When John Mahoney first watched himself on-screen as W.P. Mayhew, the Southern novelist-turned-boozing screenwriter in Barton Fink, he was shocked by his resemblance to William Faulkner, on whom the character is not-so-loosely based. ''It took my breath away,'' says Mahoney, who considers Mayhew two parts Faulkner, one part F. Scott Fitzgerald. But physical likeness aside, it's Mahoney's performance that really brings Mayhew to life, capturing the despair and bitterness that characterized the Hollywood tenure (in the '30s) of both Faulkner and Fitzgerald, whose talents were never fully appreciated by the industry.
''We're dealing with icons,'' says the 51-year-old Mahoney, who has played everything from Olympia Dukakis' would-be fling in Moonstruck (1987) to the devoted but felonious father in Say Anything (1989). ''It's easy to forget they're also little boys with all the frailties and fears most of us experience in our lives.''
In order to get Mayhew's Mississippi drawl just right, Mahoney listened to records of Faulkner reading from his books and accepting his Nobel Prize in 1950. But he credits Ethan and Joel Coen's single-minded writing and directing styles with helping him incarnate the character's tortured soul. ''(The Coens) seem so easygoing and they've got this California Valley look to them,'' says Mahoney, who is currently filming the CBS series The Human Factor. ''But you only have input up to the point where it differs from what they have in mind and they don't hesitate to let you know that.''