A chat with actor John Mahon: ‘The Monk’ finds his purpose in life – and the purpose of his polio

By Sandra Snyder / For The Scranton Journal

He’s acted in “Zodiac,” “Armageddon” and “Austin Powers 2,” “The American President,” “The Exorcist” and “L.A. Confidential.” Add “M*A*S*H” and “Hill Street Blues,“ “Baywatch” and “MacGyver” to the list, and you’ve still merely scratched the surface of the acting career of “The Monk,” whose resume, under “Education,” also includes this little gem:

“University of Scranton, B.A., Classical Languages and Literature, 1960.”

Yes, for John Mahon, nicknamed “The Monk” because of “a very bad haircut” and not his deeply spiritual, albeit irreverent, approach to one wild ride of a life, a tragedy-to-triumph tale began to take shape in “two or three little buildings” on campus, imaginatively named Buildings A, B and C.

At least that’s how Mahon remembers the simple place where men wore suits and polished shoes to class, as opposed to “the flip flops they run around in today.”

“Those buildings weren’t even really buildings. They were like military-type barracks. Now I go back, and it’s like Oz,” he said, taking one of many opportunities to crack wise as he describes his inauspicious start on a campus that today glimmers with modern buildings that bear the names of people with whom he once cavorted.

“Frank O’Hara, McDade,” he says. “I KNOW all of these people.”

That’s Mahon’s way of establishing that he’s been around the block and lived a colorful enough life – yet a supremely physically challenged one – to spin the candor-filled yarns that pepper his recently published memoir, titled “A Life of Make Believe: From Paralysis to Hollywood.”

Central to the story is the fact that, in 1950, at age 12, as a child who regarded himself a ladies man and multi-sport athlete in the making, he contracted polio, which paralyzed his body but not his dreams. The mysterious, debilitating virus ultimately molded him into the man he is today, a stage and screen actor who has found higher purpose in a low-blow disease: Polio caused other disabled, often-overlooked actors to flock around him, looking to him as a teacher and mentor.

That revelation is a key aha moment described in the book, the idea of which Mahon had dismissed until chatting up a couple in a New York City restaurant. The wife made this life-changing statement:

“If you can write the way you talk, you have a great book in you.”

Not until then did Mahon the actor begin to imagine himself Mahon the author and turn over in his mind the puzzle pieces of a life that began in Scranton, progressed to New York City, with layovers in Virginia, New Mexico and Ireland, and eventually settled in California, “the land of the 10s.”

The acting bug first bit at age 7, when Mahon had one line in a variety show and the applause produced feelings of appreciation foreign to the son of a strict disciplinarian father and alcoholic mother. The stage then became a second home when he was a student at Scranton Central High School, then the University, where, he admits, his grades suffered because “all I wanted to do was plays.”

After graduation, he took a train to New York, “the capital of my imagination,” and ended up supervising two paper mills for a chemical corporation. Sent to Georgia on an assignment, he had an epiphany, born of time spent in a gin mill listening to stories of environmental abuse.

“I didn’t want to be a part of polluting the planet,” he said. “I guess the Jesuits taught me that.”

So he returned to New York, gave up a swanky townhouse apartment and got a job driving a truck “for 60 bucks a week.” That’s when he bumped into an old friend from his college days, Anna Steele, who was teaching acting in the city. He took her class and became “happy as heck.”

“All of a sudden, I wanted to become an actor,” he said. “Now this was a hare-brained, nutty decision. I mean, I can’t use an arm.”

Indeed the polio that had wracked his childhood cost him long-term use of his left arm, but something said to him years before by the bishop of Scranton, he said, must have remained in his subconscious:

“My son, I think you’re destined to preach the word of God from the stage,” Mahon, who at one point considered the priesthood, remembered the bishop saying.

“That kind of rocked me,” he said. “There’s something about the theater that’s very Catholic in my mind. It’s kind of like an altar.”

Yet acting was hardly the path to quick or easy praise. Mahon and his confidantes, including fellow Scranton alumnus Jason Miller, with whom he lived for a spell, were at points so poor they had “no food, no nothing.”

Spotty gigs and odd jobs barely paid the bills. Still, Mahon said, “When I made the decision to act, I wasn’t going to quit, come hell or high water.”

Miller eventually was flown from New York to California to screen test for “The Exorcist,” and Mahon followed, deciding to try his hand at television and film and intending to stay two weeks.

“I went not knowing if I would ever work,” he said, recalling a ride up the Malibu coast in which Miller encouraged him to stick around.

Soon enough, the supreme revelation struck.

“Actors with so-called disabilities wanted me to teach. They had CP, MS; they were amputees, blind, deaf, little people. … That’s when it dawned on me: “Holy crap, this is why I got polio!”

Two weeks became six years and eventually 40. The short-run theater roles back in New York that had led to directing longer runs and touring productions also led to bit parts in Hollywood then to larger, more prized roles, mostly as police officers and detectives.

The meaning there was not lost on Mahon.

“Everything I did in the land of illusion, I couldn’t do in life,” he said. “But you know, I did everything I wanted to do,” including becoming a father late in the game. Mahon had a first son at 49 and a first daughter at 52.

He likens his life to a “badly constructed crazy quilt” but now sees the purpose of each odd piece.

“Honest to God, it was all, like, serendipitous,” he said.