While filming his 1989 debut, Say Anything, director Cameron Crowe found himself working with esteemed character actor John Mahoney. Mahoney, who died Monday at age 77, was a formidable stage performer before portraying Jim Court, the divorced father of Diane (Iona Skye) who becomes embroiled in an IRS investigation while simultaneously trying to deter his daughter’s budding romance with Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack).
While the role ostensibly made Mahoney the film’s antagonist, Crowe tells Rolling Stone that the actor arrived on set “with a bounce in his step and a twinkle in his eye” and “brought joy to every scene and every take.” Most of all, the director remembered the actor’s brilliant laugh, which rang out long after they finished shooting one of the film’s most intense and emotional scenes.
John Mahoney came into our Say Anything world with a bounce in his step and a twinkle in his eye. He had mighty Chicago cred too. He’d come from the esteemed Steppenwolf acting troupe, was already friends with John Cusack and had just performed in John Guare’s House of Blue Leaves on the Broadway stage. Mahoney brought joy to every scene and every take. The more dramatic and powerful the performance, the louder his unmistakable laugh as soon as I called “cut.”
You see, John Mahoney’s laugh wasn’t just a laugh. It was a two-note foghorn; a call to arms that said, “That’s right, when it’s good, it’s fun!” The biggest Mahoney laugh might have been when we shot the scene in which Lloyd (Cusack) visits Jim Court on the prison yard, bringing him a final letter from his daughter Diane (Ione Skye). The scene was fraught with tension. We discussed many different tonal versions, deciding on a quiet one. We stood out by the barbed prison fence. Action.
“How you doing?” Lloyd asks Jim Court, almost tenderly. Mahoney then used all the character frustration and love and pain he’d been building for the entire shoot of the movie and just yelled: “I’M INCARCERATED, LLOYD!” That moment and John Cusack’s reaction is one of those moments I’ll be forever grateful for. They sure made a young director feel good. And when the take was over, you know what happened. The Laugh. And it was loud.
A few months later, I ran into John Mahoney again. I was in my neighborhood McDonald’s and felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around. It was Mahoney. He saw the curious look on my face. This consummate actor, born for the stage, just standing waiting for a Big Mac. The laugh was unforgettable. With skill and hilarity and soul and pain and a dash of mystery, John Mahoney always did make unforgettable look easy. I hope this made you laugh, John, wherever you are, feeling all this love from so many. Bravo, my friend.