May 08, 1989 12:00 PM

The morning after Mandy Patinkin made his solo singing debut at New York’s Public Theater, he is wired, crackling with nervous energy. “I’m running late,” he says, stirring, with frantic vigor, a noontime batch of orange juice in his Manhattan kitchen. He’d been up at 6 to take sons Isaac, 6, and Gideon, 2, out to breakfast, had gone back to bed, tossed and turned and is now beginning the day for a second time. Talking a mile a minute about the show, audience reaction and his anxieties about the next performance, he stops to breathe and gasps, “I gotta relax.”

That’s not likely to happen. The second show isn’t for another week, but Patinkin, a standout worrier in a profession known for its neurotics, is already on the case. “Two days before the concert I broke out in hives and welts,” he says. “They were ready to medicate me.” Opening night itself, he says with characteristic theatricality, was “wild, scary, dangerous.” It was also a smash, 2 l/2 hours of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley tunes delivered with an emotional wallop that could make even Liza Minnelli seem limp. Patinkin’s unadvertised run of six consecutive Monday nights sold out in a few hours, based on word of mouth and the remarkable critical reaction to Mandy Patinkin, the actor-singer’s debut album, which was released in January. Esquire called him “the greatest singer of theater music that we have.” The New York Times called it “a tour de force of high-wire emoting, comparable in its feverish intent to the most indelible records of Al Jolson, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand.”

High-wire emoting is a Patinkin trademark, onstage and off. As a performer, he is known for the passionate intensity that characterized his performances as Che Guevara in Broadway’s Evita, as the swashbuckling swordsman Inigo Montoya in the film The Princess Bride and as Barbra Streisand’s friend and lover, Avigdor, in Yentl. When Patinkin auditioned for Yentl, Streisand recalls, “He totally surprised me with his original approach. He was unpredictable, emotionally volatile and very gifted, and that was exciting for me as a director.” Says James Lapine, who directed Patinkin on Broadway in the Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George as well as Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale off Broadway: “Mandy has an extraordinary ability to take on potent roles and connect to them freshly, and not manufacture the emotions night after night.”

But Patinkin’s emotionality also has a downside. He is quite capable of worrying himself sick, and his constant anxiety about his career and how to portray a given role correctly has, on more than one occasion, driven employers, friends and Patinkin himself to distraction. Though he has sung for years and performs on rerecorded cast albums of Follies and South Pacific, he held off making a solo album out of fear that “if it wasn’t perfect, I’d kill myself.” As for live performances of any kind, he says, “If you’re coming to see me, don’t ever tell me. If I know someone is coming, be it a cabdriver, the doorman or a relative, I’ll freak.”

That ol’ devil “artistic differences” got Patinkin fired by director Mike Nichols from the movie Heartburn in 1985, and it is only after nine years of marriage that his wife, actress Kathryn Grody, has learned to cope with her husband’s unpredictability. “It’s taken me a while to stand my own ground, to not take everything he says literally,” says Grody, who just wrapped The Lemon Sisters with Diane Keaton and Carol Kane. “Mandy is very impulsive. He recently announced we were joining a repertory theater company in Minneapolis. Years ago I would have said, ‘You haven’t consulted me! What about my rights?’ Instead, I said, ‘Good, go check it out and take a warm coat.’ ”

For his part, Patinkin admits, “I am difficult.” He also says that he is trying very hard “not to be difficult anymore. I’m through with that.” He is currently in intensive, and expensive, therapy, attempting to come to grips with his high anxiety. The big lesson he has come away with so far—a phrase he repeats like a favorite mantra—is “just do the work.” He is still a long way from laid back but believes he has made progress beyond the kind of thespian navel-gazing that got him bounced from Heartburn—and, he says, “ostracized” by Hollywood for a year. Christopher Reeve, who recently worked off-Broadway with Patinkin in the Public Theater’s The Winter’s Tale, found him “very self-effacing and humble. He knows we’re basically out there to do the jokes and go home.”

Or, nowadays, sing the songs and go home. Born and reared on Chicago’s South Side, the son of a scrap-metal dealer and a housewife, Mandy (short for Mandel) began singing in temple when he was 8 or 9. “It’s how I got attention,” he says. He and his only sibling, Marsha, attended a local private school. “The music was great, but I hated going to school,” he says. “So I got involved with community theater on the side.” After two years at the University of Kansas, Patinkin “fled” to Juilliard, where he studied acting. He met Kathryn in 1978 when they were cast opposite each other in an off-Broadway drama called Split. Their first date, a breakfast, was a Patinkin production all the way. “He came to the restaurant, handed me a bouquet of flowers and said, before sitting down, ‘I’m going to marry you,’ ” Grody recalls. That prediction came true after two years of living together.

These days Patinkin is a rooted New Yorker who rides the subways and romps with his kids in Central Park. His family’s apartment—a simple West Side co-op decorated in slightly upgraded starving-actor chic and accented by Isaac and Gideon’s crayon drawings—is very much home. When invited to take the lead in the original London production of Phantom of the Opera, Patinkin turned it down because he didn’t want to move his family.

Now that his career has taken a notably tuneful bent, he’ll be singing onscreen for the first time as Madonna‘s love-struck piano player, 88 Keys, in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which is currently filming. “Stephen Sondheim has written me a beautiful song to Madonna about unrequited love,” he says. He also may recreate his Tony award-winning Che Guevara role for the movie version of Evita, which will star Meryl Streep. “[Director] Oliver Stone told me to stay available,” says Patinkin.

But his biggest goal is to become less obsessive about acting, particularly about becoming a big screen success. His new philosophy? “Take supporting parts, come back to New York and sing for a week, then do a play,” he says. “In the end you’ll be known for your body of work.”

To that end, he credits Rob Reiner, who directed The Princess Bride, with a memorable piece of advice. “I was agonizing over some little scene where I was supposed to be drunk,” recalls Patinkin. “I was in my trailer pouring my heart out to Rob, telling him I was letting the movie down. He said these words to me, which are at the heart of my struggle: ‘Get out of your way, man!’ I love Rob for that. I will always have to work at getting out of my own way.”

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