(Rachel Syme’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 10/11; From his converted farmhouse, in upstate New York, the actor talks about his four-decade career and his social-media stardom in quarantine; Photograph by Tonje Thilesen for The New Yorker.)
One recent afternoon, I picked up my cell phone to see that I had a missed call and voice mail from an unknown number. “Hey, Rachel, this is Mandy Patinkin calling,” a gruff, lyrical voice, not unlike that of Rowlf the Muppet, said when I pressed play on the message. Patinkin invited me to call him back to schedule our Zoom interview and concluded with “Look forward to hearing your voice,” as if his voice, a scraggly, gooey basso that can instantly vault upward into an angelic falsetto, were not the raison d’etre behind our conversation. There was a softness to the message—and a disarming familiarity. I’d figured his publicist would call me before he did; that’s how these things tend to go.
Patinkin has said before that the word by which he defines his entire life and career is “connect.” It’s a word he uttered repeatedly when he played a fictionalized version of the pointillist painter Georges Seurat (and Seurat’s artist great-grandson, also called George) in the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1984 musical “Sunday in the Park with George.” “Connect, George. Connect,” his character pleads with himself in the second act, lamenting his tendency to isolate himself from others in order to create works of art. “If I have a tombstone—I don’t know what I’m going to have or not. I’m leaving it up to the children. I can’t deal with that—but if there is anything written anywhere, I would like it to say ‘He Tried to Connect,’ ” Patinkin told me when our interview took place, over two and a half hours on a recent morning.
Patinkin’s own performances have connected so many times, and with so many different fandoms, over the course of his four-decade career. If you are a child of the nineteen-eighties, you may know him as the avenging swordsman Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride” (a role he recently revisited, with gusto, for a virtual cast reunion). If you are a fan of Barbra Streisand’s directorial work, you may know him as the hirsute love interest Avigdor from 1983’s “Yentl.” If you love television drama, you may know him as the kindly mentor Saul Berenson to Claire Danes’s unpredictable C.I.A. agent Carrie Mathison on Showtime’s “Homeland.” And if you are a musical-theatre buff, you may think of him as more or less a superstar, one of the most vibrant countertenors to ever grace the Broadway stage. After growing up on the South Side of Chicago and studying at Juilliard—alongside the likes of Robin Williams, William Hurt, and Patti LuPone—Patinkin had his breakout stage role as Che in “Evita,” for which he won a Tony Award, in 1980.
Still, Patinkin has to some extent flown under the radar as a show-business figure. He has been spending the pandemic at his small, converted farmhouse, in upstate New York, with his wife of forty years, the writer and actress Kathryn Grody, but he has lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan since the nineteen-seventies, and he still maintains a low-enough profile there to shop at Barney Greengrass and Murray’s Sturgeon Shop without causing a stir. (This may be in part because, with his casual hiking clothes, rimless wire glasses, and bushy eyebrows, he blends into the dad-ish neighborhood aesthetic.) Over the past few months, though, Patinkin has fallen into a new, unexpected role: quarantine social-media star. In April, his son Gideon began broadcasting the idle banter between his parents as they puttered around the house, and two new boomer Internet stars were born. In an early video, Gideon asks Patinkin and Grody about popular web acronyms; LMAO, Patinkin guesses, stands for “let me alone, oaf.” The couple munch on matzo, slow-dance to old half-remembered songs, and, at one point, perform a Stooge-like comedy routine in which Grody breaks a bottle and an egg over Patinkin’s head. Patinkin stressed to me that he recognizes the power of his new platform. Between filming quirky home videos, Gideon has made it his “full-time job” to record political P.S.A.s, in which his parents talk about causes from Black Lives Matter to getting out the vote. Patinkin is still singing, too; he just does it alone, on long walks through the woods, sometimes running through his entire repertoire. Lately, when Grody accompanies him, she listens to podcasts instead.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
So, let’s just start with the quarantine videos. Whose idea was this?
It was Gideon’s. Let’s see. Kathryn’s and my first date was April 16, 1978, at the Black Sheep tavern, between Washington and Greenwich in New York, in the Village. So that’s our big anniversary. That’s even more important to us than our wedding date. So that date came, April 16th. The pandemic was somewhat new, about a month old. Gideon had come back from wherever he was, and he was quarantining for a couple of weeks, and we would take walks on the road. He asked us a question, and the question had to do with the anniversary or something, and then Kathryn started saying something. We were standing in front of the forsythia trees on the road and he taped. Then a few days later, he says, “This was really something I liked.” And he said, “Can we put it on your social media?” So he posts it and it gets this crazy amount of attention. And he’s like, “Dad, people just want more of this.”