Mandy Patinkin arrived so long ago in his career — winning a Tony Award for “Evita” and an Emmy for “Chicago Hope” and being the object of adoration and imitation as Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride” — that he likes to jest he’s getting ready to leave.
“I keep seeing the exit door,” Patinkin, 69, said jovially on a video call from his cabin in the Hudson Valley in New York.
In fact, he toyed with retiring after “Homeland” ended in 2020 but discovered during the pandemic that he missed the structure, the learning and even the anxiety of acting.
Around that time, Ken Burns came knocking.
Burns wanted Patinkin’s sonorous voice for “Benjamin Franklin,” his two-part dissection of the multifaceted, often contradictory founding father: a writer and publisher, a scientist and an inventor, a diplomat and signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, a slave owner and, later in life, an abolitionist.
“And, all of a sudden, I’m sitting in front of a microphone with some of the world’s greatest historians guiding me through how to speak a language that was somewhat older and from the queen’s England at times,” Patinkin said. When he finally saw the four-hour documentary (premiering on April 4 and 5 on PBS), he was stunned by what he thought he knew about Franklin and didn’t.
“I couldn’t get over that I got to be this guy,” he said. “Talk about parts you get to play.”
But singing is his first love. And after being stranded without an accompanist during the pandemic, Patinkin — who hears music even in the mundane and can transform a classic into something wondrously unfamiliar — is back to working three hours a day with the pianist Adam Ben-David in preparation for a new concert tour beginning May 25 in Baltimore.
“I’ve never been happier,” Patinkin said.
In the meantime, he and his wife, the Obie-winning actress and writer Kathryn Grody, keep their creativity alive and their opinions heard through wildly popular social media videos masterminded by their son Gideon.
“We have this crazy platform,” Patinkin said, “and he realizes what a gift it is to have a voice like this.”
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
1. His new grandson I was in tears last night. I’ve got this grandchild in my arms, and I couldn’t believe this family was together after all this time, at this moment in our history, with this new life. In the midst of such cuckoo-ness, my son, Isaac, and daughter-in-law, Lennon, had the courage to bring a child into this world. I can’t imagine something more hopeful.
2. Praying with his dog, BeckyWith the pandemic and all the healing that needs to be done, I thought, “I’ve got to feed this dog twice a day. I’ll say the healing prayer for the whole world.” So I do three Jewish prayers: the Shema first; then the “Mi Shebeirach,” which my dear friend Debbie Friedman made the popular version of for the reform Jewish community; then the blessing over breaking bread. And she knows to sit there. She knows each melody, and she knows when it’s getting close. Then I say, “OK,” and she goes to her bowl.
3. Live performance Work-wise, my favorite thing to do is to sing music in concert for people all over the world. I finished a 30-city concert tour the week before the pandemic hit. Then, all of a sudden, we’re locked up. My piano player, Adam Ben-David, and I started working again about two, three weeks ago.
It’s interesting. The concert I put together, called “Diaries,” [reflected] what was going on in our country, with the election and the polarization. Friends would come and went, “Wow, we loved what you had to say, but that’s pretty dark.” So we changed. I went over hundreds of [more upbeat] songs, and I said to Adam, “Let’s put all these songs back in our bones and our bodies and work them together because I need happier stuff.” And that’s what we’ve been doing — welcoming us back to being alive with the music.
4. International Rescue CommitteeThey are trying to take myself and my wife and my son Gideon to the Ukraine-Polish border as ambassadors from the I.R.C. to bring attention where attention must be paid. Our initial question was, “What is the Covid situation in Poland?” And then you think of the optics. We’ve been vaccinated and boosted. Essentially what’s there now, you’re well-protected and you won’t die from it. And I thought, “I’m going to wear a mask next to these women and children who have been fleeing for their lives? I’m going to keep a distance from these people when they need to be held and near humanity who cares?” And I finally came, “No. I’ll take my chances because they need people that pay attention. I’m finished being afraid.”
5. National Dance InstituteWe have a place in the country that we love. One day, I believe my son Isaac was 3 or 4, this car drives up and this guy gets out and he comes running down the mountain, and he goes, “Hello, hello, hello! I want to meet Isaac!” And this is Jacques d’Amboise, the true Pied Piper of the world. He grabs Isaac and he says, “You’re going to be a dancer!” We don’t know what he’s talking about. Then Isaac became part of the Tiny Tots [renamed the First Team in 2004], and we became part of Jacques’s life.
6. “Benjamin Franklin” by Walter Isaacson and “John Adams” by David McCullough I started reading the Isaacson book again, and I couldn’t get over how much I missed the first time I read it. These guys are just phenomenal history teachers. You know, as you read any book, it’s mentioning all kinds of other books along the way. Isaacson is constantly nodding the head toward McCullough. So I’m three-quarters of the way through McCullough’s book, which I’ve tried to read countless times in the past. And because of this experience, I’m sailing through it.
7. “C’mon C’mon” from the director Mike Mills I’m a member of the Academy, so we watch everything, and my favorite movie was “C’mon C’mon” with Joaquin Phoenix. That movie is so great. There’s a kid [Woody Norman] in it who’s just off-the-charts brilliant. And Joaquin is, bar none, my favorite actor of this time. Period. There’s a lot of great ones out there, so that’s saying something because this man is the gift to the arts, and this is one of his most beautiful performances. Run to see it.
8. “Lucy and Desi” from Amy Poehler I couldn’t get over what a gorgeous job she did telling that love story — the influence they had on the whole industry, but, really, on the human heart. I got to meet Lucy when I was doing “Evita” in 1979 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. There’s a knock on my dressing room door after a performance, and I hear this voice [Patinkin mimics in gibberish a gravelly baritone voice], and I go, “That’s my Aunt Ethel!” And then this woman comes in, and my Aunt Ethel had red hair. So she walks into my dressing room like a bulldozer, talking in that voice. And I go, “Aunt Ethel!” I even think I said, “How’s Uncle Joe?” And at some point it hits me, “Oh my God, you’re not Aunt Ethel. You’re Lucy!”
9. Toy trains My father came home when I was 8 years old, and he bought me, supposedly — me, spelled himself — a Lionel toy train, an engine of which I still have. To this day, it runs perfectly, with almost no maintenance whatsoever. Over the years, I built layouts in my basement on a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood. Then we got this place in the country and there was an old barn, and we took the upstairs and made it a train room. We slowly built this wonderful layout. My kids were not interested when they were younger, but for Hanukkah or my birthday, they would give an hour in the train room with Dad. That would be their gift to me.
10. Quiet The thing I love most these days is quiet and being with my wife, doing nothing and just having her nearby. It’s my greatest pleasure after 44 years of two people that spend some time loving each other and some time killing each other that, after all this time, we can gaze into the face of our grandchild and do it together. That we have each other, and we’ve stuck it out through all the troubles.