Somewhere in Creede, Colo., en route to a mountain cabin in Santa Fe, N.M., Mandy Patinkin is above 10,000 feet. “If I sound stupid, it’s because there’s no oxygen up here,” he says.
No chance of that. In fact, Patinkin — a legitimate star of stage, screen and song for more than 25 years — is quite articulate, and in good spirits. Given that many know Mandel Bruce Patinkin primarily through some rather dark and tumultuous characters, including Saul Berenson, the conflicted CIA mentor he plays on Showtime’s acclaimed series “Homeland,” the jokes and lighthearted self-reflection are welcome.
And authentic, says Patinkin, 59, who adds, “What I want more than anything is to be hopeful and optimistic.
“For the majority of my career, the music I have performed all over the world has been the furthest thing from darkness,” he continues. “The one caveat I would offer to that is that I have an affinity for the music of Stephen Sondheim. I feel that he writes like Shakespeare, and both of these people struggle with darkness. But the gifts they have left humanity is that, in the body of their works, they have struggled through darkness to show the light.”
En route to his first vacation in “I can’t remember when,” Patinkin soon will return to sea level to a full slate of concerts — some with longtime friend and co-“Evita” Tony winner Patti LuPone and some solo — as well as production on the second season of “Homeland,” which starts shooting in May. Also on the Patinkin docket: trying out a two-person performance with cross-dressing artist Taylor Mac titled “The Last Two People on Earth” and — whenever possible — collaborating with his songwriter son, Gideon Grody-Patinkin, a musician the elder Patinkin says he seeks out for creative advice rather than the other way around.
His schedule, Patinkin concedes, can get Byzantine — so crowded, in fact, that a Tel Aviv run of the Anne Frank-themed play “Compulsion,” which he headlined in 2011 in New York, will have to wait. Still, his current slate of projects is feeding his soul. “An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin,” which opens a six-day run at the Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center on March 20, is an always welcome chance to take the stage, while the first season of “Homeland” was, in Patinkin’s words, “One of the most extraordinary experiences of my career.”
That’s saying something. Patinkin burst onto the scene in 1979, winning a Tony Award for his portrayal of Che Guevara in the Broadway premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita.” In 1984, he earned a Tony nomination creating the role of Georges Seurat in Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” A successful TV career followed, with extended stints on “Chicago Hope” (earning Patinkin an Emmy in 1995), “Dead Like Me” and “Criminal Minds.” On the big screen, in such films as “The Princess Bride,” “Alien Nation,” “Yentl” and “Dick Tracy,” Patinkin has worked with the likes of Warren Beatty, Madonna and Barbra Streisand.
Patinkin sang in his synagogue choir while growing up on Chicago’s South Side, but his music career came about almost by accident. Since kicking off a series of off-night performances at the Public Theatre in the mid-1980s at the suggestion of Public Theater impresario Joseph Papp, Patinkin has never stopped singing, doing regular concerts and cutting CDs, including the all-Yiddish “Mamaloshen.”
The music he performs, Patinkin points out, is usually upbeat, especially when he’s working with LuPone.
“If I’m tired and exhausted and something happens, I’ll probably lean more toward the darker side of experiencing the moment,” Patinkin says, “and Patti is almost exhaustingly optimistic and positive, so she doesn’t allow on stage or off any sadness, for the most part.
“I love that,” Patinkin continues. “She is the best medicine in the world for me. Don’t think I don’t have tough times, but I go back to that drugstore of hope and optimism whenever I can.”
Patinkin and LuPone were at Juilliard at the same time, although in different classes, and they never met. Patinkin recalls being blown away by LuPone’s work in a student production, and several years later, the two actors came together again in a New York rehearsal room for “Evita” with Patinkin cast as Che Guevara, the conscience of Argentina, opposite LuPone’s Eva Peron.
The two performers stayed in touch over the ensuing years. In 2002, Patinkin was invited to perform at the opening of a theatrical complex in Texas. The organizer told Patinkin that LuPone was slated to perform, and he told LuPone that Patinkin had also committed.
“The truth was, he didn’t have either one of us,” Patinkin says. “Even though he lied, when he came to ‘Patti-Mandy’ on Broadway, I told him, ‘I’m counting on you to lie again so I’ll get the next great thing in my life.’”
The resulting two-person performance, guided by Patinkin’s longtime musical partner Paul Ford, charted the creative journey of two musical souls, incorporating classics from the Great American Songbook, as well as other works, such as a Rodgers & Hammerstein set from “South Pacific” and “Carousel.”
“We’re theater animals,” Patinkin says of himself and LuPone. “We both love the theater, and we deeply love performing. I think it’s where we both feel the most alive.”
It was in the midst of another theater production, “Compulsion,” that Patinkin received the script for a television pilot based on an Israeli series called “Prisoners of War” (its original title was “Hatufim”). The producers, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa of “24,” wanted Patinkin badly enough that they were willing to work around his crazy schedule. The pilot of “Homeland” would shoot in Charlotte, N.C., and, in order to accommodate Patinkin, who was doing tech rehearsals for “Compulsion” at the Public Theatre in New York, they flew him back and forth between New York and Charlotte.
“It couldn’t have been a worse calendar,” says Patinkin, who had not seen the original Israeli series. “But I read the pilot script and gave it to the smartest people in my world — my wife and my dearest friend — and said, ‘Tell me if I’m crazy, but this is one of the finest things I’ve ever read.’ ”
“Homeland,” which recently garnered two Golden Globes — best television series (drama) and best actress in a television series (drama) — is a riveting, serialized thriller: In post-9/11 America, rogue CIA agent Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) suspects that U.S. Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who returns to a hero’s welcome after eight years as an Iraqi prisoner of war, has been “turned” and is now a threat to the nation. The agency largely ignores Carrie’s suspicions and her erratic choices even threaten to jeopardize Saul Berenson (Patinkin’s character), her wise mentor and longtime friend.
“It’s a very complicated series of relationships,” he says. “I have never been in a piece where I’ve been on the edge of my seat waiting with bated breath for the next script to come in. I’ve told the writers, ‘Don’t tell me what’s going to happen, whether I’m a good guy or a bad guy.’ In either case, the modus operandi is that I believe in what I’m doing.”
Berenson is Jewish, as are many of the characters Patinkin has portrayed in his long career.
“Being a Jew is who I am,” he says. It informs every aspect of who I am.”
“An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin” plays March 20-25 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. For more information, please visit jewishjournal.com.