfection, manifesting the same disarming ease with authenticity that Mahoney brought to every role. He was the consummate character actor, a man who gladly subsumed himself into the character, less through tricks of physical disguise than a clear vision for plumbing the deepest being of a person. He had a crack comic timing, probably best seen on the TV series Frasier (where he wound up being underappreciated by the awards community because he operated as the counterbalance to David Hyde Pierce’s inspired fussiness as Dr. Niles Crane), but his most valuable quality as an actor was the obvious pleasure he took in exploring, in giving his all no matter the size of the part.
Wonderful as Mahoney was when he stepped in front of a camera, there’s little doubt his abiding love for working on stage. (I recall John Lithgow once noting he agreed to sign on to 3rd Rock from the Sun because Mahoney, then a couple years into Frasier, told him that working on a three-camera sitcom filmed in front of a live audience was like getting to do a new play every week.) He joined the Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble in 1979, appearing in dozens of productions there, and won a Tony Award in 1986. The devotion to theater, which included a play at Steppenwolf in the fall, strikes me as a the purest expression of Mahoney’s love for his chosen craft.
And I consider myself lucky that I once got to see him on stage, playing Sheridan Whiteside in a Steppenwolf production of The Man Who Came to Dinner, very nearly twenty years ago. I don’t remember many of the particulars, but I feel a great sense of warmth — a fierce affection — when I think of Mahoney up there, taking great pleasure in the give-and-take between performer and audience, extracting every buoyant joy in a crowd-pleasing show selected as showcase for him (this was right in the heart of that long Frasier run). It was a terrific performance that remained committed to the world of the play while also slyly signaling that this acting thing — this identity alchemy required when building a theatrical fiction — was grand fun.
It’s enjoyable, you see, to just make things up. Blessedly, it’s equally enjoyable to watch it done by those who are unassumingly masterful at it.