He has played Che Guevara and Georges Seurat on Broadway, is a constant presence on concert stages, and his TV roles include a doctor, a hunchback, and a dead guy. Now, on CBS' Criminal Minds (Wednesdays at 9 pm/ET), Mandy Patinkin plays FBI profiler Jason Gideon. We talked to the actor-singer about the series, his role, his health and his blessings.
TVGuide.com: So who's Jason Gideon? He has to get inside the minds of truly vile and evil perps, and he's — shall we say — intense.
Mandy Patinkin: He's somebody who has a dark past, has made mistakes through impulsive behavior and doesn't intend to go [there] again. He's about eliminating suffering, saving lives and sacrificing his own, if need be, because he takes this very seriously.
TVGuide.com: Jason once had posttraumatic stress disorder. What happened?
Patinkin: There was an incident in Boston where he moved impulsively and it cost six agents' lives. He had a meltdown, then he went to teach at Quantico, because he's an expert in behavioral analysis. They need him no matter what his troubles may be.
TVGuide.com: Is he psychic?
Patinkin: He does have an ability to hear things that other people don't. He seems to think in a different pattern, catches things that other people don't. He sees more like a child.
TVGuide.com: You went to the real FBI Behavior Analysis Unit. What do the real profilers look like? Are they "otherworldly"?
Patinkin: There are only 26 profilers and they're across the board, from coat-and-tie Efrem Zimbalist types to people who you would never pick out in a crowd. They look like Average Joe America and they live in the shadows. They are highly intelligent with very unusual minds. I tell people the show is like Mission: Impossible for the mind.
TVGuide.com: How does Criminal Minds differ from other crime procedurals?
Patinkin: It is a very high-energy, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat, old-fashioned thriller kind of storytelling. That differs from a good deal of other crime shows out there because most of them are about solving crimes after the fact. This is about crimes before the fact and during the fact and hopefully eliminating the fact before it's too late, before the arsonist or the serial killer or the rapist or the terrorist strikes again.
TVGuide.com: What do you hope viewers will learn from the show?
Patinkin: It is an escape first and foremost, but like the CSI shows taught people about the value of DNA, in our show, whether it's arsonists or serial killers, it may help people be more aware in the same way that the London bombings did. Immediately, attention is heightened toward people with bags, shopping bags, backpacks and nervous behavior. Everybody's radar goes up 2,000 points. One of the profilers we work with said his hope is that we will let people in law enforcement know that the minute someone is abducted, they should call the BAU unit. Many police departments don't even know about the unit.
TVGuide.com: Are a lot of your cases ripped from the headlines? Or from the BAU files?
Patinkin: It's a combination of cases from the headlines, from history and from the imagination.
TVGuide.com: The show has been criticized for being too sensationalist, gory and violent. Is it?
Patinkin: Most of those comments were based on the pilot, and they were fair criticisms, but that was a sketch of what the series would become. I'm always advocating that the terror be more psychological. The show is really about ending suffering and saving lives.
TVGuide.com: Will we learn more about Gideon's personal life?
Patinkin: Initially, we'll be mainly in the office and very little at home. On television, it's always an onion peel, and the slower that onion gets peeled, the longer the life we'll all have. But I've heard that I'll have a son. And it would be nice to find out what those two wedding bands I wear in every scene mean! They're mine in real life, but on the show I could be widowed, married or divorced and still in love — I don't know yet. I need these elements to be integrated into the show, or there's no personal stake for the audience. I want to know more about the criminals we're profiling and more about the regular characters. Why did they choose this work? Do they ever get home to find their relationships are in jeopardy because of this work? I've had lengthy discussions with my friend from the FBI and I asked, "How do you deal with this?" because I'm only in the pretend world and it's already affecting me.
TVGuide.com Do you consider Criminal Minds an ensemble piece, or is it more of a star vehicle for Mandy Patinkin?
Patinkin: It's very much an ensemble; I don't think it would survive if it weren't. Each character is being developed to his or her fullest potential. I am unfortunately the oldest person there [Laughs], but it is not "The Mandy Patinkin Show" by any means. I'm just a part of a wonderful group. And that's indeed why I wanted to come back to do another series — because when I do my concerts, as much as I love it, it's just my piano player, Paul Ford, and myself, and there's nothing I love more than that — but I do miss being part of a group, an ensemble of actors either in a play, television or a movie. These actors are just extraordinary people. We truly, truly enjoy each other's company. There were times when we didn't get much done because there was so much laughter — and here we are doing a story about a serial killer! The black humor that goes out on the set — and it's quite irreverent behind the camera — is hilarious and we have a great deal of fun.
TVGuide.com: It's a reunion for you and Thomas Gibson.
Patinkin: Tom and I were together on Chicago Hope, so we're old friends. Shemar Moore is just so wonderful. I'm a biker and in May, my son Isaac and I rode 300 miles for the environment and peace in Israel. Shemar is a major bike rider so he's going to take me everywhere. He'll keep me from getting old. I can't wait to introduce him to my sons Isaac and Gideon. We have all kinds of plans. And in between we'll try to shoot a little bit of the television series.
TVGuide.com: Your son is named Gideon, like your character. Was that your idea?
Patinkin: No. When they had to change my original name for legal reasons, they thought I would like that it was my younger son's name. I asked both my sons if they minded, and they didn't....
TVGuide.com: That bike ride had to be a major triumph because you had prostate cancer recently. And a few years back you almost went blind from a degenerative eye disease.
Patinkin: Medicine's been great to me. Every man over 50 should have his PSA level checked. That's how my cancer was discovered. I was very blessed that I was cured because of early detection. I had the operation on May 14, 2004, and exactly one year later, I did that 300-mile bike ride.
TVGuide.com: You sang on Chicago Hope. How about on Criminal Minds?
Patinkin: Anything can happen, but we don't want to jump the shark. I did improvise a little song in one episode, but it's probably on the cutting-room floor. I think my favorite moment happened the other day when Tom, Shemar and I were between scenes. I began to sing "Oklahoma," and Shemar, who grew up in the world of rap, said, "You don't really do that onstage in front of people, do you?" [Laughs] My biggest dream is to get him to a concert and get him onstage, so the audience can watch his shock.
TVGuide.com: You're such a Broadway baby. Was it hard to leave New York to do Criminal Minds in L.A.?
Patinkin: My last two years were spent in Vancouver doing Dead Like Me for Showtime. I love Canadians and I love Vancouver, but I was very isolated and lonely there. I actually said that I would only do this show if it were done in L.A. or New York. I have dear friends and family here in L.A. and it makes all the difference when you have family around. My kids are grown and out of the house living their lives, and my wife [actress Kathryn Grody] is with me in L.A.
TVGuide.com: Have things ever been better for you?
Patinkin: The greatest gift in my life was getting cancer because it taught me how much I love my life, my family, my friends and my work, and it taught me that I must find a way to find some peace and calm every day. I never could sit still long enough to meditate, but since my experience with cancer, I do it every day. I'm a little baby Zen Buddhist.