Interview: Mandy Patinkin

The star of stage, film, TV and recording studio is auditioning for a new role — as a player in Middle East politics


Mandy Patinkin is performing a solo show in the West End, but his mind is on how showbusiness can influence policy in the Middle East

Mandy Patinkin is performing a solo show in the West End, but his mind is on how showbusiness can influence policy in the Middle East

If you spend a little time talking to Mandy Patinkin it becomes apparent exactly why his career has been so wide-ranging and eclectic — from films to television; Shakespeare to musicals, straight acting to albums of Yiddish songs.

He quite obviously does not like to be contained in one area. Having agreed to an interview to promote Mandy Patinkin: In Concert, his one man show at the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End, he proceeds to spend much of the time pleading for an end to the conflict in Gaza.

Indeed, it is as he answers the very first question that Patinkin veers off into politics. “I feel incredibly fortunate that Obama has been elected, and I feel fortunate to be living at this time. He is both inspired and inspiring. In view of what is happening in Gaza, it’s a shame he didn’t come to office four weeks earlier — in fact it’s a shame he didn’t come to office four years earlier.” This in answer to a question about which songs he will be singing in the show. It emphasises that Patinkin unpredictabilility on- and off-stage — a quality with which he himself is perfectly comfortable.

“I never publicise in advance what I’m going to be singing because I never quite know until I start. I often change my mind halfway through. I sometimes throw in stuff about politics or Shakespeare or do songs in Yiddish. However, it is likely that if you come to the shows you will hear some Sondheim, a few numbers by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Randy Newman. But on any given day I don’t know myself. My accompanist Paul Ford and I often change the order and the playlist. We have about 10 hours’ worth of material to choose from.”

Patinkin last came to perform in London in 1996 and would like to come back more often, but up to now his diary has said no. “I have a terrible juggling act to fit everything in. I just don’t have time to do everything I want to do. I would love to just spend a little more time concentrating on one thing. And I guess singing is my first love.”

So would he ever consider dropping the acting to concentrate on the music? “Yes, I do think about that and maybe one day that will happen…” His voice tails off — the unspoken ending to the sentence seems to be “but not just yet”.

Clearly he feels he still has much to offer on the stage. His last major role was in New York as Prospero in The Tempest — a different experience from performing show songs. Or is it? “Actually the language in Shakespeare is wonderfully musical. You need to hear the music to connect with the words. When I play a part, I live it. It is with me 24/7.”

This is the kind of commitment which won Patinkin a Tony award for his part as Che Guevara in Evita and critical praise in the role of Georges Seurat in Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Sondheim, with whom Patinkin is closely associated, is right up there with Obama in his estimation. Indeed, the way he describes the two is strikingly similar. “Stephen is incredible to work with, he is humble and modest and always wants to know what you think. Occasionally he will write a song based on your conversation. In my opinion he is every bit as great as Shakespeare.”

Different people tend to know Patinkin for different aspects of his work. Rarely a day goes by without a film fan approaching him to reprise the now immortal Spanish-accented line in Rob Reiner’s 1987 comedy The Princess Bride. “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Jewish music lovers are more likely remember Mamaloshen, his hugely successful album of Yiddish songs which he performed around the world. So does he speak the language? “I understand every word that I sing and I have now learned a lot of songs so I know a lot of words. If people are speaking Yiddish in a room — and sadly that is not something you come across that much — I will be able to pick up a good number of words spoken. Do I speak it? No, but I would like to.”

His reasons for choosing to record Yiddish music? “I’m a Jew. I’m fascinated by our culture and our history, by what made us the people we are. It influences every breath I take. It informs and guides me. Without it I’d just be a vacuum.”

At which, apropos of nothing in particular, he launches into an impassioned plea for peace in the Middle East. “The killing has to stop. There are people being killed right now. We just have to find a way of stopping this tragedy now. I’m not laying the responsibility at anyone’s door, I’m not blaming the Israelis more then the Palestinians, I’m just saying that we have to find a way of stopping this thing.”

His desire is for everyone, performers included, to come together in an attempt to influence policy makers in the West and the Middle East. “Who knows what will work? If we all do our best we might actually achieve something.”

All this from a man who never used to describe himself as political until a conversation with a politician friend a few years ago. “He asked me if I breathed. I said I did. ‘Well, in that case you’re political.’ Since then I have been happy to describe myself as political.”

His restlessness is apparent even now at the age of 56. Indeed, now that his two sons have grown up and moved away from the New York home he shares with his wife, the actress and writer Kathryn Grody, he has more time to tour. Patinkin knew he wanted to perform from the time he first stood on stage at a Jewish youth club. The singing? That was simply something he did without thinking. “I sung in the choir at my synagogue in Chicago. The biggest influence on my career in that respect was probably my cantor and the voices I heard every week in the synagogue.”

The traditions may well come from shul but his style is all his own. Some critics have described his delivery as over the top. “I guess I am sometimes over the top on stage,” he says, “but then, that is my personality. I’m over the top in real life too.”

And how about that name? Has it been a disadvantage to be called Mandy? “I was named after my grandfather, Menachem Mendel. My parents Americanised it to Mandel and have called me Mandy since I was a baby. Everyone in England finds it funny, more so than in the States. I’ve never thought of changing it. I never connected to my middle name, Bruce, so Mandy it is.”

Snapshot

Born: November 30, 1952, Chicago

Early life: Parents Doris and Lester, a successful scrap dealer. Family was conservative Jewish and Patinkin sang in the shul choir. He first went on stage at his Jewish youth club and at summer camp where he played Tevye in a Hebrew-language version of Fiddler on the Roof

Career: On stage, Patinkin won a Tony award for his role as Che in Evita on Broadway, and starred in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Films include The Princess Bride and Dick Tracy. On TV, starred in dramas Chicago Hope and Criminal Minds. He performed Mamaloshen, a collection of Yiddish songs

Family: Married to actress/writer Karen Grody. They have two grown-up children, Gideon and Isaac

Mandy Pantinkin: In Concert is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until January 18. Box office: 0870 060 6623

Last updated: 4:18pm, January 14 2009