HOLLYWOOD -- One scene in the film 'Moonstruck' catapulted veteran actor John Mahoney into an 'overnight' success.
If you saw movie, you remember the scene.
It was in a Manhattan restaurant. Olympia Dukakis, in the role of the troubled wife, is dining alone when she eavesdrops on a middle-aged man and a much younger woman at a nearby table.
The camera cuts to the urbane but aging college professor as his youthful coed companion loudly and brutally berates him. The girl dashes a glass of water in his face and departs in a rage.
The professor, whom we have not seen before, stands and dabs at his face and clothes with a napkin. He apologizes to the other diners.
That shot is followed by a scene that etched itself in audience memory. The professor, named Perry, joins Dukakis at her table and reels off an electrifying monologue writen and delivered so well it has become a standard for acting classes and auditions.
That was John Mahoney.
Until that scene four years ago Mahoney was a near-anonymous character actor who had won a Tony Award, was a veteran of theater, TV and three movies, 'Tin Men,' with Richard Dreyfuss and Danny Devito; 'Manhattan Project' with John Lithgow and 'Suspect' with Cher.
Since 'Moonstruck,' Mahoney has worked in 10 feature films, enriching them all with flawless performances. Among them: 'Say Anything,' 'Betrayed,' 'Eight Men Out,' 'Frantic' and 'The Russia House.'
The Hollywood establishment now recognizes his brilliance and willingly pays top dollar to cast him as the strong third lead in major movies.
Mahoney will be seen this month co-starring in two new feature films, 'Barton Fink,' to be followed by 'Article 99.'
His physical and vocal characteristics are typically American, which makes his success all the more astonishing because he was born in Manchester, England, where he lived until he was 20. Today there isn't a shred of British accent in his speech, nor hint of English mannerisms.
Mahoney, 51, was an English teacher and editor of a medical journal until he was 37 and decided to pursue an acting career. His years teaching in Indiana and a three-year hitch in the U.S. Army sped his conversion from Englishman to American.
In 14 years, since playing his first role in David Mamet's play, 'The Water Engine,' he has never been out of work.
'I couldn't be more surprised at my success,' Mahoney said over a cup of coffee. 'Whenever I've tried for a role remotely within my age range, I get it.
'Coming to an acting career so late in life, I knew I must have some talent. I didn't think I was very good after my first few stage performances, but so many people -- who obviously know what they're talking about -- told me I was good, I had to realize it.'
'Moonstruck,' he says, 'was my breakthrough in pictures. The restaurant scene was an actor's dream. It completely changed my career. For the first time audiences were able to see me as I really look.
'I never envisioned in a million years the movie would be so great or that my role would have so much impact. I thought it was a nice little cameo role.'
Mahoney laughed and said he thought he had nailed the part of Perry with director Norman Jewison when he first auditioned.
'Fortunately, I auditioned with Olympia,' he said. 'Norman knew he wanted her for the film immediately.
'When I saw 'Moonstruck' in a theater I could feel the audience empathize with Perry. That pleased me and helped me feel good about my performance. They understood him and knew where he was coming from.
'When people recognize my face and approach me, they almost always talk about Perry -- 10-to-1 over anything else. People under 25 want to talk about 'Say Anything.'
'I was happy when (producer) Joel Coen cast me in 'Barton Fink,' saying they had written the part for me. I play a drunken William Faulkner-type writer in Hollywood. I found a record of Faulker reading from his books to get the Southern dialect.
'After that I bought several bottles of Irish whiskey and drank copious amounts to find out what it was like to fall down, pass out and throw up. It was useful for me in playing the part, although I'd been in that state many times in my past.'
Mahoney makes his home in Oak Park, Ill., and is a solid member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater company, where he has appeared in more than 30 plays over the past 14 years. He won the Tony Award for his Broadway performance in 'House of Blue Leaves.'
'I've been lucky getting good parts in quality good projects,' he said. 'I just hope it stays with me.'NEWLN: