Save this storySave this storySave this storySave this story
One recent afternoon, I picked up my cell phone to see that I had a missed call and voice mail from an unknown number. “Hey, Rachel, this is Mandy Patinkin calling,” a gruff, lyrical voice, not unlike that of Rowlf the Muppet, said when I pressed play on the message. Patinkin invited me to call him back to schedule our Zoom interview and concluded with “Look forward to hearing your voice,” as if his voice, a scraggly, gooey basso that can instantly vault upward into an angelic falsetto, were not the raison d’etre behind our conversation. There was a softness to the message—and a disarming familiarity. I’d figured his publicist would call me before he did; that’s how these things tend to go.
Patinkin has said before that the word by which he defines his entire life and career is “connect.” It’s a word he uttered repeatedly when he played a fictionalized version of the pointillist painter Georges Seurat (and Seurat’s artist great-grandson, also called George) in the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1984 musical “Sunday in the Park with George.” “Connect, George. Connect,” his character pleads with himself in the second act, lamenting his tendency to isolate himself from others in order to create works of art. “If I have a tombstone—I don’t know what I’m going to have or not. I’m leaving it up to the children. I can’t deal with that—but if there is anything written anywhere, I would like it to say ‘He Tried to Connect,’ ” Patinkin told me when our interview took place, over two and a half hours on a recent morning.
Patinkin’s own performances have connected so many times, and with so many different fandoms, over the course of his four-decade career. If you are a child of the nineteen-eighties, you may know him as the avenging swordsman Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride” (a role he recently revisited, with gusto, for a virtual cast reunion). If you are a fan of Barbra Streisand’s directorial work, you may know him as the hirsute love interest Avigdor from 1983’s “Yentl.” If you love television drama, you may know him as the kindly mentor Saul Berenson to Claire Danes’s unpredictable C.I.A. agent Carrie Mathison on Showtime’s “Homeland.” And if you are a musical-theatre buff, you may think of him as more or less a superstar, one of the most vibrant countertenors to ever grace the Broadway stage. After growing up on the South Side of Chicago and studying at Juilliard—alongside the likes of Robin Williams, William Hurt, and Patti LuPone—Patinkin had his breakout stage role as Che in “Evita,” for which he won a Tony Award, in 1980.
Still, Patinkin has to some extent flown under the radar as a show-business figure. He has been spending the pandemic at his small, converted farmhouse, in upstate New York, with his wife of forty years, the writer and actress Kathryn Grody, but he has lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan since the nineteen-seventies, and he still maintains a low-enough profile there to shop at Barney Greengrass and Murray’s Sturgeon Shop without causing a stir. (This may be in part because, with his casual hiking clothes, rimless wire glasses, and bushy eyebrows, he blends into the dad-ish neighborhood aesthetic.) Over the past few months, though, Patinkin has fallen into a new, unexpected role: quarantine social-media star. In April, his son Gideon began broadcasting the idle banter between his parents as they puttered around the house, and two new boomer Internet stars were born. In an early video, Gideon asks Patinkin and Grody about popular web acronyms; LMAO, Patinkin guesses, stands for “let me alone, oaf.” The couple munch on matzo, slow-dance to old half-remembered songs, and, at one point, perform a Stooge-like comedy routine in which Grody breaks a bottle and an egg over Patinkin’s head. Patinkin stressed to me that he recognizes the power of his new platform. Between filming quirky home videos, Gideon has made it his “full-time job” to record political P.S.A.s, in which his parents talk about causes from Black Lives Matter to getting out the vote. Patinkin is still singing, too; he just does it alone, on long walks through the woods, sometimes running through his entire repertoire. Lately, when Grody accompanies him, she listens to podcasts instead.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
So, let’s just start with the quarantine videos. Whose idea was this?
It was Gideon’s. Let’s see. Kathryn’s and my first date was April 16, 1978, at the Black Sheep tavern, between Washington and Greenwich in New York, in the Village. So that’s our big anniversary. That’s even more important to us than our wedding date. So that date came, April 16th. The pandemic was somewhat new, about a month old. Gideon had come back from wherever he was, and he was quarantining for a couple of weeks, and we would take walks on the road. He asked us a question, and the question had to do with the anniversary or something, and then Kathryn started saying something. We were standing in front of the forsythia trees on the road and he taped. Then a few days later, he says, “This was really something I liked.” And he said, “Can we put it on your social media?” So he posts it and it gets this crazy amount of attention. And he’s like, “Dad, people just want more of this.”
Has this made you more technologically savvy?
I didn’t know how to upload or download. I was just worried that if I touch it, I’ll destroy everything. Now I know how to do that. I’m very proud of myself. I can upload; I can tweet. I don’t know what it’s called on Instagram, but I can do that, too, without endangering the history of it all.
Does it feel like an accurate picture to you, when you watch those videos, of you and Kathryn’s relationship?
It’s a hundred per cent accurate. The kids would always say over the years, “The two of you, you ought to be a TV show.” We’d say, “Oh, shut up.”
I want to go back. You grew up on the South Side of Chicago. How much do you feel like Chicago is in you? Because I think of you in certain ways as such a New Yorker now.
I’m a Midwest Chicago boy. I’ve only come to understand partly why I love it, because it is the heart of America. It’s not the East or West Coast, where the populace is, that everybody’s talking about. It is the center of the country, and there’s a modesty. It’s sort of the Avis of humanity.
But did you have New York as a dream, even as a young person?
Well, I was thirteen years old. I guess I was always performing in front of the mirror, and we had one of those stereos that you buy at Sears, Roebuck and Company, with the grille in front, made of wood, and it had a turntable. My dad had, like, three or four records. One was Skitch Henderson doing selections from the Broadway musical “Mame” with Angela Lansbury. Then there was another record of “Fiddler on the Roof” with Zero Mostel, and there was another record of “Mame.” So I had my bar mitzvah, and my dad, who I don’t think I’d ever been on a trip with in my life alone, decides to take me to New York. I’m not sure why. He died when I was eighteen, of pancreatic cancer, so I never got to ask him why. I’d love to know now.
Maybe because you were becoming a man.
I think he wanted to show me some things in specific that I’ll tell you, but I don’t think it was about show business. But one of the shows we went to see was “Mame” with Angela Lansbury.
Wow, you were all in on “Mame.”
He was, not me. My dad waited at that stage door on Seventh Avenue in back of the Winter Garden Theatre. We waited for one hour till Miss Lansbury came outside. He wanted to get her autograph. Years later, I’m at Harold Prince’s house. I forget what the party was for, but I think we were doing “Evita” at the time. I’m sitting in the back room, having a conversation with somebody on a couch, all alone, and there’s a piano. A guy walks in the room, and this person I’m talking to says, “Mandy, this is Stephen Sondheim.”
I go, “Oh. Aren’t you the guy on that ‘Scrabble’ album?” At the time, I really hadn’t put it together that he was also the guy that wrote “West Side Story” and everything else. But he says, “Yeah.” And he sits down at the piano and he sings, just for this person and myself, “Anyone Can Whistle.” And he finishes and he leaves the room. I turned to the person I’ve been sitting with, who happened to be Angela Lansbury, and I said to her, “Miss Lansbury, that was wonderful. But I have to tell you something much more important. The wrong guy is sitting here. My father loved you. And if he were sitting here, he’d be in heaven’s heaven.”
Well, I love that story. Now why do you think your father took you to New York?
We walked up to the top of the Statue of Liberty. We went to the top of the Empire State Building. He took me to my first Broadway show, which was “Walking Happy.” Then he took me to Williamsburg to show me the community of the Hasidim who live in Williamsburg. Then we went to Ellis Island, where Grandpa Max came and all my ancestors landed. Now their family names are on the plaque at Ellis Island.
Grandpa Max came to America at the beginning of the 20th Century and spent his first nights with HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, at their headquarters, which were later on Lafayette Street, in what is now the Public Theatre. When you go to the Public Theatre and you look at the northwest corner of the building, which is still visible, you can see the faded letters, H-I-A-S. Coincidentally, it’s the place where I did a majority of my work.
You went to Juilliard with a lot of people who ended up “making it.”
I remember when I was in school, I was in “A Month in the Country,” and it was just in a classroom, just a little production. Other students from other groups were allowed to come, and Robin [Williams] came. He was such a cheerleader. He was so the polar opposite of so much of the student body. He just was there to cheer you on in ways that just stood out because it was sadly unusual. I remember we would go to the park—Central Park—and Robin would be in his pantomime makeup and follow people in the park, trailing them like he used to do in San Francisco. He was just so humble and so kind and generous and beautiful. I still am friends with Bill Hurt. He was such a gift to me in school as a fellow-classmate. He said to me, one day when we were discussing some project, “Mandy, I’d give anything to be able to play characters the way you play characters and the accents and do that. I want to do that.” He said, “But I wish you would dig deep.” I never forgot it. I went after that for the rest of my life.
You studied straight acting in school, which always surprises me because you are so associated with your singing voice.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to sing. I sang since I was in the boys’ choir in synagogue. Everyone in the synagogue sang. I didn’t think I sang well. I didn’t think I sang like my uncle Harold, who had this great bass voice. I was a little boy soprano, and the ladies would pinch my cheek after I would sing “Sim Shalom.” But I sang all the time, and then I did these musicals in high school, with the Young Men’s Jewish Council Youth Center.
Then I went to the University of Kansas because I was chasing a girl—she’d already gotten involved with somebody else. I did some plays while I was there. I kept dropping all my other classes, and the chancellor of the university took me aside one day and said, “It’s really my duty as a chancellor to suggest that you take some classes.” I said, “Well, I just don’t have time. I’m doing these plays!” And then he said, “Well, what about a professional school?” So that’s what sort of led me to Juilliard. I never thought I’d get in.
Did your classmates at Juilliard even know you could sing?
No, they didn’t. While I was at the University of Kansas, we did a play called “Indians,” by Arthur Kopit. We won a competition of different colleges, and we were asked to perform at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. A famous New York director named Gerald Freedman came, and he was going to talk to us after the performance. And I’m thinking, “Please, please talk about me, please talk about me.” And he goes, “Who is the young man who played Chief Joseph and the Grand Duke Alexis?,” and now I’m trying to just breathe and put on my humble face. I think I’m going to get a big compliment. He said, “That actor, where are you?” And I raised my hand politely. He said, “Young man, you are desperately in need of training.”
Long story short, a few years later, I’m at Juilliard. We hear about the great teacher named Gerald Freedman who’s now coming to direct “The Duchess of Malfi,” and he casts, with the faculty’s help, Bill Hurt and myself as the two leads. I’m thinking, When this guy sees me and he remembers I’m that kid that was in that play, he’s going to get rid of me and have somebody else do it. He never brought it up. Then I thought, Well, maybe he doesn’t remember. The irony of ironies is he taught me my craft.
I know from reading past interviews that you have struggled with perfectionism for a long time.
I’ll give you a beautiful story: My children watched me be too hard on myself for years. They’d come to performances, concerts. Then they’d hear their father criticizing it afterwards. One day, my son Gideon and I are walking down the street on the Upper West Side and he wants to talk about his life. He’s talking about bad nights, good nights, et cetera. And he says, “I watched you suffer for so many years over things that I could never understand what you were suffering about, because I was there and I saw it and it was great. I watched you suffering, and I learned that it was meaningless, that it had no worth, it was for nothing.” And I started to weep. All that suffering ended up being a gift to my sons, who knew that it was never worth it.
Well, now we are both crying. Can I ask you a little bit about “Yentl”? I know you didn’t like the script when you first read it.
I was offended with certain parts of it. I thought, This would never happen, guys in the yeshiva aren’t going to watch all these girls bathing naked—that’s, like, everything they’re taught not to do. And then I also wanted to wear payot and, you know, to have the hair shaved, and Barbra wasn’t into it. She said I looked like Michelangelo.
Was there something that convinced you to do it? Was it Barbra’s belief in the project? I mean, she had been trying to get this thing made for years; she was obsessed with it.
From my understanding, she had spent fourteen years trying to get this thing made. I believe she had sixteen scripts written when I read it. First of all, I wasn’t a movie star, I wasn’t anybody famous or powerful—I was just a stage actor. And I figured Richard Gere was going to be doing it. Cis Corman, a casting director, wanted me to meet with Barbra. And I said, “I don’t think it’s appropriate, because if someone has spent fourteen years on this I don’t want to be critical of it.” Somehow that message was delivered, and [Barbra] said, “I understand you have problems, you don’t like it; I want to meet you anyway.” I said, “O.K.” So I go over and she wants to know every single thing that I don’t like.
I went down my little shopping list. “Great,” she said. “What if I get you a mini tape recorder you can hide in your pocket, and a mini camera, like a spy camera? Would you be willing to go to a yeshiva and soak up information and share it with me?” I said, “Sure.” I actually went to a yeshiva in Monsey.
So at some point after, she calls me over to her apartment on the Upper West Side, just about a block and a half from where I was living, but she had very different digs than mine. I go in, and we’re sitting at the dining table and she says, “Could you read some of the scenes with me? Do you mind, just so we can get talking about it?” So I read the scenes with her, and she said, “Do you mind if we film them or videotape them?” I find out later that that becomes my audition.
You showed up late to the filming, right?
My son Isaac was born in exactly the moment we were going to what was then Czechoslovakia. Barbra gave Isaac a Tiffany silver spoon. We still have it; it says “From Your Auntie Yentl.”
I have to ask, did you know how much of your butt would be in that movie?
She wanted me to go swimming every day, so I went swimming every day, in a very cold lake. When it came to my turn to be exposed, I was minimally concerned, but, at the end of the day, I thought, Hey, look, I know that the frame is going to be one thing, but the negative may have more information. What control am I going to have over this? Probably zero. I remember that the water was so cold that I felt, whatever I was . . . endowed with had disappeared because of the cold.
Mandy Patinkin and his wife, Kathryn Grody.Photograph by Tonje Thilesen for The New Yorker
I do want to ask about one other Hollywood thing, which is, obviously, “Princess Bride.” Are you tired of people talking about that, quoting Inigo Montoya at you?
Oh, Rachel, I can never get over, even right now, that I got to be in that. That I’m the guy that you’re talking about, that I ended up being in what was essentially “The Wizard of Oz” of my generation. I got to train with Henry Harutunian, the Olympic fencing coach from Yale, for two months before I go to England. Then the movie opens and it was a modest success, similar to “The Wizard of Oz,” by the way. And then it became something you’re asking me about, and I pinch myself every time that I got to be that guy. I loved it more than I can say. We did a benefit just recently for it.
I saw it.
The day before I went, they sent me a script, and there’s something wrong about the music of these lines. So I went to my original script, and there’s all kinds of grammatical corrections I had made for myself. Like I had put a mark over every “S” to remind myself of the way the “S” sounded in Spanish. Every consonant was divided, so that the consonants disappeared. And the minute I did that, all of a sudden it was just how my body and mind remembered it. And I was free. So much fun, and we were doing it for such a great cause. Wisconsin is such a crucial battleground. And more people have to volunteer to work in all those twelve swing states.
Over the years, you’ve referred to Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” as the artistic project of your life. Do you still view it that way?
Absolutely. It was the seminal experience of my professional life. It was Steve [Sondheim]. But it was also the [playwright] James Lapine, and it was the relationship with Bernadette [Peters] in the piece as well. I’ve been privileged to work with some truly great, phenomenal geniuses. Really, the definition of the word “genius” is a guy like Steve Sondheim. And the difference, for me, is listening. The great gifted ones want to hear everything you have to say. The lesser talents don’t want to hear anything.
And Sondheim listens?
Can we talk about a couple of things that didn’t go so well? The musical “The Knife” you did in 1987, for example. That was about the experience of a transgender woman, who you played. And that was totally panned.
I mean, you ain’t lived unless you’ve been fired or panned, so it’s part of the ballgame.
What do you think happened with that show?
We did a workshop reading of it, at the Public, my favorite theatre of all theatres in New York. I wore black jeans, a black T-shirt, and black shoes for the first act. And when I turned into a woman, all I did was put on high heels, and I just became somewhat more available and softer. That was it. The metaphor of having both these qualities in us all, of male and female, was just very pure and poetic; there was just great poetry to it.
Then we did the [Off Broadway] production, and everyone decided to create a whole set and to put me and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in blue evening dresses. They put me in makeup that had to be done in fifteen minutes during the scene change backstage. And there’s Mary Elizabeth and I, matching in blue evening dresses over a reflecting pond, and it was laughable. The physical literalization completely destroyed what was one of the great metaphors for change, and the effect that any kind of change has on you and everyone around you. It shouldn’t have been done that way.
You worked on the film adaptation of Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn,” playing the Jack Nicholson role, for one day. Was that another devastating thing?
Yeah, extremely devastating, but it was a mistake that I’d made before the day. I wanted to be a movie star, and my agent, Sam Cohn, God rest his soul, pressured Mike Nichols to hire me. Mike, from the very beginning, wanted Jack Nicholson.
I heard a rumor—tell me if it is true. It was that you got kicked off the project because in the table read, you are only supposed to sing a few lines from the musical “Carousel,” and you did the whole aria.
I did! It was only written as two lines that he sings, from the soliloquy, and I sang the entire soliloquy. One of the great thrills for me, even though the movie was not successful, was when Jack Nicholson sang the entire soliloquy. They put in what I did at the table read. That was the only thing they kept from me.
Did you keep in touch with Mike Nichols?
Mike and I over the years became very close. So much so, the days before he died, he came over to my house and I sang a whole concert for him of special music I put together. And then he wrote me the most extraordinary note ever that had to do with gifts we’ve given each other. His daughter played my daughter in the movie “Ragtime,” when she was about three years old. It was the relationship I had with his daughter that made me say to my wife, please, please, can we have a child?
With Mike, that became one of the great relationships of my life because of the difficulty. You don’t learn anything when it’s going fine. For instance, I’ve always been afraid if I knew someone was coming to a concert. I’d go to great lengths to not know who’s coming. But you don’t grow in an easy situation. You only grow when it’s difficult. You only grow when you’re challenged. And what I say to people, which is nothing new, is you walk toward your fear, not away from it. If I’m talking to students, I’ll say, when in your lifetime, when someone was shaking—their legs were shaking, their upper lip was sweating, they couldn’t talk, they were stuttering—when have you ever walked away from a person in that state? You lean forward, you lean in, you breathe for those people. And the way to conquer it is you stay with that discomfort.
Let me ask you this, because it relates to what you’ve said about how your goal as an actor was always just to connect. Where in your training, early on, do you feel like you started to learn empathy?
It came through my wife. I was doing a movie that Sidney Lumet was directing, adapted from “The Book of Daniel,” written by E. L. Doctorow. I was playing the character who was supposed to be Julius Rosenberg, of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. I was trying to do research, talking to red-diaper babies, et cetera, understanding what was going on at that time. My wife turns to the bookshelf in our house. We’re a new young couple. She pulls a book off the shelf, one of her books: “The Rosenberg Letters.” She begins to read it to me. It wasn’t the content of the letters that affected me. It was her emotional connection to that content—and how she couldn’t speak. How emotional she became. I had never witnessed a human being who was that affected by other people’s stories.
Can we just talk quickly about playing Saul on “Homeland” and what doing that project gave you, as sort of a late-career infusion of eyeballs and fans?
It was a phenomenal gift. I never imagined that I would be back on television. I got a call on my birthday, November 30th, from my agent, Iris Grossman, that said, “You’re going to be sent something tonight. Read it. You’re being offered it in the morning.” I was a little nervous, and I said I’d only sign up for one year. Which was not acceptable in the world of TV, but they let me do that.
I think the character of Saul, there’s something so comforting about him. There’s such a solidity to him, how he cares for Claire Danes’s character as her boss and mentor.
From the very first shot, I wanted to take care of this human being. I wanted to nurture her. I saw her as my figurative child, as my legacy, as what I could offer the world. [Claire] was the same age as my kids, so it was easy to imagine. Claire’s gifts were so extraordinary, but even more extraordinary was the possibility of trying to protect the human being that you believe would be there to protect this democracy, this country.
You ended up doing “Homeland” for eight years. Do you have trouble leaving your work behind?
You can’t spend that much time and go home. I take it with me. I said to Claire, because she’s twenty-some years younger than me, “Listen, this isn’t the best experience of your life. This isn’t the greatest thing you will ever do. It’s one experience you’ve just had, along with all the other wonderful ones you’ve had. It lasted a certain amount of time and you will have many, many more, and so will everyone else in here, until it’s all over.”