He normally graces the stages of Broadway and the Hollywood screen—but last Friday, actor Mandy Patinkin simply relaxed in the Winthrop House Junior Common Room. Patinkin, best known for his endearing roles as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, Dr. Jeffrey Geiger on “Chicago Hope” and Che Guevera in a Tony-award winning performance of Evita, spent two days at Harvard answering students’ questions and lending his expert advice in two master classes. While relating the ups and downs of his own path to success, Patinkin expressed a true desire to connect with students and to share an inspiring yet cautionary message with those considering a career in the arts.
Though Patinkin now seems the epitome of Broadway success, his opening remarks regarding his education in both the arts and academics revealed a truly self-made performer. Clad casually in jeans, sneakers and a button-down shirt, Patinkin first related his experience growing up on Chicago’s South Side as part of an observant Jewish family. As a child with dyslexia, Patinkin first discovered theater in a nearby youth center. Though initially “dragged there by this huge football player,” Patinkin fondly remembers the production of Carousel, as well as its director, Bob Condor. Patinkin especially remembers Condor saying, “What is this play about? I think it’s about, if you love someone, tell them.” Patinkin commented, “I remember thinking, ‘That’s a pretty hip idea, I’m gonna hang around.’” Later, at the University of Kansas, Patinkin’s love affair with theatre intensified, eventually landing him at the Juilliard School of Drama among classmates such as the actor William Hurt.
To be sure, Patinkin harbors many unpleasant memories from his dramatic education, sharing with students how rocky the road to theatric success can be. He noted that when first arriving at Juilliard, “after six minutes I wanted to leave,” and blames the often abusive teachers at the school for driving away “some of the most gifted actors I’ve ever met.” Patinkin, however, does praise teacher Gerald Friedman for teaching him “how to remember an action, and what it really means.” He also acknowledged that his time at Juilliard taught him many necessities of acting which he continues to use today. As a final warning, Patinkin emphasized the fragility of human beings, both in heart and spirit, and carefully advised students, “Beware of who is holding your hearts, if you are in the arts.”
The most memorable moments of the day came out of Patinkin’s direct contact with Harvard students. Students’ questions ranged from the amusing to the more serious; while one inquired about “any good Andre the Giant stories?” (“I turned to my left on this couch—and there was this landmass! But he was an unbelivably beautiful spirit”); others inquired about the impact of his Jewish upbringing on his career (“Acting is my religion”). Indeed, Patinkin quotes Steven Sondheim’s words as if they were those of the Bible, confessing, “Sonheim is Shakespeare as far as I’m concerned.” After mentioning his work with Sondheim as one of the great three collaborations of his life, Patinkin named the other two as those with his long-time accompanist, Paul Ford and with David E. Kelley, the creator of “Chicago Hope.” He became quiet and pensive at the mention of balancing work and family. A husband and father of two boys, Patinkin warned students that, “If you’re away from your family a lot, your family will suffer—it’s a fact. Whether sacrificing your career for family, or family for career, you miss things either way.”
The day ended with a master class in which students performed songs and dramatic monologues. As Patinkin energetically bounded about the room, viewing performers from different angles and perspectives, he offered unconventional yet, in the end, wholly powerful ways for students to explore the meaning in their dialogues and their relationships with both themselves and their audience. He encouraged performers to “go out there with no skin—it’s both endearing and scary,” and lent the advice that, “smart, to me, is how people listen.”
Rebecca J. Levy ’06, who sang the haunting “In a Very Unusual Way,” spoke emphatically about her experience singing for Patinkin, who told her, “In some way, you connect to this. You don’t need to perform this song—it’s yours.” Says Levy, “I found it fun to have him critique my performance and to work with him on giving it new possibilities. Also, it was amazing to see the changes he brought about in other people’s performances.” Altogether, Patinkin offered an intense day of caring advice, nostalgic thought, and most importantly, beautiful music—an experience involved Harvard students won’t soon forget.