"Homeland" star Mandy Patinkin speaks his mind

"Homeland" star Mandy Patinkin

Mandy Patinkin is in his element on the set of "Homeland," where for seven seasons he's played CIA Agent Saul Berenson, the calm in the eye of the storm.

Correspondent Holly Williams joined Patinkin on location for the eighth and final season of the hit series. In-between takes, the 67-year-old actor walked her through this recreated world of espionage and politics.

His life right now, he told us, is about as good as it gets: "I'm not crazy about the Achilles and the knees, you know, the hair falling out and all the rest of the fun. But I love getting older."

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Mandy Patinkin and correspondent Holly Williams on the set of "Homeland." CBS News

Is it the wisdom? "The wisdom and the calming. I once watched an interview that I did with my wife, and I went, 'Oh my God, I'm unbearable to listen to. The intensity is just, like, why do they even let me on these shows?' And so, I've tried to temper it, but it's hopeless, as you see!"

"No, don't," laughed Williams. "I mean, the intensity is wonderful."

"I'm just who I am."

In the industry, the Chicago native is known for his towering talent and passionate performances. He won a Tony Award for his performance in "Evita" on Broadway in 1979:

EVITA 1980 Tony Awards by MrPoochsmooch on YouTube

And he stole the show in one of his first movie roles, as Inigo Montoya in "The Princess Bride."

Mandy Patinkin on "The Princess Bride"

A gifted singer, he's won a Grammy, and is currently wrapping up a 30-city tour.

But Patinkin has also earned a reputation as being "hard to handle." Cast in the series "Chicago Hope," he abruptly left his Emmy-winning role midway through its second season; and on the show "Criminal Minds," he broke his contract because, he said, its violent content was "destructive to his soul."

Williams asked, "You've been quite open about being very difficult to work with when you were younger."

"I'm not anymore!" he laughed. "But I was!"

"Not many people would cop to that, but you've been very candid about it."

"The greatest moments of your life are the most difficult ones; that's the only time you learn," Patinkin said. "You know, you're gonna bang your head against a wall, that's a gift to you."

Mandy Patinkin on being a perfectionist

"So, when was that moment for you?"

"Wait a couple minutes, it'll happen again. It never will end."

"Well, but was there a big moment?"

"There was. Lemme think …"

And because he's Mandy Patinkin, national treasure, we gave him as long as he needed, as the cameras rolled and Williams waited … a rare moment of this exuberant actor being very quiet.

"I don't know," he finally offered. "I'm sorry to say that there were many moments in my past. Moments of struggle, moments of panic, moments of fear. And at one moment eight years ago, this show, 'Homeland,' came at a time after I'd left the business, essentially."

Had he left it? "Almost," he said. "I mean, I walked away from a show and broke a contract. You don't do that."

But the producers of "Homeland" decided Patinkin was worth taking a gamble on, and it's paid off with a series that's captured the zeitgeist.

The show has also been criticized for its portrayal of Muslims. Patinkin is sensitive to it, and perhaps especially so this season, which is being filmed in Morocco, a majority Islamic country. 

Patinkin said, "People of the Islam faith have felt concerned about being presented as a bad guy. How would I feel if every bad guy was a Jew? Not good."

Williams said, "But this show has been criticized for that." 

"Yes, it has."

"For, you know, portraying Muslims as somehow inherently violent."

"It's a concern of mine, too, and all the writers. We have tried to address it."

"You've tried to self-correct?"

"Well, it's a tricky business," said Patinkin. "The issues today involve individuals that are of the Muslim faith; some of those people are also considered terrorists. I'm very concerned about anybody whose feelings are hurt, and I apologize to them. It is not our intention."

"Homeland" also portrays the United States with a critical eye. Williams said, "This show shows America in a very imperfect light. But Saul [Patinkin's character] still believes that America is worth fighting for. What is it about America that he thinks is worth fighting for?"

"The possibility that they will open their arms of welcome to people all over the world that need a new beginning," he replied.

Patinkin's grandparents needed a new beginning when they arrived in the U.S. in the early 1900s. They were Jewish refugees. And he worries that, if they'd arrived today, they might be not let in.

"Grandpa Max used to say (in Yiddish), 'The wheel is always turning,'" Patinkin said. "So, if you're on top, you will be on the bottom. Maybe one day back on top again. You're a human being, and human beings make mistakes, and one of 'em right now is to forget human kindness toward those  that are desperately seeking refuge, medical care, kindness."

Patinkin feels so passionately about refugees that he signed up as an ambassador for the International Rescue Committee, an organization that helps people displaced by humanitarian crises. And that's how Williams ended up in Jordan this past summer, visiting Syrian refugees with Patinkin and his wife, actor-writer Kathryn Grody. 

Indicating Grody, Patinkin said, "If you're wondering how I got to be whatever is okay about me, this is it."

"She's everything that's okay about you?" asked Williams.

"Everything that's okay – nothing that's not okay!"

The couple spent three days visiting with Syrian women and children, mostly in dusty, overcrowded refugee camps. The International Rescue Committee is trying to help them build new lives, with health centers, schools for children, and training programs for women.

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Mandy Patinkin and his wife, Kathryn Grody, visit with displaced Syrians at a refugee camp in Jordan.  CBS News

Patinkin started this work around five years ago, when hundreds of thousands of refugees flooded into Europe.

"My heart broke," he said. "I remember I called Kathryn, I said, 'Those are our families. That's our Grandma Masha, and Grandpa Max, and Grandma Celia. And I just wanna be with those people, and walk with them.'"

When he went to the Syrian border to look across the frontier at a country torn apart by a bloody civil war, his feelings boiled over:  "Right over there, bombs explode, and lives are lost, and people are displaced and homeless, and begging countries to give them a new beginning.  Why is that the way this world is going?"

Patinkin wants the U.S. to take in more refugees, and he's furious that, instead, the government has cut its intake, from 85,000 in 2016 to less than 20,000 planned for this year.

Mandy Patinkin on the refugee crisis

His role as an ambassador is intense. And he says the role of Saul has taken him to some dark places in recent years. When he's finished with "Homeland," he told Williams, he wouldn't mind doing some comedy. "When this is over, if I act again, it will be something funny!" he said.

Whatever he does, he'll do it Mandy Patinkin-style – all passion, no pretense.

Mandy Patinkin on singing

Williams asked him, "Do you ever switch off?"

"When I'm finished, it's like someone pulls the light plug out of the socket. It goes from 100 miles an hour to minus zero."

"The batteries run out?"

"It's absolutely out. I gotta lay down or I'm gonna pass out."

"It does look like it's exhausting to be Mandy Patinkin."

"It is. You got that right!"

To watch a trailer for season 8 of "Homeland" click on the player below:

Homeland Season 8 (2020) Official Teaser Trailer | Claire Danes SHOWTIME Series by SHOWTIME on YouTube

     
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Story produced by Mikaela Bufano.

Disclosure: Showtime is a division of ViacomCBS.