Mandy Patinkin: Monday Near the Park with Mandy
Mandy Patinkin doesn't live like a movie star because he isn't a movie star. Broadway's great singer-actor ponders the vagaries of his Hollywood career from the Manhattan double-penthouse he and his family call home.
Mandy Patinkin is the only actor I have ever met whose apartment looks like I could afford to live in it. Perhaps that's because for the past 10 years, this amazingly versatile, but underappreciated, performer has been making the kinds of films that could have made him a star, and maybe even should have made him a star, but haven't yet made him a star. These include Yentl, in which he toiled in vain opposite Barbra Streisand, The Princess Bride, in which he played the loopy Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya, Dick Tracy, in which he played back-up piano to Madonna's Breathless Mahoney, The House on Carroll Street, in which he played a sinister commie hunter, and Daniel, in which he played a hunted commie. He was also seen-- though perhaps not recognized--as James Caan's mutant sidekick in Alien Nation.
Patinkin performed marvelously in all these films, yet for one reason or another none of them brought him the kind of renown he enjoys on Broadway, due to his performances as Che in Evita, and as Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park With George, which Stephen Sondheim wrote expressly for Patinkin. To date, Patinkin has not been able to turn the same trick in Hollywood. His has been a respectable though not especially lucrative career, a reality reflected in his living quarters: tasteful, eclectic, charming, but they won't make "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."
Nice place, though--a converted penthouse that consists of two units grafted together in a modestly fashionable neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The walls are plain white except along the moldings where a painter friend has done some of that pastel, neo-impressionist Raoul Dufy stuff that painter friends do. There are lots of books, lots of kitchen utensils, lots of cassettes, lots of toys. Basically, the place looks like the apartment that you, or Mandy, had in college, before chrome bookshelves and terra cotta planters were invented. It does not look like Crispin Glover's apartment. No gynecological implements. No stirrups. Over here are some paintings by his two little boys. Over there in the corner is a giant paintbrush the cast of Sunday in the Park gave him as a going-away present. On the wall is an Edward G. Robinson tie lifted from a movie set. If it seems a bit muggy in here, that's because the air conditioning isn't on; we'll just let those gentle breezes ripple in from Central Park.
Patinkin, soon to appear as one of George Sand's lovers in Impromptu, and as a crook in Herbert Ross's True Colors, is a joy to interview. Scrunched up on a chair in the music room--piano, tapes, sheet music-- where he has been working on his second album, he fields questions as if he enjoys doing it. A lot of them are of the "Gee, isn't this kind of a funny career you've got going here, Mandy?" variety. Like playing that mutant cop with the cauliflower, freckled skull in Alien Nation. Now that must have had your agent's phone ringing off the hook.
Patinkin grins and says that though he has never let his two boys see Alien Nation because he thinks the film too violent, which it is, he did let the boys--four and seven at the time--accompany him to the set where he would go to the makeup room every morning to get weirded up.
"It was horrible," he recalls. "Five hours of makeup and then 13 hours on the set, including some days when we didn't even shoot my scenes. Anyway, I had my kids on the set and one of them fell asleep. He was asleep for a really long time, because by the time he woke up I had all the makeup on. So he comes to and looks at me made up as an alien, and the first thing he says is, 'Daddy, Isaac has that toy and you said I could play with it.' My other son didn't think I looked like an alien either. I said, 'Isaac, don't you think I look a little bit different?' And he said, 'Yeah, but you don't look like an alien. You see, Dad [and here the voice drops to a whisper], aliens are blue.'"
Alas, Patinkin has always had a demanding public. A legend on Broadway since the 1970s, he is widely acknowledged to have the best stage singing voice of his generation. But, it seems, Hollywood could care less about his singing voice. When asked if directors and producers are aware of his reputation as a singer, he says, "I honestly don't know." On the coast, Patinkin had his first shot at the big time a decade ago, but the shot passed quickly after Yentl and Daniel failed to make box-office history. His most satisfying performance to date was as the zany Spanish duelist in Rob Reiner's intermittently hilarious The Princess Bride, the film with the most smashing swordfight in recent memory. How long did it take to shoot that scene?
"Six months " beams Patinkin, explaining that he and Cary Elwes had to learn to duel with both hands, and used to practice during lunch breaks on the set. "Every single bit of sword-play is ours. The flip is the only thing that's a stunt man." Was it fun? "My heart broke every-time Rob said, 'Cut, we got it.'"
Seated amidst a bunch of tapes, a Yamaha piano, and sheet music for his December concerts at Avery Fisher Hall (with a 42-piece band), Patinkin is clearly baffled and disappointed that his excellent reviews in The Princess Bride didn't result in more big roles "It's hard, it's real hard," he says, without rancor. "I ask myself: Why don't I get these parts? Am I any good? Am I kidding myself? My agent says, 'It's the movie business; you gotta get the right part. When the right part comes along, things'll be easier for you.'" Patinkin, seated a few feet from a drawing by Henry Fonda, adds, "Look at Jessica Tandy's career. She had to wait 70 years, but she finally got the right part."
The remark is telling. Jessica Tandy may not have raked in the kind of bucks Ava Gardner once did, but hers has been an enviable career, and while Patinkin does not enjoy the renown of a Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson, he still has the kind of career most actors would kill for. Henry Winkler, to name just one. John Ritter, to name another.
When he speaks of earlier roles, one detects the disappointment so common in transplanted Broadway stars who expect every film project to be noble and memorable, only to find them playing six times a week on Showtime. He thinks that The House on Carroll Street could have been a very good picture, but got screwed up by an idiotic love story and by the fact that the real goal of the film was to "get Roy Cohn," the New York attorney instrumental in getting screenwriter Walter Bernstein blacklisted during the '50s. He remains proud of Daniel--but allows that its timing could have been better: the early years of the Reagan Era were hardly the best environment for movies deploring the excesses of right-wing cranks.
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