I’m sitting across from Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody in a tiny student cafeteria at the Upper West Side’s Jewish Theological Seminary. We’re ostensibly here to talk about how their activist work intersects with their artistic pursuits and their Judaism, a topic they spoke about at length alongside their friend and fellow activist Ruth Messinger to a rapt audience just an hour or so earlier. But we just happen to be meeting on the 40th anniversary of their first date, in the exact space where they got married. So instead, I spend a totally delightful half-hour listening to them laugh, cry, and reminisce about their relationship, which is visibly intense, deeply loving, and, as Grody puts it, “Grecian — as in comedy and drama.”
Patinkin and Grody have just returned from Uganda, where they met with refugees in their continuing work with the International Rescue Committee and the American Jewish World Service. Over the past few years, whenever Patinkin isn’t filming Homeland, the two have been traveling all over the world — Cambodia, Greece, Serbia — in an attempt to raise awareness about the ongoing refugee crisis and, as they put it, to “bear witness” to people whose voices have been all but silenced. They’re ideal for this sort of work because of their ability to totally rivet an audience, whether they’re sharing emotional stories about their travels to an auditorium full of people, or regaling a total stranger (me, kind of) with tales of their fiery courtship.
Both Patinkin and Grody are Full Theater Kids, in the best possible sense — they don’t tell stories as much as reenact them, interrupting each other to add colorful details, gesticulating wildly, swinging back and forth between tears and laughter. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation, which ranged from first kisses to fights about communism to lovingly mocking one another for acting like children on vacation.
Vulture: Kathryn, you were just about to tell a story —
Kathryn Grody: When the [staff] just asked us if we knew how to get out of the building, I had this image of the time Mandy and I got locked in the Public Theater.
KG: I was in previews for my one-woman show, and my husband had a lot of notes for me, so we went downstairs to the dressing room and he gave them to me [jokingly rolls eyes]. And we came back up, and it was totally dark, and we were locked in — everyone thought we had left! We literally spent an hour trying to get out. So we had to call [theater producer] Joe Papp to come and let us out at three o’clock in the morning.
Mandy Patinkin: No, he didn’t let us out.
KG: I know, he didn’t let us out. I was making the story shorter.
MP: Oh, okay.
How long were you locked in there?
MP: A long time. Two, two and a half hours.
What’d you do to entertain yourselves?
KG: Blamed each other about whose fault it was. If he hadn’t given me so many notes, we wouldn’t have gotten locked in the theater!
MP: Yeah, it was my fault. Would’ve never happened. It’s a great sense of pride for me. Don’t try to make it anyone else’s fault!
What’s it like being back in the spot you got married? What’s a specific memory that stands out to you both?
MP: We were eating around the corner once, on Amsterdam. We took our sons, who are grown men — they’d never been here with us. So we talked our way in. The guards didn’t wanna let us in. We just spent time in that space, took photographs. It was a powerful ceremony, an unforgettable day in my life. It’s hallowed ground to me.
And it’s the 40th anniversary of your first date. What’d you guys do that day?
MP: We were doing a play; it was the Ensemble Studio Theater’s first one-act play festival. I’d gotten burned by somebody I was dating and doing a play with a year earlier, so I wouldn’t go out with anybody I was working with until the play was over. And I was dying to get to know her! So we made a date for the Sunday when it was over. Saturday night, I sent her a gift, and I picked up some yellow-button mums that cost nothin’, and some white spriggy stuff. And I showed up at Black Sheep Tavern, which is closed, a long time ago — we tried to go there today, it was on Washington and 11th Street.
And I sat down and gave her the flowers, and I said, “I’m gonna marry you!” She [pointed at me and said], “You!” And I snapped a picture. We took a picture just like that today. I’ll show you [shows me photo on his phone]. That was 40 years ago, today.
KG: He had a camera out before he even sat down [Laughs].
How did you know you’d marry her?
MP: I just knew. I tell people, when I have the privilege of talking to young people, I say, “Look, get a partner. I don’t care what your preference is, get a partner so you’re not alone. And if you’re really really lucky, try to find one where you can’t explain what you feel.” Because when the shit hits the fan — and it will — you need to remember that moment that you connected, and couldn’t explain what you felt. That’ll remind you to shut up long enough to calm down and continue.
Kathryn, what was your reaction when he told you he was going to marry you?
KG: I said he was going to get very hurt, because I wasn’t going to marry anybody. Because I didn’t believe in it. And that sort of sums up our relationship! [Both laugh loudly.]
So what changed your mind?
KG: What changed my mind was the first kiss on the corner —
MP: That was a great moment.
KG: And walking along the pier, crying. We spent the whole afternoon crying. First I explained to him why I didn’t believe in marriage, which is a bourgeois institution. He said, “What does bourgeois mean?” That was the second concerning thing, besides that I had to tell him how to get to the Village. He lived here seven years and didn’t know how to go downtown past 14th Street. Anyway, I didn’t know myself well enough to know that I wasn’t a Russian anarchist [Laughs].
What were you guys crying about all afternoon?
KG: He said the only thing that frightened him more than having a relationship was losing one with me. I said, “Oh, that’s what everyone says, just wait.”
MP: And we were crying about common connections. She had lost her parents six months apart. I had lost my father about the same time her two parents died. And then we had a million other things. It was a profound day.
I got to the Astor Place subway, after our walk, and sitting on stoops, walking and stoops, walking and stoops. And I said, “Are you free tomorrow?” And she said, “No.” I said, “What about Tuesday?” She said, “I’m busy.” “Okay, Wednesday?” She said, “I have plans.” I said, “Well, when are you free?” “Thursday,” she said.” I said, “I gotta wait till Thursday?!” [Laughs.] She said yes. I did.
What happened Thursday?
KG: Second date, I remember —
MP: Was that the one where I put my head on the table? [Both laugh.]
KG: No, that was the third.
Why’d you put your head on the table?
KG: He was tired! The second date —
MP: That wasn’t the movie, was it? Where you screamed at me outside of the movie? Or screamed during the movie? And I said, “You can’t do that with me in a movie!” [Laughs.]
KG: No, no. What I remember about the second date is that you asked me if I had a savings account. And I looked at him and I said, “A savings account?! I’m an Off Broadway actress. I have an oak table and I’ve been to Morocco. What a bourgeois question!” And he said, “What does bourgeois mean?” And I went, “Oh man, this is not a good idea.”
How long until you proposed?
MP: One year before we got engaged, one year after that we got married. We got married June 15, 1980.
What’s the most profound thing you’ve each learned from each other?
KG: Oh gosh. Is this an overnight? For me, there is no way of feeling the depth of staying together for 40 years. You share it, you’ve created a common history. You see a lot of marriages you don’t want to be like, and you have the illusion you’ll never cause each other pain, and then you kill each other. But there’s something in getting through all that.
I remember Henry Fonda was watching him in Evita, and at the intermission, I happened to be sitting in front of him, and I heard him say, “This couldn’t be this Pad-inkin fellow’s first musical!”
And I went, “Excuse me, Mr. Fonda, it is.” And he turned and looked at me and said, “Oh, are you related?” And that’s when it really struck me. I said, “About to be.” We’re related. We’re kin and we made a family.
We talk a lot about being stunned about being older. Some days it’s really shocking. But even when it’s shocking, I see him as the person I first met. I see that person in him now. So I get more of him. I get the gorgeous young guy and the gorgeous old guy.
What about you, Mandy?
MP: I never experienced unconditional love until I met her. [He tears up.]
I love this conversation.
KG: I do, too.
When did you both realize you had these shared values surrounding activism and Judaism and theater?
MP: We didn’t have it, at the beginning. I did not know I was political. I was a person from a synagogue. My parents were “Men’s Club” and “Sisterhood”; I didn’t know if they were Democrat or Republican. Kathryn was very political, she was a social activist in California, and brought that into my life. These events we went to — the first one, she took me to a Citizen Soldier event, where her ex-boyfriend right before me was the guy who blew the whistle on Agent Orange and was fundraising at some house.
KG: Oh my god, Mandy, you know one story we didn’t tell [at the talk tonight]?
MP: Thank god there were some! [Both laugh.]
KG: I know, honey. Oh my god. This is honestly an extraordinary transition to me. One of the worst things a couple can do is think they’ll change each other, right? It wasn’t changing, but there were things we didn’t know about each other. When we were married for six months, I had an event at the house —
KG: For the Film Fund of El Salvador. And it was when the war was going on, and these El Salvadorians came, and we raised $3,000, which was such a fortune then. And it was a thrilling discussion, there had been 25 or 30 people at the house. And when everybody left, I turned to him, and I said, “Oh! Was that great!” And I look at him, and he’s about the color of this sheet of paper. And he said, “Kathryn, you just raised money for a communist organization. The FBI is going to ruin my career!”
And I looked at him, and it was one of those moments where I thought, “How did I marry this guy?!” I said, “The FBI? Who gives a shit about your career? It’s not the FBI’s business what you do in your home! [Pounds table.] This wasn’t communist propaganda, it was the right side’s propaganda!” It was terrifying to me. I thought, “How did I say yes to this?”
MP: [Laughing throughout] One of the great ironies of my life is that later on, I become involved in the show Criminal Minds and play this behavioral analysis guy, and I became very dear friends with someone from the FBI who’s one of those people. And we go to Quantico for his retirement ceremony, and everybody at the FBI wants to know me and be my friend, because I was this guy. And same with the CIA, because they like the way they’re portrayed on Homeland. All of the guys I was terrified of that night — we know them all, we have dinner with them!
KG: We’re very well behaved.
Mandy, I interviewed you when I was at the Sun-Times about five years ago, and you talked about how moments in life “get you in the kishkes.” What was the last thing that got you in the kishkes?
MP: The play Kathryn just did, written by Susan Miller, called 20th Century Blues. A lot of intellectuals we knew would see the play, and they started getting picky about what the writer should have done. I’ve seen it many times in its first incarnation, and then I saw it several times here; I was shooting Homeland in Richmond, Virginia, but I’d come home for the previews and the opening.
Kathryn loves it, as I do, if she doesn’t know when I’m gonna be there. When you know a friend or somebody you care about is gonna be there, you get nervous, and it’s not a free performance. So it was a cold night, I forget what I was doing, I got free, I knew she didn’t know I would be there, I’m racing through Manhattan, I get there, I sit in a balcony in a corner so nobody knows I’m there. And I’ve seen it five, six times, so I’m just there to be a good sport —
KG: A good husband.
MP: A good husband, thanks. And I’m sitting there, and there’s one moment where four women who’ve known each other their whole lives, and meet every year to have a reunion — one of them is a photographer, and she’s taken pictures. And they open the box of the pictures. And I lost it. Three other times that evening, I almost had to leave the theater, for moments of human behavior and interaction of these four women who’d known each other their whole lives and are now in our age group — a life lived, hopefully with some left. I was overwhelmed. And I said to people, “Whoever has any criticism for this play, to hell with them.”
When I least expected it, got me in the kishkes so much that I almost had to leave the theater because I was worried I was going to disturb the place with my sobs. And I had to choke so hard just to be quiet. And it came in waves, one after another.
Kathryn, do you ever feel that way about his work?
KG: Yeah. When I hear him sing [Stephen Sondheim’s] “Being Alive,” that’s our song — “somebody hold you too tight, somebody love you too much.” I’m overwhelmed by how he still moves me. And it’s the same thing — I’ve seen him sing that song a million times. And I lose it every time.
Do you ever just sing to her, or do you ask him to sing for you?
MP: I almost only sing to her when I’m onstage in front of a microphone. Either to her or my children, or someone I know, or somebody I believe I know through my imagination. But it’s always specific. And 90 percent of the time, it’s connected to our lives. She’s my muse. My artistic inspiration.
You guys are pretty lucky.
MP and KG: We are lucky.
Earlier in the night, Kathryn, you mentioned that you would describe your and Mandy’s family life as “Grecian.” Can you give me a Grecian story from your lives together?
KG: Should I do “Thank you, Jesus”?
MP: That’s a great one! Tell that whole story. This is a great story. One of my favorites. But you gotta tell it right —
KG: And trust Rachel to edit it.
MP: She’ll have to edit it. She wasn’t given the whole magazine! But it’s one of my favorite “gotcha” stories.
We’ll do a whole issue on just you guys.
KG: So we were in Greece, with our two young children. Somebody had given us the gift of one of these small boats. Mandy had performed in their temple, and in exchange, they’d said —
MP: “Where do you want to go in the world?”
KG: So we said, “Greece, okay.”
MP: Because we had a friend there.
KG: So they gave us a small boat.
MP: It wasn’t a whole boat.
KG: It was 100 people. They love traveling this way, and they said, “You’ll love it so much.”
MP: They set up a cruise ship. 100 people. A small cruise ship.
So quite literally a Grecian story.
MP: Literally a Grecian story. Did you think about that when she said it?
KG: No, I didn’t! So he was doing Chicago Hope at the time, and it was kind of like being stuck with the relatives you like the least for ten days.
MP: And you can’t get away —
KG: Our younger son loved it because you would watch videos —
MP: And you could gamble on the boat.
KG: Our older son was telling the younger one, “People don’t really like you, it’s just because Dad is doing a TV show.” So there was a lot of tension.
MP: [Laughs uproariously.]
KG: So one day, with all of that in the background, we go to Santorini and they have these donkeys that take you up to the top. We get up to the top, and it’s miserable, and it’s just buying things, and it’s awful. We have a terrible time. Mandy says, “I’m going back to the room and I’m not coming out.” I said, “Fine.”
My older son and I went up to the black sands, and there was a man who showed me a picture of Mandy on a donkey, and he said, “You know this man?” I said, “Yeah, that’s my husband.” He said, “Tell this man, this is the best day I ever have. I sell everyone on boat, all buying a picture of this man on donkey!”
MP: [Continues laughing.]
KG: I thought this was hysterical and wonderful. That this man had made this great living. My son and I explore, we have a great time, and we come back. Mandy is under the covers. I said, “Honey, guess what! I have great news! Look at this — this guide was taking pictures of everybody going up and down on a donkey, and he said to thank you, because this is the best day he’s had in two years!”
And Mandy says [darkly], “How would you like it, Kathryn? How would you like it if you come to get away on vacation with your family, and some guy is selling pictures of you … on a DONKEY? How would that make you feel?”
“How would that make me feel, honey? If I got to do what I loved more than anything in the world, and all it cost me was once in a lifetime, a guy taking a picture of me on a donkey, I’d say, ‘Thank you Jesus!’ That’s how I’d feel.”
MP: [Laughing] And then what’d I say?
KG: [affects pouty voice] “Fine, but I get to express my feelings.”
[Both laugh for a solid 30 seconds]
MP: That was a real moment.
KG: We’ve referred to that at other times.
MP: “That’s a ‘thank you Jesus’ moment.”