Mandy Patinkin Talks 'Homeland' and His Chicago Roots
by j.p. anderson
Mandy Patinkin might just be the most talented man working in television today. A Tony winner in 1980 for originating the role of Che Guevara in Evita, he’s also demonstrated serious chops in films like The Princess Bride and Dick Tracy and has gained legions of fans as a vocalist and touring concert performer with seven solo albums under his belt. But it’s on TV where the Chicago native has really made his mark, winning a 1995 Emmy Award for Chicago Hope, starring for two seasons on CBS’s Criminal Minds, and—in a role that may come to define his career—delivering a masterful performance as Saul Berenson on Showtime’s breakout hit Homeland. And though his career took him to New York more than 40 years ago, Patinkin still feels a passionate connection to the Windy City, where his talent as a performer was first honed on the stage of the Young Men’s Jewish Council Center on the South Side. In an intimate chat with Michigan Avenue, Patinkin waxes nostalgic about his youth, muses on some of his iconic roles, and looks ahead to the future.
You were raised on the South Side. How do you think growing up in Chicago has influenced your career?
MANDY PATINKIN: Well, it’s home base. All my roots were planted in Chicago; that’s where the tree grew. I love being there first and foremost because my father is buried there. I like going to the cemetery to be near him and visit him. And I go back to the old neighborhood even though it’s somewhat of a dangerous area now, on the South Side in South Shore.... 8132 Philips, 6723 Ogilvie, 8218 Grand....Kenwood High School’s first graduating class, which I was in. The South Shore High School, Harvard St. George—all these places I lived, and most of all Congregation Rodfei Zedek at 52nd and South Hyde Park Boulevard. I lived at that synagogue from age 7 until 14 or 15—and every minute of my life was practically spent there. I made out all the time at the Planetarium on the oceanside—the best make-out spot I can ever remember. The biggest place of my life was the youth center on the South Side, the Young Men’s Jewish Council Center. That’s where I fell in love with the theater and realized this is what I wanted to do.... I also remember Delicatessen on 71st between Yates and Jeffery Boulevard, where we would go for lox and bagels every Sunday morning. One day my father came stumbling out, and he was almost off balance, and I go, “What’s the matter, dad? Are you okay?” He’s having a heart attack, and he’s saying, “Oh my god, oh my god,” and I’m going, “What, what, what is it?” And he said, “Lox, Nova Scotia went up to $3.59 a pound.” The only good thing about my father being dead is it’s like $20-some per pound today. He’d vaporize on the spot.
You mention falling in love with theater at the Youth Center. What was the first role you remember playing on stage that made an impact on you?
MP: It was at the Young Men’s Jewish Council Youth Center. Bob Condor was the director of our youth drama group, and in the second play we did—Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein—Bob cast me as Billy Bigelow. I’ll never forget it. It was a seminal moment of my professional life. We were rehearsing in the same room I went to nursery school in. The cast was in a semicircle, high school kids from about 13 to 19, and Bob asked us what the play was about. We raised our hands and started saying it’s about a guy who made a mistake, about a guy who gets a second chance, about a guy who goes to heaven, it’s about a guy, it’s about a guy, it’s about a guy—and Bob looks at all of us and says, “Well, I think you’re all right, it’s about all those things. But it’s also about something else.” He said, “It’s about when you love someone, tell them, tell them.” I was in the synagogue every day of my life that I can remember, and I have wonderful parents and was raised in a good home. But I never heard anything like that phrase. That just hit me. If you love somebody, tell them. It was so simple. And I just got it. At that moment I thought to myself, “If this is what musical theater is, I’m going to hang out for it.” I went to the University of Kansas to chase a girl—by the time I got there she was gone with somebody else. I was told I should go to a professional school, so I applied to the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago and the Juilliard School in New York. By that time I was 18 years old, and I wanted to get as far away from home as I could. So I went to New York, and that’s where my life ended up. I’ve been in New York since 1972.
Your cousin Sheldon was one of the cofounders of The Second City. Was being a performer encouraged in your family?
MP: Absolutely not. My parents didn’t want me to be a performer. They didn’t discourage it because they saw that I loved it, but they were very nervous about it. So they weren’t about to wave the flag for cousin Sheldon and give too much attention to that. They were more interested in Mandy getting a business degree like my father got from the University of Chicago. I didn’t want a business degree. They kept saying, “So you have something to fall back on,” and I kept saying, “I don’t want to fall back on anything—if I don’t make it, I’ll figure out plan B when I get there.” Then when I got to New York, Sheldon was already there, and he became a very dear, close, cousin-friend to me and mentor and helper. We talked a lot about acting in those early days, and the purity and truth that he was interested in.
Now fast-forward to your time in New York and your debut on Broadway in Evita in 1979. What was that period of your life like?
MP: Well, a little before that in April of ’78, I met my then fiancée, later to be my wife for 35 years, Kathryn Grody. We got engaged a year later, and it was the week after I won the Tony Award for Evita that we got married. My life was more about getting married and starting my family than it was about Evita, believe it or not. It was a wonderful balance. I wanted a family more than anything in the world, and I found this wonderful woman to make a family with. I remember it was bittersweet because I won this award and my dad had passed away, and [years before] he had taken me to New York as my bar mitzvah present to show me the Jewish Quarter in Williamsburg, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island, and a couple Broadway shows. He was a big fan of Angela Lansbury in Mame, so we waited outside the stage door to meet her. Little did he know he was taking me to where my home would be: My life began in NYC with my wife and with my relationship with Joseph Papp and the Public Theater, where I did a lot of plays. And then Evita took me into this other world where it was a bigger stage, and then Milos Forman hired me to do Ragtime, and I started doing some films, and somebody asked me to do a record, which led to a recording career and concert career, and every little place along the way I never wanted to let go of my roots, which were being on the stage at the Youth Center in Chicago. That was my greatest love. It’s been a wonderful life, and I hope I have a good deal of life left. But it always comes back to memories of Chicago.
One of your most iconic roles is Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride. Looking back, what does that role mean to you?
MP: That role was about bringing my father back to life. Rob Reiner asked me to play the part, and on the first page of William Goldman’s novel, it said “the greatest sword fighter in the world,” so I knew my job was to learn how to be a great sword fighter. I found Henry Harutunian, who was the US Olympic fencing coach in 1984 and the longtime coach at Yale, and Bob Anderson the British Olympian fencer, and they trained me for six months. We did all the sword fighting ourselves, and that was wonderful fun. But the film to me was really about wanting to play this guy. The reason I wanted to play him was that my mind immediately clicked that if I could find the six-fingered man, then my father would come back to life.... The man in black was the pancreatic cancer that killed my father; I wanted to revenge my father’s life. Years later in Philadelphia before a concert, The Princess Bride was on, and in the last scene Inigo all of a sudden says to the man in black, “You know, I’ve been in the revenge business for so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.” That 25- or 26- or 27-year-old Mandy who said those words didn’t have any idea what they meant. That line to me is much more iconic than, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father; prepare to die.” I wish that boy had heard that line then the way he heard it in his 50s. So that was a powerful moment for me. My father died at 52, and you know I’m 60—I’ve already had eight years more on this planet than he had, and every day I’m with my sons, my friends, my wife, my work, I always think of that. That’s the day my father didn’t get.
Homeland has made such an impact in popular culture. Did you imagine when you started filming that it would have this much success?
MP: Oh god, no. You don’t know. If anything, I knew Homeland was wonderful material, I knew Claire Danes was extraordinary, and I knew these writers were extraordinary; the material started coming in when we were filming it. Literally we were saying to each other, “Hey, who knows what’s going to happen, but this kind of stuff doesn’t come along every day.” That’s a shut-up-and-have-a-good-time-and-keep-swimming. I was in love with it from the beginning. We were about three quarters into the first season before anybody saw it. And people started having this reaction like “Oh my god.” I remember when I was in my 20s, 30s, and even 40s, every time I was in something I was always very anxious—“How can I capitalize on this? How can I use this for furthering my career?” And now at 60 years old, I feel just the opposite. I don’t want the day to end; I don’t want the scene to be over; I don’t want the script to be finished; I don’t want the season to be completed. I want it to last forever. But in fairness to that thought, that’s exactly how I felt during The Princess Bride. When we did those sword-fighting scenes, every time Rob Reiner said, “Cut and print,” my heart dropped because that meant we weren’t going to do that sequence anymore. And I was just—I couldn’t say goodbye to it. Rob sort of felt this, so when we finished doing all the coverage he pulled the cameras up to the ceiling and he said, “Okay guys, let’s do a take all the way through,” and we ran the whole sword fight once or twice all the way through from the beginning to end, and we just had a blast.
What about the role of Saul on Homeland do you enjoy?
MP: I love the connection that he has with this child Carrie Mathison, played brilliantly by Claire Danes. I love the connection. I love being with Claire. I love her artistry. I love her humanity and the love Saul has for her and his faith in her and the symbolism that she holds for him in terms of the prayer for peace he wishes for all humanity. That to me is the real connection issue. It is his love for humanity, for the human race, and his belief that this particular gifted soul named Carrie Mathison is the key to bringing peace to this world through her savant-like abilities of understanding human nature. His quest to preserve her gift so that the possibility of humankind being able to live together in peace might one day might be realized—that is what drives Saul.
Another strong female connection you have is with Patti LuPone—you’ve toured together, you’ve performed together. What is it about that relationship that has made it so fruitful both professionally and personally?
MP: We were kids in 1979, 1980 when we did Evita—we were scared, we didn’t know what was going on, and it got all this attention. There was a moment during that run in Los Angeles before we brought it to New York where Patti was very scared and she was having some vocal problems. I went to her room, and she didn’t want me to come in. She was crying, and I said, “Please let me in.” She let me in, I closed the door behind me, and I said, “I’m not leaving this room until you know that I’m your friend forever.” Then she broke down, and I held her because she was just scared. Then she held me, and then the next 30 years went by. We became friends forever in that dressing room. The show—this possibility—came about, so I asked her, “What about creating a show for us,” and she said, “Go ahead, doll.” We’ve been doing it for over 10, 11 years now. When I’m with her on stage, I’m immediately 30 years younger—I look in her eyes, and it’s a time machine. She’s one of the greatest artists who has ever lived, and I get to be up there with her, which is just beyond my imagination. When I’m singing with her sometimes, I literally say to myself, “Are you paying attention, man, to where you are and who you’re with? Are you looking in this lady’s eyes? You know, don’t miss this.” I love her, and I’d do anything for her.
Are there any other performers working today who you find inspiring?
MP: All kinds of performers, not just in show business, but in the arts, politics, and science. I mean, everybody’s a performer, and I’m inspired by countless people, though at the top of my list would be my sons, Isaac and Gideon, and my wife, Kathryn. It’s how they stand by me; it’s what they do with their lives; it’s just the time and commitment we have to each other. Really, I think about the definition of what inspires a person. It’s hanging around to see someone’s life, not just the successes. Gene Kelly said to me years ago—when I was a young kid I had a meeting with him—as corny as it sounds, he said, “Let me tell you something, kid. We never learned anything from our successes; successes pat you on the back and send you on your way. But our failures turn us inside out and upside down and they teach us everything we know.”
You’ve had a career that’s spanned stage, film, and TV—you’re both a concert performer and an actor. Why do you enjoy performance?
MP: What I enjoy most about performance is living in imagined reality. I’ve spent more time of my living life in an imagined state of reality than in reality itself. And I love that. I love imagining my father being alive again. Imagining the moments when I met my wife, when our children were born; I love imagining the future of grandchildren running to my arms. I love imagining anything and everything I can think of. Imagination is the greatest gift of performing, and what I long for is to get lost in that imagined reality where I don’t even remember where I was, sort of like when you wake up from a dream. You were just there, but you can’t remember it. That to me is living.
photography by andrew eccles; Styling by Jen Steele; Grooming by Losi for Martial Vivot Salon at The Wall Group; Shot on location at The 1896, Studios & Stages