When he called The Jewish Chronicle, he’d just flown back from New York City. He was in the midst of rehearsing a new show with opera singer Nathan Gunn. He was starring in a new play called “Compulsion” about one man’s obsession with Anne Frank’s legacy. He was dotting all over the country for some long-booked concerts. And he was also hoping to find an hour or two to hit the gym.
“You only live once, right?” he said with a laugh.
Somewhere mixed into his busy schedule, Patinkin will stop in Pittsburgh to perform his show “Dress Casual” at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh as part of the Black & Golden Anniversary Celebration of Allegheny Valley School, which serves children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Since he debuted on Broadway in 1980’s “Evita,” Patinkin hasn’t slowed down too much at all. His career took off in the ’80s with a string of hit movies, including “Ragtime,” “Yentl,” “Daniel” and, of course, “The Princess Bride,” in which he played maybe his most iconic character, Inigo Montoya, and said his most iconic line: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
But Patinkin was simply part of some great productions, he said, not merely great himself.
“As Sidney Lumet said to me once, you can be great in a flop, but it’s better to be just alright in a hit,” said Patinkin. “You want to be in a great story. That’s far more important than being great in something that doesn’t hold up on its own. It was my fortune to be in the right place, in the right parts, at the right time.”
Though he hit TV hard in the ’90s with an Emmy-nominated turn in “Chicago Hope,” for the past decade plus, Patinkin’s career has remained largely onstage, in a series of concerts he assembled. “Mamaloshen,” which debuted in 1998, was a collection of traditional and contemporary Yiddish songs. “Dress Casual” found Patinkin onstage with only a pianist.
“We just do a smorgasbord of new songs I’ve been working on and old songs from different shows I’ve been in,” he said. “It’s a loose format. I refer to it as a purposeful mess.”
Patinkin has used his voice for more than songs, though. He’s long been outspoken about the dire need for peace in the Middle East, which he addressed passionately.
“It’s important that every one of us, I believe, do whatever possible to try to make this world a better place,” said Patinkin. “Particularly in the Middle East.”
Patinkin works with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, an organization that brings multinational youth in the Middle East together to work toward a healthier environment, which he called “the most important organization I’ve ever been a part of. In terms of the peace process, it’s the most powerful entity I’ve discovered yet.”
“Clouds and rivers have no border crossings,” said Patinkin, reflecting the environmental focus of Arava. “So let’s make this world better. We are brothers and sisters. Let’s get this done.”
Patinkin recalled some recent New York performances of “Mamaloshen” he sang with an Arab Israeli friend, as showing just how brotherly Jews could be with their neighbors.
“It’s the greatest statement we can make,” he said. “Here’s a Jewish American, and here’s an Arab Israeli, and we’re onstage together making music.”
Patinkin said that, onstage or not, making music was everyone’s job.
“Whatever you do in life, find a way to be with your brothers and sisters and make your kind of music together,” he said.
It’s something Patinkin will continue to do for years — the man shows no signs of slowing down. As “Compulsion” opens and his concert series roll on, Patinkin said he’s still got many unfulfilled goals.
“I never know what I’ll be doing tomorrow,” he said. “Every job is over before it starts. I’ve no idea what my future is.”
Patinkin paused on the phone, then took a breath, and yelled, “I’m not dead yet, baby!”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)