Award-winning Mandy Patinkin ‘never had a plan’

I had the pleasure of speaking with Mandy Patinkin, 66, in advance of his performance at the Riverside Theater on Tuesday, Nov. 5, as part of his North American tour, “Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Diaries.”

The event is offered locally by the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center. Tickets are available at PabstTheater.org.

Mandy Patinkin is to appear Nov. 5, 2019, 8 p.m., at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, an event offered by the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center. Tickets for “Mandy Patinkin in Concert: DIARIES,” presented by the JCC, are available at PabstTheater.org.

An Emmy and Tony Award winning actor, he was a regular on TV’s “Chicago Hope” and “Criminal Minds,” and plays CIA agent Saul Berenson on “Homeland,” whose final season premieres in February. In the film “The Princess Bride” he memorably portrayed Inigo Montoya, the Spanish swordsman out to avenge his father’s death.

His Broadway credits include “Evita” and “Sunday in the Park with George.” He has also recorded several albums of Broadway and American classics. On top of that, Patinkin is a social activist who has raised funds for a myriad of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and American Jewish World Service.

The following interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: Throughout your career you’ve juggled roles in film, TV, and theater, in addition to releasing albums. Has this been a conscious choice or is it more that you take the roles and projects as they come?

A: I never had a plan. I’ve just been very lucky – meeting the woman I married [actress Kathryn Grody], my children, my teachers, the work that I’ve been privileged to do, and the people I’ve been privileged to do it with. Life is very funny, you don’t know what’s going to happen one second from the next.

Q: What inspired you to recordMamaloshen,” an album entirely in Yiddish?

I was doing a benefit with YIVO, which preserves Yiddish culture. I listened to a lot of songs and chose ones that I connect to. And then I went on this journey of learning these songs and making the record, and it was, I’d have to say, the greatest joy of any of my records that I’ve made, and any musical journey I’ve been on. It was the most fulfilling, without a doubt.

Q: Is that how you learned Yiddish? Or you knew Yiddish prior to that?

My father spoke Yiddish as a secret language with my grandmother to keep stuff from us. But it wasn’t a language I heard much when I was a kid. I heard a very little bit. I learned it from scratch. I don’t know Yiddish fluently, but I know every word I sing. I could go see a Yiddish film and pretty much know what they’re saying.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about your work as a social activist?

I was in Berlin, filming the fourth season of “Homeland.” And the first episode of that season was taking place in Syrian refugee camps. At the exact same time, because “Homeland” follows what’s going on in the world, 125,000 refugees were trying to get across the Balkan route to Germany to survive the conflict they were fleeing. I remember seeing the photographs of those people and thinking those are my ancestors, all fleeing the pogroms in Lithuania, Russia, and Poland, trying to come to America around 1900. I said, “That’s my family. That’s us.” [Because of the popularity of “Homeland” I was in the position to bring attention to this crisis.

My Grandpa Max had a saying in Yiddish: “The wheel is always turning.” And it’s the classic story, if somebody knocks on your door and you don’t open it up and help them, no one will open the door when you need help. And that wheel is always turning. Just because you’re on top today it doesn’t mean you’ll be on top tomorrow.

Q: I’d like to ask you about one of your most famous roles, in “The Princess Bride.” When you were filming, did you have a sense that the film would be a classic, and that your character and performance would be regularly quoted three decades later?

Nope, it was just a job. I had to sword fight very seriously. I learned how to do it, and I had a great time – I felt like I should’ve paid them instead of them paying me. The movie wasn’t successful when it first opened, and then it slowly became a cult film, and then several generations watched it, and it became what it became. And I couldn’t be happier. I can’t believe that people talk to me about it like your question just now. And yet, I got to be in it. I never ever get used to it because I can’t believe that I got to do it.  

Aaron Wertheimer is a regular contributor to the Chronicle.