Like Willie Nelson, Mandy Patinkin is on the road again, and he’s loving it.
Patinkin went into pandemic-induced exile at his country home in upstate New York in 2020, as his Instagram and Twitter — I mean X — followers know. (More on that later.)
But he was far from idle. In addition to hiking and dog walking and doing household chores (again, more on that later), Mandy found time to prepare a new concert program that’s wowed fans who’ve already seen it. As of now, the tour extends into next April (including two weeks of performances booked in London), and there’s no end in sight.
New bookings, Patinkin told me, come in almost daily. Area residents who missed his appearance at the Bergen PAC in Englewood (and don’t want to fly to London) can catch him at the State Theaterw in New Brunswick on October 20.
Mandy, 70, has been touring for decades, and in a phone conversation, I wonder if after all these years, this latest go-around lives up to his expectations.
“This tour has been one of my favorites,” he tells me. “I just love the set we put together, and I’ll tell you why. The tour I did before this, Diaries, was dark. It was before the pandemic and there was a lot going on politically.
“So when it came time to consider going out on the road again and putting another concert together, I said to my new piano player, Adam Ben David, ‘Hey, look. I want this to be fun. I want to have a good time. And I want it to be fun for my audience. So let’s throw out everything we did before and start from scratch.’
“We had about 14 or 15 hours of material to pick from. We started going through it and then we found the first one. And then we found another, and eventually we had the evening put together. At some point I said, ‘Boy, this feels good. It feels like we’re being alive. I think Adam said, ‘Why don’t we call it that?’
“So we call it that, and it’s really fun. I think it’s one of the most fun concerts I’ve ever made for myself and my audience. I promise you a fun evening. And if you hate it, you can leave or you can go to sleep, but I’m going to do everything I can to give us all a fun time. It wasn’t that the other ones weren’t fun. But this was consciously an exercise to bring us all back together, to have the feeling that we are alive and let’s celebrate it.”
His enthusiasm and sincerity are genuine, as anyone who has seen any of his shows can attest. I asked how he maintained that level given what must be an exhausting schedule now that he is more, ahem, mature.
“Oh, no, Curt,” he says. “I love it more than anything. I love being in the moment. I love being on the road. I love resting the day of the concert so that I conserve my energy and I love the structure of it. I love how the audience has welcomed us since we started doing this in 1989 all over the world.”
His positive energy is contagious. He manages to find silver linings in the grayest of clouds.
Back to Instagram and X, his followers saw Mandy and his wife, writer/actress Kathryn Grody, unchained, doing, often unintentionally comically, household chores. It swiftly built a following that the Showtime Network noticed. The company ordered a pilot, and shooting was supposed to start at the end of last summer. Then the writers’ strike happened, followed by the actors’ strike, and the Patinkin show, along with many others, was canceled.
But Mandy only saw the bright side. ‘There is a Spanish expression that there’s nothing so bad that good cannot come of it,” he said. “Showtime gave the pilot back to us. We own it. And when the strikes are over, we’ll be free to sell it to a place that will be a better home.”
He considers the show “a record of my most important journey in this world, with my wife and family.”
Truth is, he’s been on many journeys as a concert performer and he’s created many iconic roles on stage, in films, and on TV. He played Che in “Evita” and George Seurat in “Sunday in the Park With George.” He was Avigdor in “Yentl” (opposite Barbra Streisand) and Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride.” And who can forget Saul Berenson quietly saying Kaddish over a dead body in “Homeland”?
I asked what his favorite role is, and he replied “being the father of this family. As an actor? I couldn’t really nail that down. But I have to say, first and foremost, the live concert venue where I get to be the messenger for all these glorious people who wrote these beautiful songs. They speak to me and I need to hear them like oxygen. And the guide to my soul.
“Next, I would say “Sunday in the Park with George” and the relationship I built with Stephen Sondheim, with the play itself, and with [book writer and director] James Lapine and Bernadette [Peters] and the whole wonderful company.
“The movie ‘The Princess Bride’ is the gift that just keeps on giving. I never would have dreamed that I’d be in a movie like that, one that becomes sort of a ‘Wizard of Oz’ of my generation. I pinch myself every time it comes up in conversation. And then “Homeland,” another extraordinary experience. Playing Saul Berenson made me a better human being.”
It’s an easy segue therefore into my next question: Is there a difference in his approach when he plays a Jewish character instead of a non-Jewish one?
Apparently not. “I’ve always said that everyone I’ve ever played is Jewish. Che Guevara was Jewish. Inigo Montoya was Jewish. I’m Jewish.”
That Patinkin achieved these heights is in part because he is Jewish. He was a poor student, so his mother suggested that an outlet for his energies might be at the Jewish Council Youth Center on the South Side of Chicago, where a production of “Carousel” was taking place.
The director asked his young thespians what they thought the play’s message was; the teens offered several ideas, and the director said, “I think you’re right. I think it’s about all those things, but I also think it’s about something else. I think it’s about if you love someone, tell them.”
That thought impressed Mandy, who told me: “I’ve heard a lot of wonderful things around the dinner table. I heard a lot of wonderful sermons from the rabbis at my synagogue that spoke to me in the most profound way. But at that moment I thought, ‘Wow! If this thing called theater talks like this, I’m going to hang out.’”
A second epiphany came after his father’s untimely death. Lester Patinkin, Mandy tells me, was an award-winning orator for B’nai B’rith Youth who was trapped in a job in the family junk business that he hated. He died when his son was 18.
“I missed my time with him,” Patinkin said. “But the moment he died, I remember thinking — and this always will be misinterpreted when I say it — that as much as I missed him, his death gave me one of the more astounding gifts of my life. That was, ‘Mandy, don’t waste a minute of your existence. If you have an instinct, or a desire, or a wish, do it. The only crime you’ll ever commit is to not follow through with that desire. Do it for your dad. He didn’t get the chance.’”
After her husband died, Mandy’s mom, Doris, told him that Lester had left him a small amount of stock in the company as a fail-safe measure in case show business didn’t work out.
Patinkin: “I said, ‘Mom, that money is yours. You take it. You live your life. Have fun. I, don’t want a Plan B.’”