STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Tony Winner and "Dead Like Me" Star Mandy Patinkin

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Tony Winner and "Dead Like Me" Star Mandy Patinkin
 
This month we speak to Mandy Patinkin, the multi talented performer who returns as Rube, head of the grim reapers, in the Showtime series "Dead Like Me," which started its second season last Sunday (10 PM ET). The only similarity between his character and him, claims Patinkin, is "he looks like me."
Mandy Patinkin
Mandy Patinkin

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Like white chocolate, cold soup and malt scotch, Mandy Patinkin is an acquired taste. He has as many fans as he has detractors (who frequently mispronounce Pa-TINK-in). "I've always been someone who some people like and some people don't like," he told me in 2001, "and I take that as a compliment. I'm not a safe player. Gray is a color I don't seem to be able to find very well." Gray, of course, is a neutral; Patinkin usually paints with primary colors in broad strokes.

He mutes the colors for Rube, the latest in a gallery of memorable portraits that range from rebellious Che Guevara, his 1980 Tony winning role in Evita, to brusque Dr. Jeffrey Geiger in "Chicago Hope," for which he received a 1995 Emmy Award; from a Tony-nominated Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George to swashbuckler Inigo Montoya in "The Princess Bride"; from the brooding Burrs in The Wild Party, for which he was again up for a Tony, to Tateh, the loving immigrant father, in "Ragtime."

Speaking from the "Dead Like Me" set in Vancouver ("a beautiful city, a wonderful place to work"), Patinkin is a no-nonsense type whose compliments are spare but sincere: "This cast and crew are as nice a group of people that anyone could hope to work with." MGM just released the series' first season on DVD.

What attracted the actor to the show? "The creator, Bryan Fuller, who wrote the pilot. The last line was spoken by Georgia [Ellen Muth]: 'I guess this whole thing was sort of a wake-up call.' I thought that was a great metaphor for anyone's life. Wake up, smell the roses, don't waste your life. You only get one death — make the most of it." "Dead Like Me" shoots from February through July. As August begins, Patinkin is "taking five months off to work for [John] Kerry and [John] Edwards — doing everything I can to get them into the White House. So is every member of my family. Nonesuch Records is organizing all sorts of people [to work for the campaign] — Audra McDonald, Randy Newman, Bruce Springsteen, Dawn Upshaw...." Along the way, of course, will be concerts.

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In concert, Mandy's electric, a nerve end on a bungee cord, so intense that a performance often resembles a therapy session with music. Explains Patinkin, "I do whatever I feel is appropriate to the moment. I try to temper and adjust things. I'm aware [at times] I'm screaming. Actually, I don't scream as much as I play louder. [Laughs] I'm trying to get the attention of the gods a little firmer in hand at certain moments. I just do my work, and do the best I can." He's done five Broadway solo shows (for a total of 117 performances).

As himself, center stage, Patinkin plays perhaps his most complex role. Between numbers, he mops his brow with a towel and takes swigs of bottled water; he perspires profusely, his sweatshirt becoming saturated. If his performance lasted slightly longer, there would be a microphone next to a pool of water — still boiling.

"Mandy Patinkin keeps slipping off to appear in films and television shows," stated a New York Times reviewer of the performer's (most recent) Broadway concert in 2001. "But if lovers of musical theatre had their way they would keep Mr. Patinkin on Broadway, where his astonishing gifts as a singer and actor have found ideal outlets." Still, not everyone plugs in. Patinkin either appeals or appalls.

His concert career began in 1989 at the Public Theater, thanks to "my New York dad," Joseph Papp. "One night, Joe came to dinner. He wanted me to play Leontes in The Winter's Tale. I told him I wanted to do something with this music [songs he had chosen for his first solo CD].

"Joe said, 'Do it on Monday nights [when Winter's Tale would be dark].' I told him, 'I want to work with just my piano player, Paul Ford. Everyone says I can't do that.' Joe insisted, 'You didn't ask me. I'm telling you it will work fine.' I did it six Monday nights, and it changed my life."

For the first concert, Papp sent flowers. "I put them in two tins and brought them onstage. Ever since, I have always brought flowers with me when I walk on. It's my tradition of bringing Joe with me." Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Dress Casual transferred from the Public to the Helen Hayes, where it ran 62 performances.

Papp was portrayed by Patinkin in the movie "Pinero." Says Mandy, "It was a small part, but I wanted to make sure I did justice to Joe. I hope I did. Joe Papp was a deep, deep part of my life, my children's lives — and always will be." Patinkin tours "every year, or every other year. I love it; I really do. People are so grateful when you come visit them out there in the country. They just give you so much, and it makes you want to give so much back."

Forbidden Broadway took notice. Gerard Alessandrini parodied Patinkin with "Somewhat Over-Indulgent," to the tune of "Over the Rainbow," and then he used the tune of "Super-cali-fragi-listic-expi-ali docious" to write "Super-Frantic, Hyper-Active, Self-Indulgent Mandy." Declares Patinkin, "I will be offended when they do not spoof me."

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Informed in the early 1990s that he was losing his sight, due to a degenerative eye disorder called keratoconus, Patinkin "was assured by doctors that I would never go blind, because there would be the option of corneal transplants when the disease progressed to a certain point. I had transplants [in 1997 and '98], and I see better than I saw when I was a kid. I'm blessed. I have a 13-year-old girl's eye and a 14 year-old boy's eye. I've been given the gift of sight by people who decided to donate organs. I try to do as much organ-donor work as I can. Thank God, knock on wood, I'm fine."

Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003, he admits, "It's very frightening when you're told you have any form of the c-word, but because of early detection they caught it before it had hardly begun. I'm completely cured, and will go on to have a wonderful, fruitful life. I'll never die of prostate cancer. I encourage all men — and all women who love their men — to make sure to get out every year, from the age of 50 on, and have PSA and DRE tests. With early detection, you can have an early cure. Medical science has been quite loving to me."

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Lester and Doris (Sinton) Patinkin's son, Mandel Bruce, was born in Chicago, on November 30, 1952. As a bar mitzvah present, Mandy's father brought him to New York to see his first Broadway musicals: "Angela Lansbury in Mame, and Walking Happy, with Norman Wisdom."

Deciding against going into the family "junk business" (his grandfather and father were scrap-metal dealers), Mandy attended the University of Kansas (1970-72) and then came to New York to study at the Juilliard School of Drama (1972-74). "After six hours, I knew that I didn't want to be there, but I also knew that I wanted to get a hold of some tools, in terms of being an actor, so I stuck it out for two-and-a-half years."

Two teachers at Juilliard impressed the young student: "One was Marian Seldes, who instilled in me the love — and the reminder of that love — for what it is that we all do. The second was Gerald Freedman, who gave me the practical tools of being able to do the work, and find the keys connecting to it — for the rest of my life.

"Near the end of my second year, Gerald got our class, and was going to be doing a play called The Duchess of Malfi. William Hurt was in my class. [Freedman] cast Bill Hurt and me. He taught me what I wanted to know — and have used ever since. Last year, we reconnected; Gerald directed me in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People at Williamstown.

"He also invited me to teach for a week at the North Carolina School of the Arts [the Winston-Salem facility where Freedman is the dean]. I just loved doing that." Patinkin also "was invited to teach at Harvard, and I loved that, too. That's something I want to find more time to do more of. I'm trying to work that into my life now."

After leaving Juilliard, Patinkin "went across country, and then got my Equity card doing children's theatre at Baltimore Center Stage." (They claim that most of the children recovered.) Patinkin's New York stage debut occurred in a church production of Maxwell Anderson's Joan of Lorraine. "Alan Arkin directed. My friend, Ted Chapin, who was my college roommate and now runs the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, was Alan Arkin's assistant at the time. I got to do a scene with the actor Mike Kellin, who was brilliant, and I got the part [of Durant Laxart] that I was twenty-something years too young for. It was a thrilling opportunity!"

Ted Chapin (who wrote the superb "Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical 'Follies'") and Patinkin are involved in a current project, "an arts center that we'll start in Creede, Colorado, where we'll develop new works in theatre, music, film, television, dance — any of the art forms. We're on the board of directors, with Billy Carden and his wife, Pam Berlin, who run the HB Studios."

Highlights of the actor's long association with the New York Shakespeare Festival include "Hamlet, and having a great time in Trelawny of the 'Wells' — with Johnny Lithgow and Meryl Streep."

Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box marked Patinkin's Broadway debut in 1976. Cast member Geraldine Fitzgerald heard Mandy vocalize backstage and gave him the gift of a singing lesson with Andy Thomas Anselmo. "I went once and I liked him, but I didn't want to spend the money.

"Awhile after that, I got the part in Evita. I realized that this guy [Che] sings for two hours and doesn't shut up or leave the stage. I remembered Andy Anselmo, called him up, and asked, 'Could you make me strong, and teach me not to hurt myself?' And he did." During the run of Michael Weller's Off-Broadway play, The Split, Mandy met his future wife, cast member Kathryn Grody. He proposed "on our first date, April 16, 1978, and have been together since. [They were married June 15, 1980.] It was my marriage and my children that made me realize that either I was going to have to change and grow up a bit, or I'd end up an 80-year-old man with nothing — sitting in a rocking chair, talking to a wall."

Isaac, 22, and Gideon, 18, are the Patinkins' sons. "Isaac is the head of the National Students for Fair Trade and travels the world helping farmers. He attends NYU and runs Project Minga, a self-sustainable agricultural community in Ecuador. Gideon just graduated high school. He was one of five chosen out of four hundred for the New York team of 'Urban Word,' which is slam poetry, and he's also preparing a pottery show. Before college, he's taking a year off — first to work for Kerry-Edwards, then to learn more about the country."

Che Guevara in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita proved to be Patinkin's breakthrough role. He remembers the experience as "very enjoyable. Patti LuPone remains one of my dearest friends.

"Patti and I have put together a new show. We did it at a Texas theatre a few years ago, and as soon as we have time we plan to take it on the road. We have a great time together; when you're onstage with Patti, you're with one of the gods. We take a journey using familiar and unfamiliar songs. We put it together with Paul Ford. Annie Reinking did the choreography, and Theoni Aldredge helped dress us up. It's something we can play for the rest of our lives."

A 1989 announcement paired Meryl Streep and Patinkin in a film of "Evita," to be directed by Oliver Stone. "That fell apart," notes the actor. In 1996, when Alan Parker made the movie (which Patinkin has yet to see), Madonna and Antonio Banderas had the leads.

Though he played the male lead, opposite Barbra Streisand, in "Yentl" (1983), Patinkin sang nary a note. "I didn't sing?" he jokes; adding, "I'll always be frustrated about that. Even before I got into the picture, the songs were conceived [by Streisand, who also directed, produced and co-authored the screenplay] as being her thought processes. We did talk about my singing, but it never came to fruition. As a friend of mine later remarked, 'You don't think?'"

Lots of thought went into Sunday in the Park with George, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical. The actor's preparation for the part of Georges Seurat (1859-91) included several trips to Chicago's Art Institute to study the artist's "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," the painting that inspired the project.

One of Patinkin's conversations with Sondheim resulted in the song "Beautiful": "No one had ever taken something I'd said and turned it into a poem, let alone one with music. It was one of the finest experiences I've ever been privileged to be a part of in my entire professional life, and the people I got to work with.... It's hard to beat something like that. I loved it!" In 1986, Mandy, Bernadette Peters and the original cast repeated their performances on PBS.

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Patinkin performed an electrifying "Buddy's Blues" in Follies in Concert, an all-star, two-night 1985 benefit, highlights of which were shown the next year on PBS (and later released on video).

The role of Buddy led to Patinkin singing Lt. Cable in a studio cast recording of South Pacific, though he surmises, "That might have been helped by Ted Chapin." Next came the offer to record his first solo CD.

Recalls Patinkin, "I wanted to do that more than anything else in the world, but I was chicken. I was afraid if I make it and it fails, my dream won't come true. So I thought it would be better to put it off — forever. But I didn't. I got together with [music director] Paul Gemignani and Paul Ford, and about a year later I sang for about 50 people. Then, I said, 'Let's record it.'" He since has made six other solo CDs.

Journeying to London in 1990, Patinkin co-starred with Jose Ferrer in Born Again, the musical version of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros, at the Chichester Festival. Directed by Peter Hall, who co-authored the book with Julian Barry, the score was by Jason Carr.

Back on Broadway, Patinkin starred in the Marsha Norman Lucy Simon musical, The Secret Garden. Playing Archibald Craven "was one of the most enriching things I've ever done. I was only supposed to stay through the opening. Four weeks was all they said they needed me. But I just loved it so; I stayed six months. I adored singing to the little girl [a Tony-winning Daisy Eagan] at the end, when she came running into my arms. To learn about the garden and about how you live through your children is a complete parallel to my own life. It sounds corny, but it's all so damn true."

Next on Broadway in 1993, he succeeded Michael Rupert as Marvin in Falsettos, the William Finn-James Lapine musical. "I loved it. I was very much moved by it, and what it expresses in terms of how one struggles to be close with people one loves — children, friends, family. Marvin was frighteningly close to my own personal journey, in terms of selfishness and self-absorption. I think Bill Finn's one of the geniuses of theatre, and James Lapine's one of the diamonds of my generation. The two together are a joy!"

Patinkin's most recent book musical on Broadway, Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party, ran 68 performances in the spring of 2000 — and was not a pleasant experience. "Sometimes trying to make a work of art can be very difficult and very painful. Everyone's working harder than ever to make it what you hoped it would be. You set out to do something you believe in, and sometimes the train gets derailed. The Tony nomination did not heal the difficulties. Sometimes, if you walk the wire, you're gonna fall off."

Stephen Sondheim has described Patinkin's singing voice as "brilliant — a gift from God"; Sidney Lumet, who directed the actor in the film "Daniel," called him "a bolt of lightning"; Joseph Papp termed Patinkin "worse than a perfectionist. A perfectionist reaches some degree of satisfaction...." Family man, consummate actor, unique entertainer: While some march to their own drummer, Mandy Patinkin parades to his own brass band.

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review. He's the author of "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published in spring 2005.

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