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‘Homeland’ makes Mandy Patinkin feel young, and he’s ever active

Actor and singer Mandy Patinkin currently stars in "Homeland."
(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

A word of advice: Don’t strike up a conversation with Mandy Patinkin if you’ve got anywhere you need to be.

Unlike Saul Berenson, the tight-lipped CIA Middle East division chief he plays on the Showtime drama “Homeland,” Patinkin is a talkative sort, prone to lengthy but wonderfully entertaining digressions about, say, his bathroom reading habits or the career advice he once got from Gene Kelly.

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Take, for instance, his response to a question about whether his wife of 32 years, actress Kathryn Grody, minds the thick beard he wears to play Saul Berenson. Rather than offering up a simple yes or no, Patinkin rises up from a chair in his sunny home office on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and reaches for an old black-and-white photograph of himself, twentysomething and bearded, onstage with Grody.

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Patinkin then offers up a detailed history of their romance, including their fateful meeting (at an audition for a play called “The Split”); their first date (he brought yellow-button mums); and the time early in their relationship he showed up cleanshaven to a date at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sending his future wife fleeing down Fifth Avenue in shock.

After 15 minutes or so, he finally asks, “What was the question again?”

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Oh yeah — the beard. It turns out she likes it, which is a good thing, as “Homeland” is here to stay. In less than two seasons on the air, the series has ascended to the top of the appointment-television list, taking home an Emmy for outstanding drama in its freshman season, becoming the subject of “Saturday Night Live” parodies, and racking up admirers with names like Barack and Bill.

As the stoic Saul Berenson, Patinkin provides a vital counterweight to the high-volume performances of his costars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. In the morally ambiguous world of prestige cable drama, Saul, who practically radiates with decency and compassion, is that rare thing: a good guy, plain and simple.

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Until now, Patinkin was perhaps best known as Inigo Montoya, the vengeance-seeking Spanish swordsman he played in Rob Reiner’s cheeky fairy tale “The Princess Bride.” Though Saul may not be as dashing (or as quotable) as Inigo, he’s quickly becoming as recognizable. “I had to change my jury duty date and everybody in the courtroom’s ‘Hey Saul! Hi Saul!’ when I was down there on Centre Street,” he says. “I’m getting an awful lot of it. I couldn’t be happier.”

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For “Homeland” co-creator Alex Gansa, collaborating with Patinkin is the realization of a dream that began nearly 30 years ago when, as a senior in college, a girlfriend dragged him to see the actor in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” By the end of the first act, the cynical Gansa was reduced to tears by Patinkin’s performance.

“He is a man and an actor of intensely deep feeling,” says Gansa, who devised the role of Saul Berenson with Patinkin in mind. “There’s a gravitas about him and an empathy and a deepness and a richness of character, both as a man and a performer.”

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“Intense” is the word that inevitably seems to pop up in conversations about Patinkin, but unlike other performers for whom the word is used as code for “crazy,” Patinkin’s fervor is infectious rather than off-putting. He is a consummate storyteller who can’t seem to help turning a mundane conversation into an impromptu performance.

“Homeland” is Patinkin’s most unqualified television success to date. Although he won an Emmy for his role in the ‘90s medical drama “Chicago Hope,” he eventually left the show because it kept him away from his family. He similarly walked away from the CBS procedural “Criminal Minds” because of objections to the show’s violent content.

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Patinkin has found more reliable satisfaction on the stage, starting with a Tony for his work as Che in the original 1979 Broadway production of “Evita” and through a long and thriving career as a live concert performer.

By his own account, Patinkin’s experience on “Homeland” has been enriching personally and professionally. “Most of our company is much younger than me so I’m in a fountain of youth and I’m their age, as long as I don’t go pee and look in the mirror,” he says and chuckles.

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Patinkin has grown particularly close to Danes who, he says, “taught me grace in a way that I just didn’t see coming.” His “biggest hope” is that he and Grody will be regular baby sitters for the actress, who’s currently expecting her first child with husband Hugh Dancy. “I will campaign for that big time.”

He may not have to. According to Gansa, the Mandy love is reciprocated not just by Danes, but by the entire cast. “Anybody who steps onto the set and plays a scene with him elevates their game,” Gansa says, citing Patinkin’s “herculean” preparation.

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Before going on set, Patinkin — a self-described “American Disneyland Jew” informed as much by literature and the theater as religion — performs a meditation pulled together from Hebrew prayers, Shakespeare and Sondheim. He also recites the names of everyone he’s ever known who’s passed away, because “as long as there’s one person on earth who remembers you, it isn’t over.”

Raised in an observant Jewish household in Chicago, Patinkin was encouraged by his mother to pursue the theater as a disgruntled teenager. Initially skeptical, Patinkin was won over when, during rehearsal for a community production of “Carousel,” the director summed up the musical’s message in beautifully simple terms: “If you love someone, tell them.”

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“A light bulb went on in my head. I was in the synagogue seven days a week practically, I heard the rabbi give a sermon every Friday and Saturday, but somehow I never heard something like that,” Patinkin recalls. “And I went, ‘Huh, if this theater stuff talks like this, I’m going to hang out.’”

Patinkin, who turns 60 on Friday, has been hanging out for more than four decades now and has only picked up the pace with age. He just filmed a part in Fisher Stevens’ adaptation of “American Pastoral,” and is currently in rehearsals for two projects he’ll stage between now and May, when he returns to Charlotte, N.C., to film Season 3 of “Homeland”: “The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville,” a collaboration with performance artist Taylor Mac, and “Intercultural Journeys,” a concert where he’ll perform Arabic and Hebrew songs backed by a Syrian percussionist and an Israeli violinist.

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“If I have an idea, I need it to happen now because I may get lucky and live to 90 or 100,” he says. “Or it might be over this evening, and I don’t want to miss a day.”

meredith.blake@latimes.com

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