A Mandy for All Seasons, Full of Song and Shakespeare

Special Features   A Mandy for All Seasons, Full of Song and Shakespeare Mandy Patinkin returns to the stage to star in Classic Stage Company's production of The Tempest.
Mandy Patinkin in The Tempest
Mandy Patinkin in The Tempest Photo by Joan Marcus

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Home, for Mandy Patinkin, is one of those warm, rambling "Hannah and Her Sisters" apartments on the Upper West Side. His study embraces the sun and comes with the essentials — piano, computer, desk, chair, sofa for visitors, shelves of books which hew a heavily Hebraic line and, at his fingertips in cracks and crannies about the room, pieces of his past that he can summon on a moment's notice as a visual aid.

His favorite artifact is a fuzzy photo of a boyish, buoyant, airborne Patinkin reaching the end of Stephen Sondheim's "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues (Buddy's Blues)" — and his very first one-man concert — with a jubilant jump in the air. A friend snapped it a second before the stage of The Public's Anspacher (incongruously dressed for The Winter's Tale) plunged into a blackout.

Architect for this career-changing night was the man who came to Shabbat dinner at this very apartment 20 years ago — Joseph Papp, The Public's founding father. He pitched Patinkin the part of Leontes in The Winter's Tale, then listened while the actor pondered that idea as well as the growing possibility of doing one-man shows.

"I didn't even know if I wanted people to pay," Patinkin recalls. "Joe said, 'They gotta pay. If they don't pay, they won't come.' Then he said, 'I tell you what: You play Leontes eight times a week, you got six Monday nights off. You can do your little music thing on those six Monday nights.'" Deal! and voila! — a concert star was born. Papp sweetened the opening with two sprays of flowers, which were placed on opposite sides of the stage — a tradition that Patinkin has continued ever since (his way of bringing Papp onstage with him). These days, Patinkin is celebrating that first brush with Shakespeare with another: The Tempest, which is playing through Oct. 12 at Classic Stage Company. The lean and lively Leontes has grown into a properly imposing Prospero, replete with a salt-and-pepper beard that makes him look exactly like Broadway producer Michael David — that, or Walter Pidgeon, who passed for Prospero in MGM's radical makeover, "Forbidden Planet." "I wanted to look like I've been on the island for 12 years."

Mrs. Patinkin — and the mother of their two sons (Isaac, 26, and Gideon, 22) — is Kathryn Grody, herself an expert (if underemployed) performer. "I met her acting across a table at Ensemble Studio Theatre," beams hubby. "She had on a beautiful top. Between her acting and that sweater, I was smitten." Cue Exhibit A: a framed program, dated April 13, 1978, from EST's first one-act-play season showing the two co-starring with Daniel Stern, Chip Zien and Tom Noonan in Michael Weller's Split.

There's photographic proof, too — a production still of them leaning on a checkered tablecloth. "The very first rehearsal, to get into character, we started playing a game of all the things people say when they meet and begin courting. The director [Carole Rothman] just left the room. An hour later, we'd gone through six weeks of courting at that little table. I wouldn't go out with her until the play was over. Our first date was that Sunday after the run, and on that first date I said, 'I'm going to marry you.'"

The musical Mandy emerged only after he developed serious acting chops. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he was in the synagogue from birth to bar mitzvah, singing in the choir every day, "so I thought, 'Well, everybody sings. I want to go to an acting school because I really don't know about this.' So I went to Juilliard, which is a famous music school but also an acting school. I didn't sing a note at Juilliard."

On graduation, he trekked to California with a classmate (Eddie Hambleton, son of Phoenix Theatre founder T. Edward Hambleton). To write off the trip as business, he made acting rounds. Eddie's father arranged an audience with Gordon Davidson at the Mark Taper Forum, where A.J. Antoon auditioned him for, and cast him in, a Trelawny of the "Wells" revival that played the Vivian Beaumont in 1975 and marked the Broadway bows of Patinkin and his curtain-call partner Meryl Streep.

In his Broadway musical debut, he was Che to Patti LuPone's Evita, and both won Tonys. "The real glory in life isn't to watch her from the audience. It's to be up there onstage with her." They're still friends — and collaborators. Come spring, they'll tour their self-created entertainment, An Evening with Patti LuPone & Mandy Patinkin.

His other Tony bids were also for musicals (Sunday in the Park with George and The Wild Party), but he has balanced the books a bit with Emmy-winning dramatics on "Chicago Hope" and some soul-satisfying heavy-duty Ibsen (An Enemy of the People).

What would Papp make of his return to the Bard? "I look at him every day in that picture there, and I expect him to be with me every second," Patinkin answers. "He wasn't just my father figure. He was my mentor, my teacher. I miss him terribly.

"The night I did that first music thing, he came to the dressing room, put his hand on my shoulder, looked at me in the mirror and said, 'I guess you liked doing that.' Then he said, 'You'll always need to do both these things together — the classics and your music.' I've let that ball drop a bit — too much music, not enough classics — but I'm picking it up now. My plan for the rest of my life is to follow my pop's instructions."

Stark Sands, Mandy Patinkin and Elisabeth Waterston in <i>The Tempest</i>
Stark Sands, Mandy Patinkin and Elisabeth Waterston in The Tempest Photo by Joan Marcus