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John Mahoney: An On-Screen American Dad Also Helped Make ‘The Iron Giant’ an Emotional Animated Classic

The late actor's best voice performance brought a surprising depth to his handful of scenes in Brad Bird's 1999 masterpiece.

The Iron Giant - The General

When beloved character actor John Mahoney died on Monday, he left behind a legacy of a long career on screen and stage that endeared him to audiences and peers alike.

One performance that may not make the many loving obituaries or a career best-of reel is his role as General Rogard in Brad Bird’s 1999 animated masterpiece “The Iron Giant.” Mahoney’s not in the film for more than a handful of scenes and, at first glance, might not seem as central to the story as Harry Connick Jr’s renegade scrapyard owner Dean McCoppin or Christopher McDonald’s overzealous federal investigator Kent Mansley.

But if the mark of a great actor is being able to do so much with just a bit of ink on a page, consider these two scenes.

The first, a phone call, when Rogard is fielding what he assumes is a wild, unfounded conspiracy from a flustered Mansley. Even before his animated crew-cut profile pops up on screen, there’s Mahoney’s voice, instantly recognizable as a gruff authority figure who suffers precisely zero fools.

Mahoney wraps so much up in that laugh before going right back to someone who is convinced he’s the superior in this working relationship, both in rank, intuition, and competence. As Rogard hops from mockery to seriousness, those wide eyes are marvelous work from the animators, and Mahoney makes you believe that this is a guy who’s actually a piece of good intel away from snapping to attention and rushing to the nation’s defense.

But how wonderful is that soft dismissal, giving who he thinks is an annoying bureaucrat barely a whisper before hanging up on him in the most unceremonious way possible? It serves the story in another way: That rejection fuels Mansley for the rest of the film, stoking both his paranoia and his need to salvage his reputation.

Playing a high-ranking military figure in a non-war movie — much less an animated one — is often a thankless position. In most cases, they’re there to be an easy antagonist or a second-rate version of an R. Lee Ermey drill instructor, mindlessly barking orders at any of their underlings. But Mahoney takes the magic on the page and imbues it with three or four extra layers that do so much work all on their own. He’s funny, he’s serious, and he would absolutely call in a deadly missile strike if the moment called for it.

It’s how Mahoney became the lovable dad on “Frasier” and in “Say Anything…” It’s what made him such a well-respected figure in the Chicago theater community, as a member of the Steppenwolf Theater Company for nearly four decades. And it’s what provided the perfect, final shades to a lovely, tragic finale for this animated miracle of a movie.

Before Hogarth’s heart-rending “I love you” farewell to his dear friend, there’s Mahoney bringing a very real dose of danger to this situation. One military man’s colossal chew-out of his dopey three-letter-agency counterpart is enough to start to tip off the Giant that this is a situation in need of a savior. Mahoney’s “And where’s the Giant, Mansley!?” is the exact kind of hysterical frustration you’d expect from someone who knows they’re not going to survive but still wants to hold someone responsible before everyone disappears into a mushroom cloud. (Somehow, it’s a different brand of tirade from the one he gives Mansley just a few scenes earlier when he mistakenly thinks the Giant is nothing but a massive art installation. His voice crack on “You just blew millions of Uncle Sam’s dollars out of your butt!” belongs in some kind of audio Hall of Fame.)

But then, after the Giant has sacrificed himself for the town, after the silent reactions from Hogarth and the people of Rockwell, who’s the first person to break the tension? Rogard, with a “Let’s go home” that combines regret, sympathy, relief, and lingering anger at everything that’s just happened. Those are the kind of line readings that might come from an hours-long recording session. With Mahoney’s background and impressive other body of work, it’s not hard to imagine much of that being there right from the first take.

Taking a handful of words and bringing an entire movie’s worth of meaning to them is what we hope from performers, even when we don’t realize it. Though this is far from the only of Mahoney’s roles to do that, it’s a great example of what made him such a welcome presence, even when you couldn’t see his face.

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