When Mandy Patinkin (birth name Mandel, which means “almond” in Yiddish) was a young boy, he and his father Lester, a metal factory owner, had a standing Saturday tradition: during baseball season, they’d start the day at Shabbat morning services at their local Chicago synagogue, and then hop into the family car (which was either a green Chevrolet Biscayne or Impala, depending on the year) and drive to Comiskey Park to watch the White Sox game.
It’s a cherished memory that left an indelible impression on the Emmy winner for “Chicago Hope” and multi-nominee for “Homeland,” who will get his star Feb. 12 on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
Patinkin’s father loved baseball but suffered complications from an adolescent neck injury that rendered him unable to play America’s national pastime.
“They put him under the knife, and they put that tube in his head, and they touched the wrong thing while they were there,” says Patinkin. “Today it’s an easy operation; back then in 1942 it was not. They paralyzed him for three years. He had to learn how to walk again, how to talk again. He couldn’t control his right hand, and that was one thing he wasn’t able to learn to remaster. He couldn’t control the speed of the ball, and he felt so bad that he could never play catch with his son. That was his greatest regret as a father.”
But there was another skill that Patinkin successfully honed during those fledgling pre-teen years: singing.
“Starting at about 7 years old, I joined the synagogue family choir and at the same time the boys’ choir,” says Patinkin, whose mother was a Jewish cookbook author appearing on the national talk show circuit. (Host Rosie O’Donnell once lamentably stuffed a heaping spoonful of Doralee Patinkin Rubin’s flaming hot horseradish into her mouth.) “By 10 or 11 I ended up singing with the cantor and another friend — I was the soprano, [my friend] was the alto and the cantor and his wife were the chorale leaders. We would sing on the High Holidays, on Saturdays. It was always a thrill when Mrs. Goldberg would let me sing ‘Sim Shalom.’ It was the first place I ever sang.”
Not everyone at synagogue was particularly keen on Patinkin trying his hand at show business, seedy and unseemly as it was for a nice Jewish boy from a respectable middle-class family.
“Mandy should have a business degree of some sort,” nudged one family friend, a fellow congregant and prominent Chicago lawyer. “This is not a way to raise a son.”
Nevertheless, he persisted and, with his parents’ unbridled support, that gift of song propelled Patinkin to the University of Kansas and then Juilliard to study acting (he never finished either), and eventually to the Broadway stage.
In 1979, he catapulted to fame as Che Guevara in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” opposite Patti LuPone, winning a Tony for featured actor in a musical and sparking a lifelong friendship with LuPone. (They paired up in 2011 for a concert performance at the Ethel Barrymore Theater and plan to partner again.)
Patinkin would earn a second Tony nomination for his work in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Sunday in the Park With George,” fielding rave reviews for his starring role as the French pointillist Georges Seurat. In 2000, Patinkin netted a third nom for his performance in George C. Wolfe and Michael John LaChiusa’s 1920s’ era musical “The Wild Party.”
|Mandy Patinkin has starred on Showtime’s “Homeland” alongside Claire Danes since 2011.
But it was his breakout role in Barbra Streisand’s 1983 Oscar-winning film “Yentl” playing Avigdor, a yeshiva student with whom Streisand’s character falls madly in love in early 20th century Poland, that turned Patinkin into an international household name. He became the thinking woman’s sex symbol, flush with booming big-screen charisma and a beatific voice that Sondheim once called “a gift from God.” If you prod him, even ever so slightly, Patinkin will joyfully burst into song.
And then came “The Princess Bride,” Rob Reiner’s modern fairytale classic that spawned the now-famous greeting: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Even today, Patinkin never tires of people approaching him to recite that iconic line.
“It happens at least several times a week, if not every day,” says Patinkin. “And every time someone does it I can never get over the fact, ‘Oh, they’re talking to me! I’m the guy who was in that movie!’ It’s quite a thrill for me. And it’s people of all ages. My favorite is when the grandparent says to the grandchild, ‘That’s the guy!’ And the grandchild looks at me like, ‘My grandpa’s crazy,’ and then I lean down and I whisper the line into the kid’s ear, and the kid lights up and goes, ‘Oh my God, how can this old man know these words?’”
Playing Montoya, a legendary swordsman heralded throughout the “Princess Bride” universe, was another way in which Patinkin was able to connect with his father, who died of pancreatic cancer when Mandy was just 18 and never lived to see his son’s success. (Incidentally, the family friend who tried to dissuade Patinkin from forging a career in the arts became one of his most passionate, ardent fans.)
“My father was a right-handed man and he had to learn how to write with his left hand, which is interesting because I was a right-handed man who had to learn to fence with my left hand,” says Patinkin. “So there was a bit of a shared journey there — of course, not as difficult as he had, without a doubt. But he was quite the fighter and a figure of great strength.”
In 1995, Patinkin won an Emmy for his lead role in “Chicago Hope” and since then has straddled the worlds of film, TV and stage, acting in such series as “Law & Order” and “Criminal Minds” — creating a stir with his sudden departure from that latter show — and, most recently, Stephen Chbosky’s movie adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s best-selling kids book “Wonder.”
In 1998, Patinkin released “Mamaloshen,” an album of Yiddish originals based on his one-man Broadway show.
But it’s Saul Berenson, the bristly, brilliant CIA agent and mentor to Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison on Showtime’s ever-compelling politically charged “Homeland” for which Patinkin is most widely lauded these days.
“What I’ve loved about ‘Homeland’ from the beginning is that it’s a story about a family on every level,” says Patinkin, who has been Emmy-nominated three times for his performance on the show. “The initial family was the Saul-Carrie relationship, but it’s also been and is about the Brody-Carrie relationship, the Brody family relationship, the CIA family relationship, the relationship to our country and the relationship to our world.”
Patinkin credits Danes for teaching him the art of “grace” during the past six seasons which they’ve worked together on the show.
“What I’ve loved about ‘Homeland’ from the beginning is that it’s a story about family.”
“Claire’s gifts are extraordinary,” he says of the actress. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to turn down my volume knob and not react too impulsively. And I would watch this young lady come to a key moment of filming where a whole season might have built toward it, and there would be a close-up of her that was crucial to the storytelling and someone’s phone would go off or someone would drive a car in the background and ruin the take. And she never lost her temper, never lost her cool. In my late 50s and 60s this extraordinary young lady taught me how to be graceful and more generous. And I don’t know what more you could ask for than that.”
Saul is a complex, if somewhat emotionally tortured, character with a strong ethical code, striving to take the moral high ground but sometimes ending up a victim of his own willingness to trust the good in people. There’s also a lot of Saul in Mandy — Jewish, from the Midwest, pro-peace and justice for persecuted minorities.
“My basic nerve system in terms of defining Judaism are two words: compassion and forgiveness,” he says.
Saul is also a man of conviction, as evidenced whenever he and Carrie come face to face with the decisions each has made in their personal lives and career. Patinkin relates that relationship, and those reactions, once again to family.
“In terms of the character’s journey with Carrie, it certainly is no different than with my own children — who’s the teacher, who’s the student, who’s the father, who’s the child?” says Patinkin. “And and as you get older, that flips constantly. It’s a constant ping-pong game in terms of who has the serve. And I love that relationship because he believes that when he’s gone, she will carry on his dream. Which is to make the world a better place for all humanity.”