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Obituaries

The Late, Great John Mahoney Was Frasier's Father, and Yours Too

A tribute to the man we all know as Martin Crane.

K.T. Nelson

NBC/Getty Images

Veteran actor John Mahoney, who portrayed Martin Crane on the hit 1990s sitcom Frasier, passed away this week—and I’m inconsolable. I normally don’t mourn celebrities I never knew, but Frasier’s my absolute favorite show of all time, and I feel as if I knew Martin more than most people know their own friends. His warmth, wit, and general lovability has been a source of endless joy for me, and knowing that the man who brought him to me was no longer with us—well, that was devastating. I got the news via several texts (my friends know my affection for Frasier all too well) on Monday evening while I was driving down the FDR, and I actually had to pull over at the gas station on 23rd Street and collect myself. I felt like I’d almost gotten hit by a tractor trailer.

Mahoney, a former English professor and journal editor from Blackpool, was a late bloomer in the acting field, yet quickly attained roles of prominence and became a staple in the theater and television worlds. The courage it takes to drop everything in your 40s and pursue your passion is something to be lauded in its own right—I have a hard time just trying new foods. But to do it so well? Fuck, that’s impressive. In the hours since his death, much has been written about his extensive career, but to me, he’s simply Martin Crane—a figure so beloved by so many that he deserves his own eulogy.

Growing up in the 90s, I distinctly recall my parents watching Frasier in bed when I’d come to say goodnight. The show went over my head, so I didn’t pay much attention. But I can still remember the voices emanating from our fat, round TV back then: Niles’s and Frasier’s haughty Brahmin, Daphne’s needling Manchester brogue, and Martin’s gruff, cackling twang. The words they spoke meant little to me as a child, but I’ll never forget Martin’s warm, growling voice, grandfatherly and calming in comparison to the punctilious sniping of his button-downed sons.

Martin was a police officer before getting shot in the hip during a robbery gone awry. Following his son’s divorce and subsequent return to Seattle, Marty and his little dog Eddie move in with Frasier while he undergoes physical therapy (which somehow requires a live-in British physical therapist for 11 years, but that’s neither here nor there). The early days are fraught with tension between the two, and Martin is especially curmudgeonly—but he eventually warms up to his new situation, even if he never stops teasing his effete sons for their generally pompous nerdassery.

Martin is an archetype that anyone with a relative from his generation can recognize: stubborn as shit (his hideous chair serves as a monument to this), into classically guy stuff (his regular watering hole Duke’s, his obsession with baseball, the meat cart at The Saw Mill), and of course he starts countless observations with an “In my day…” As my friend Anthony Oliviera wrote on Twitter recently, Martin “could have been Archie Bunker 2.0,” but instead he “radiated warmth and kindness.”

This is the heart of the Martin character: His gruff exterior is something that his circumstances forced him to develop—he served in Vietnam, was a cop, and even took a bullet. But inside that rough exterior is a complex and warm father, one who shines through with increasing regularity as he grows closer to his two weirdo sons.

An essential part of Martin is his humor, and throughout the show’s run he displays an almost childlike joie de vivre. There’s a palpable sense of excitement in his voice as he discusses his trips to the park with Eddy, his favorite restaurants, or purchasing a “Wavepounder 450 with a fun deck—good for fishin’, cruisin’, or just plain tubin’.” He gets his hopes up so high writing his magnum opus “She’s Such A Groovy Lady”; our hearts break when Frank Sinatra refuses to sing it, but when Frasier’s church chorus agrees to sing it, the look on Martin’s face is like a child who got a surprise second birthday. Despite losing his hip, his career, and his wife, there are no shortages of smiles from Party Hardy Marty, and each one elicits an equally large smile from the audience.

Martin was a lot of wonderful things, and I could honestly write a hundred pages or more on his character and how he brightened our lives for 264 incredible episodes. But I want to end things on a story that is, as Frasier might say, la parabole parfait: In the 1995 Holiday Special “Frasier Grinch,” the titular character spends the entire episode searching for “The Living Brain,” a nerdy toy he’s convinced his son Frederick will love (despite Martin’s insistence that the boy wants that year’s hottest toy, the Outlaw Laser Robo-Geek). Just before bed on Christmas Eve, Frederick announces that the robot is indeed the only toy he desires, leaving Frasier despondent. After a lot of yelling and mincing about, Frasier calms down, and Martin hands him his present: The Outlaw Laser Robo-Geek. Martin was so thoughtful—so loving—that he not only foresaw what his grandson wanted most, but also what his son wanted most as well. He was as good of a TV father as anyone could ever ask for, and I for one will miss him immensely.

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