If, like me, you came of age in the 1990s and depended on television as your more-or-less exclusive source of emotional instruction, you very likely love John Mahoney like a dear old uncle. As Martin Crane, hard-boiled father to soft-shoe therapists Frasier and Niles, he was the patriarch so many of us wished we had and so few of us did: Tough but kind, sturdy but funny, and radiating a wonderful warmth that even the greatest actor couldn’t possibly fake.
Mahoney passed away yesterday, succumbing to cancer at 77, and, judging by the obituaries, he was every bit a mensch in real life as he was on stage and screen. A late-comer to acting, he edited a medical journal until he was moved to abandon his day job and pursue his dream. He was 37 when he joined Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, encouraged by the enthusiastic support of one John Malkovich. He was 47 by the time he secured his first serious movie role. By the time most Americans became familiar with his gift, he was 54 and ready for prime time.
There are many great moments by which to remember Mahoney, but none, perhaps, transcends his appearance in one of Frasier‘s best episodes, “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz.” It begins when Frasier, out shopping for fancy holiday gifts, meets a stylish Jewish woman who, believing the very WASPy psychiatrist to be Jewish himself, introduces him to her daughter, played by Amy Brenneman. Smitten, Frasier resolves to hide his true identity and pretend to be Jewish. Hilarity, obviously, ensues, but the episode’s crowning moment comes when Jewish mother and daughter leave—they have a plane to catch, to Florida, naturally—and Frasier and Martin are finally free to retrieve their Christmas tree from its hiding place in the guest bathroom and once again be as goyish as they want to be. Except that, having spent all this time with two Jewish women, they do something they’ve never done before: They talk. About their emotions. Openly. Pretty soon, they’re both in tears.
“We never should’ve tried this,” Fraiser sobs, “we’re not Jewish.”
“Maybe Mrs. Shapiro next door can talk us through it,” Martin, just as teary, suggests, to which Frazier, holding his head in his hands, replies, “she’s out of town!”
It’s a sublime bit. As we say goodbye to Mahoney, let us honor him by recalling his big talent and big heart, never more in evidence than in this stellar scene: