Life & Culture

Mandy Patinkin: the actor and singer who could be Hollywood’s most Jewish performer

The Broadway supremo is getting ready to wow London in concert


How would you describe Mandy Patinkin? The phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” comes to mind.

There’s Patinkin the Broadway supremo, the original Che in Evita which won him a Tony Award. Or his seminal performance in Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George.

There’s Patinkin the Emmy award winning TV actor renowned as Dr Jeffrey Geiger in Chicago Hope and the paternalistic Saul Berenson in Homeland. Or Patinkin the movie star; Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride (as portrayed on the JC2 cover). People still come up to him and quote his famous line from the film “My name is Inigo Montoya and you killed my father”.

He was Barbra Streisand’s secret love Avigdor in Yentl: “My son Isaac was born in exactly the moment we were going to start filming. Barbra gave Isaac a Tiffany silver spoon. We still have it; it says ‘From Your Auntie Yentl’,’’ he tells me.

Most recently, there’s Patinkin the TikTok and Instagram star. Patinkin and his wife of 43 years, the actress Kathryn Grody, started being filmed by their son Gideon during lockdown. He posted the reels on social media and they instantly became a viral hit. There’s a scripted sitcom of the same format in the pipeline.

But the Patinkin to the forefront today is the accomplished concert performer and recording artist, covering everything from Rogers & Hammerstein to Queen with a few Yiddish songs thrown in for good measure. He’s about to bring his latest concert show Being to London at the Lyric Theatre next month;

“It is actually called ‘Being Alive’ [in the US],” Patinkin tells me; “But Bernadette Peters is in London doing a show about Sondheim and the producers didn’t want people to be confused with ‘Being Alive’ being a Sondheim song. So it’s ‘Being’, but I’m telling everyone it’s really ‘Being Alive’.”

We meet on Zoom, me in my kitchen and Patinkin in his converted farmhouse in Upstate New York, which is all stripped pine floors, white walls, huge squashy sofas and chairs and vast windows through which the late autumn sun is streaming. He is warm and engaging, and when he smiles or laughs, it’s with his entire face, especially his eyes.

This is no showbusiness divo, he’s more like your slightly outrageous zaide — and actually Patinkin, 70, became a grandfather to Jude, 19 months ago. He’s packed full of enthusiasm, doesn’t shy from any questions and he is very, very Jewish indeed.

“We celebrate the holidays. We do shabbos. But we don’t keep kosher. I’m Jewish. People say to me, ‘Are you typecast’? Listen, everything I play is Jewish. When I played Hamlet, he was Jewish, when I played Che Guevara, he was Jewish, Inigo Monotoya? He was Jewish! If I’m doing it, he’s Jewish!” He laughs so hard; you can almost feel the walls shaking across the Atlantic.

Possibly because of his relatively new grandfather status, he talks a lot about his own father, Leslie Patinkin who passed away when Mandy was just 18.
“Everything I do, I do for my father,” says Patinkin; “My dad broke his neck in a dive in Lake Michigan when he was 17 and he had an operation that went wrong.

“He was paralysed for three years. He had to learn how to write with his left hand, walk again, talk again. And then he died of pancreatic cancer when I was 18.”

The family business was started by his grandfather. “My grandpa Max came over from Poland with a pushcart and began collecting scrap metal. He turned it into a business.

“My dad was supposed to inherit the junk business, which is now called recycling.” There’s a smile “And instead, his job was to sit at the scales and weigh the trucks. He supported his family, but it wasn’t what he really wanted to do.

“He loved the synagogue and when he was young going to Bnai Brith youth group in Chicago on the south side. I think what I took away from losing him was the promise that ‘Dad, I’m going to live for you and for me. I’m going to do whatever comes to my mind. I’m going follow my instinct and my dream. I’m not going to have a plan B.’

“My father inspired me profoundly in terms of, you know, he used to wait. Mom and him used to say all the time; ‘well, when the kids are grown, then we’ll go on that trip, then we’ll go to Israel, then we’ll do this, then we’ll do that.

“Well, he didn’t get there. My gratitude toward him is and it’s a strange comment to make because I didn’t want him to die, but that death taught me, don’t wait.” He shakes his fists in emphasis; “Do it now, enjoy the day, Carpe diem!”

He says of his mother Doralee who died in 2014, “She was very strong person. She had to be strong. I hope I get my kindness from my father but strength, I get from her.

“She was a real survivor. She came from a broken family. She had to raise two kids, her two siblings while her mom had to work as a as a paralegal and then she was left with me and my sister Marsha when my dad died. She really, fought for our family to have whatever it had.”

He tells me how about how a friend of his parents, an elder in the synagogue, had written to them chastising them for allowing their son to go into show business, saying he should get a proper profession.

“But my parents always encouraged me and supported me.” The same person in later years wrote to Patinkin saying how marvellous he was and what joy he brought to family and friends.

Patinkin is a father of two sons, Isaac, 40, and Gideon, 36, but has misgivings about his own paternal skills; “I was on the road a lot. So, I remember always having to re-enter.

"We called it re-entry because Kathryn was the primary parent when I would be on the road doing work all the time. So, re-entry was tricky because Kathryn, was in charge and then how do I find my place back into the family?

“We had a rule; I was never away from more than two weeks. Even part of the reason I left Chicago Hope was I couldn’t take being away from home.

“One time, Isaac came to visit me in Chicago and I never got to see him while he visited because of the hours I was working 16, 18 hours a day. That just broke me.”

He and Kathryn celebrate the day they met rather than their actual wedding anniversary in 1980; “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 and that’s the date we celebrate our anniversary.”

I ask about the how they kept together in a business notorious for break ups. “I think it’s just her stupidity to pick me. She raised three children in our family and I’m one of them. she put up with it all, taught us everything we know, brought politics to the dinner table, taught us about being caring and listening. We are who we are because of her.”

As a younger man, Patinkin was a ruthless perfectionist but age has mellowed him, and he is more accepting of himself. He jokes; “I have no career drive. I have no sexual drive. I don’t even drive a car at night, you know. All the drives left me.” Again the bellowing laugh.

“I’ve loved my children. I’ve certainly made mistakes. But I’ve learned a mantra for my life that really helped to make me have a more peaceful existence. And that is. ‘Just do the best you can’. I wake up every day and do the best I can.

“And even at my most crazy times when I was younger, I never was trying to create harm for myself or anyone I was around working with or living with. I always tried to do the best I could.” I ask if he was hard on himself.

“I was very hard on myself. I wasn’t kind to myself. And I’ve learned kindness. And I’ve learned that even during those times when I was hard on myself and not kind to myself, but in fact, at those moments too, I was always doing the best I could.”

After graduating from the University of Kansas, Patinkin went to the Julliard School to study drama, alongside Robin Williams and Kelsey Grammer. He recommended Grammer to the producers of Cheers for the part of Frasier; “I had a dear friend that was a casting person a Paramount. Kelsey and I were doing the workshop of Sunday in the Park with George.

"She said, ‘Do you know anybody funny?’ I said, this guy asks for a glass of water, and I’m buckled over, he’s hilarious. They met and there you go!”

He made his theatrical debut in New York in 1975 in Trelawny of The Wells with a young actress also making her debut, Meryl Streep; “Yes, we took our first bows together! John Lithgow was in it too. We all see each other.

"We all stay in touch and it’s just wonderful memories and wonderful happiness to see what’s happened to your friends and that they’ve had good lives and gotten to do what they loved and brought such joy to so many people all over the world.”

Patinkin came to general fame with Homeland, the multi award winning espionage drama, based on the Israeli show Prisoners of War.

Homeland ran for ten years from 2011 and also starred Damian Lewis and Claire Danes. Patinkin’s’ character, Saul Berenson was the heart of the show as CIA’s Middle East division chief. For Patinkin it was a gift of a role in many ways.

“Saul taught me how to listen,” he says “I was never a good listener. I was too much in a hurry. Too much wanting to get here, get there, get where? Too much Mandy and Saul taught me how to be quiet and take time.”

“You know, different parts live on in you in ways that you didn’t imagine. And the fact that. Saul Berenson, this man that I got to portray for over 10 years, taught me how to be a better human being, a better listener, a more conscious political action person, it was a true gift.”

"We move on to discussing musis, and his upcoming concerts in London. I wonder how his voice has changed as he has got older. He laughs; “It’s called gravity.

"My favourite singer is Tom Waits, he tells those stories like nobody’s business. And he has given the rest of us license to age gracefully. If my voice doesn’t sound like it used to, I can still say those words. I can get that story across to you. That’s what I’m sitting there to do. I’m there to tell you the story, not to sound pretty.

“Hal Prince, used to say to me when I was young when we were doing Evita in 1980, ‘You’re singing too pretty for Che’, Well Hal, you’d be happy now!”

He follows a strict regime to look after his voice; “I rest, I do weight training, weight training is one of the best things that I have discovered for my existence. I eat properly, although I cheat often, like all of us. I vocalise and rest.

"I never thought I’d have a career as a singer. I always fantasised about it, but I never thought it would be. I went to train as a classical actor.

"So the fact that I’ve supported my family through a musical career is incredible. A musical life was not even in the plan.”

Our time is more than up, so as a last question I ask him if he is happy? “Yes, yes, yes. I’m grateful that I’m 70 years old, almost 71, because if you get to live a certain amount of time, you probably learned some stuff that you just didn’t know.

"But I’ve worked hard most of my adult life to try to find peace, to try to have peace, inner peace.

“It’s eluded me for most of my adult life. But I’m more peaceful now than I’ve ever been. I have more joy and more pleasure than I’ve ever known. I’m enjoying the privilege of being alive.

“I’m looking forward to getting to be even older. So for those of you who think like, ‘Oh I can’t take it anymore, I don’t like this getting older thing’, let me tell you, It gets better if you just hang on in there!”

Mandy Patinkin Live in Concert is at the Lyric Theatre from November 7 to 19

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