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Being A Late Bloomer Is Harder Than It Looks

A notable exception: John Mahoney, who didn’t start acting until he was 37

Actor John Mahoney, everyone’s favorite TV dad, died earlier this week at age 77. If you knew him from anything, it was probably playing likable curmudgeon Marty Crane on Frasier, a classic dad who mastered frosting the hot air of pretentious sons Frasier and Niles. He also played a likable scoundrel in Moonstruck, and a likable drunk in Barton Fink.

But I think of him most fondly as a likable father/embezzler in Say Anything, where he fretfully parents overachieving Diane (Ione Skye) as she falls in love with endearing weirdo Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack). What stands out about Mahoney in the role isn’t the embezzling so much as it is the fathering, or rather, the fact that he so deftly combines a convincingly gruff, yet sentimental, overprotective father who wants the absolute best for his daughter, with the kind of immoral narcissism of someone who would swindle old people to fund precisely this goal.

That ease of complexity in his acting is what stands out in many of the remembrances of Mahoney’s life, which mention his privacy, natural warmth, and indisputable talents, not to mention the fact that the British-born but Chicago-raised actor was a master at telegraphing an un-showy, working-class humility around his profession that often upstaged everyone who tried harder.

But the standout fact circulating about Mahoney after his death seems to be that he didn’t start acting until he was 37. After working for years as a teacher and then editor of a medical journal, Mahoney found himself deeply unhappy and decided to quit his job. “I had to do something or I was just going to be a miserable, complaining, crabby old man,” he said in a 2011 interview. (For what it’s worth, Mahoney seems like the kind of person who was actually born already old, and I mean that as a compliment.) So he took some acting classes in Chicago, and went from there.

News that such a talented actor might not have even given acting a try were it not for a whim, and not until he was nearly middle aged, spread around the internet as inspirational:

The internet isn’t wrong to be impressed with this fact: Late bloomers are real. Some research shows that delayed abilities in the brain actually signal higher intelligence. And creatively speaking, there’s something remarkable about trying your hand at something later in life, as if turning on a dime, and then hitting a jackpot. Though most of us think of real talent and genius as manifesting early, for every Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, age 25) or Picasso (“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” age 26) there’s a David Sedaris just getting discovered at 35, a Rodney Dangerfield hitting it big at 46 or Alfred Hitchcock making Rear Window in his 50s, or Cezanne doing his best (and best-selling) paintings in his 60s.

In a piece about late bloomers for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell looks at research into why talent shows up early for some and late for others—after all, it’s not as if Hitchcock is less talented than Welles. It turns out it’s not that the late bloomer is discovered late per se, or doesn’t realize how good he is until later. It’s that, basically, the late bloomer isn’t good until later. Late bloomers, at least according to some theories, are more experimental, less conceptual thinkers, and because of this, they build skills gradually over a career, revisiting and reworking them. A late bloomer may have been painting, directing or acting all their life, but they may not actually be great until later on.

As opposed to the prodigy who bursts onto the scene with genius, the late bloomer seems largely unremarkable, until he isn’t. “On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure,” Gladwell writes. “While the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.”

Such tales of discovery, even later, are inspirational because they make us all want to haul ass out of our jobs and start cranking on the great American novel, audition for a bit part or finally launch our own business selling aluminum siding. But it’s important to put these stories in perspective, and understand just how much the “being ready” part of late blooming matters.

Gladwell mentions author Ben Fountain, who quit his job as a lawyer, decided to write after having written little more than a law brief, and then became a literary sensation. Upon closer examination, 16 years passed between Fountain quitting his day job and actually breaking through. Jon Hamm didn’t land his Mad Men role until he was 35, but prior to that, he faced the kind of steadfast, relentless rejection that made him ready for the role by the time he finally got it (not to mention, a cheap hire).

Similarly, Mahoney quit his job as a medical journal editor at 37 when he realized he simply “could not write about hemorrhoids and cataracts the rest of his life.” But that year would be 1977. He took acting classes, but a bit of luck meant that those classes were coincidentally taught by playwright David Mamet, where he learned alongside a not-yet-famous John Malkovich. He would go on to do stage and bit parts on TV, but it would still be a decade before viewers would meet him in Moonstruck. He also never had a romantic relationship or married after a medical condition in his 30s, which means he also had a lot more free time than most people to devote only to craft. Conversely, Gladwell notes, Fountain has a very supportive wife who made partner at the law firm they had both met and worked at, which meant she supported him while he became a famous writer.

Also worth noting, though, while 37 might have been old in the 1970s, that’s no longer the case in this unprecedented era of extended adolescence. If men and women are now waiting until their 30s to start a family, marry or take careers seriously, then the idea of quitting it all and taking a chance doesn’t seem so risky when there’s no huge milestones achieved yet to risk in the first place. Plus, if there’s one thing that’s true about late bloomers, it’s that all the obstacles and slogging are actually the very practice for the success that’s to come.

So if you haven’t bloomed by 40, give it a few decades. And if not by 60, give it another. Famous rural New York painter Grandma Moses didn’t even pick up painting until her 70s.