John Mahoney, the veteran actor who died Sunday at the age of 77, was NBC’s first and only choice to play “Frasier’s” cantankerous father Martin Crane.

Warren Littlefield, former NBC Entertainment president, recalled the experience of working with Mahoney on the sitcom that ran from 1993 to 2004.

“He was a sweet gentle soul, with a twinkle in his eye,” Littlefield told Variety. “You just wanted to be near him. There was something emanating from his body that was so warm and wonderful. That was John.”

“Frasier” creators Peter Casey, David Angell and David Lee envisioned Mahoney in the role of the retired policeman and down-to-earth complement to his high-strung sons, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce), from the first pitch of “Frasier,” a spinoff of the long-running “Cheers.”

Littlefield and James Burrows, director of the “Frasier” pilot and co-creator of “Cheers,” had seen Mahoney in the 1980s in his Broadway run in John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves.” They knew he was a fit as the Crane patriarch. (Mahoney also did a guest shot on a 1992 episode of “Cheers” but as a different character.)

“From the moment he walked on the stage with (Grammer) it was a confirmation of their instincts. This was who was meant to play this role,” Littlefield said.

Mahoney helped ground “Frasier” as a consistent source of comic relief and also with emotion in the relationships with his sons. He played an important role off screen too, Littlefield recalled.

“John was a father figure on that show, and there were times when we needed that,” he said.