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The Hunchback From Hope

March 16, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few years ago, Disney approached Mandy Patinkin to be the voice of Victor Hugo's haunted, deformed bell ringer Quasimodo in its animated musical version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

"I looked at my wife and said, 'Wow! When am I ever going to get to play Quasimodo? So it's a cartoon, at least I can play it.' So they sent me a song and I worked on it the way I work on songs."

Anyone who has seen Patinkin in concert knows he just doesn't "sing" songs in the traditional Broadway style that Disney animated musicals emulate. For Patinkin, each tune is an emotional, intense, dramatic and personal experience--so much so that his critics often label his approach excessive and over the top.

"I wanted to play [Quasimodo] for real," says Patinkin, who won a Tony for "Evita" and an Emmy for CBS' "Chicago Hope." But the producers wanted something different.

"They had their own Disney needs," he explains. "I just right there at the audition said, 'I can't do this.' "

Cut to last year. Patinkin, 44, had recently left his role as the high-strung Dr. Jeffrey Geiger on "Chicago Hope" to spend more time with his wife, actress Kathryn Grody, and their sons, Isaac and Gideon. The New York-based actor finally had the time to meet with TNT, which had been pursuing him for several projects.

One script he was presented was "The Hunchback," the cable network's version of Hugo's tale of love and redemption.

"[The executive] said, "Do you want to play it?' " Patinkin recalls. "I said, 'Which part?' She said, 'Quasimodo.' I said, 'You really don't have to pay me.' My agent was sitting next to her and said, 'I would sort of like you to pay him.' That's how it happened."

Shot in Budapest, Prague and Roene, France, "Hunchback" also stars Richard Harris as the Nosferatu-looking Dom Frollo, the tortured priest who rescued baby Quasimodo from the steps of Notre Dame. Frollo's lust over gypsy beauty Esmeralda (Salma Hayek) leads him to commit a murder for which she is charged. Quasimodo, who is also taken with her, rescues Esmeralda from execution and gives her sanctuary and teaches her about love and truth.

When Patinkin and director Peter Medak ("The Ruling Class") met before production began, the first thing they did was watch the classic 1939 film version of "Hunchback," with Charles Laughton as Quasimodo.

"Laughton is my favorite actor," the personable Patinkin said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. Relaxing in his suite at a Beverly Hills hotel, the actor was dressed in his customary concert garb--black T-shirt, slacks and gray tennis shoes.

After watching Laughton's rendition, Patinkin recalls, he looked at Medak and said, "It doesn't get any better than that. Everyone will ask, 'If it's not broken, why fix it?' "

But then Patinkin is used to doing classic material in his concert act. "Why do classics?" he asks. "It's like when I sing these songs over and over again. I think the reason is something becomes classical is because it has ideas--ideas of hopefulness people want to hear over and over again."

Patinkin feels Laughton "wrote" the TNT version, not Victor Hugo or adaptor John Fasano. "I saw all the other versions," he says. "Lon Chaney was very monster-like, which was very much what Hugo wrote. But I felt Laughton brought it to a human-heart level, which is like nothing I have ever seen before, and I could never get it out of my mind. I knew that would be in me."

Patinkin endured three hours of makeup each day and six hours more for the whipping scenes in which his upper torso is exposed. And he spent weeks working with a kinesiologist to get his body, especially his lower legs, in shape to maintain Quasimodo's hunched, twisted stance over the two-month shoot.

"We watched the Chaney and Laughton version and then I moved around and showed [the kinesiologist] what I wanted to do," Patinkin recalls. "He said, 'Look, Mandy, that's fine, but you'll spend your life in a wheelchair if you don't approach this in a certain way.' "

Patinkin gets up off the sofa to demonstrate his exercises. "I trained all the time," he says, doing a knee lunge. Not only did he do deep knee lunges with 50 pound weights in his hands, he also did wall sitdowns holding the same weights.

When he wasn't filming, he was stretching his body. "It was unbelievable," he says. "I would have this one guy always with this electric fan near me because of the wear and tear on the makeup, and another person stretching me so I could move. It was intense."

But somehow he made it. He recalls that the last day of production was an exhaustive, 20-hour marathon. "We were shooting around the square that they built in Budapest. I walked in front of the cathedral, which was empty, and the sun was coming up. It was that beautiful, blue sky morning. I knew the last shot was just about to happen and I had made it."

Patinkin broke down and began weeping. "I was looking up, thanking whomever one thanks for allowing me to be this guy and letting me walk in his heart for a while. I was also crying because I survived."

"The Hunchback" airs Sunday at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. on TNT; it repeats Tuesday at 8 p.m., Friday at 5 p.m., Saturday at noon and other selected times during March.

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