Gary Sinise's Next Act: Supporting Troops
by john briley
Gary Sinise has big plans for his life after his nine-year run as Mac Taylor, the star of CSI: NY, the television series that ended last February. But those plans do not involve an imminent acting gig. Instead, the celebrated actor will continue building on a record of service to wounded veterans that has earned him presidential recognition and stature far above the glittering circles of Hollywood.
Sinise is doing this, in large part, by leveraging the Lt. Dan character he played in the 1994 film Forrest Gump, a role that earned him an Oscar nomination and awakened him to the impact he could have on people who are often left to fend for themselves, even after putting their lives on the line to defend America.
“Three weeks after that movie opened, I was invited to visit some disabled veterans,” Sinise recalls from his Los Angeles home. “And some of them didn’t recognize me, or even know my real name. But when they realized that I had played Lt. Dan, they lit up and really opened up to me. They could relate to me because [my character] had been blown up, too.”
His desire to help vets dates to the early 1980s when he got involved with local Vietnam veterans in his native Chicago. “Both of my wife’s brothers had served in Vietnam,” he explains. He was still in his 20s when, as a founding member of the Steppenwolf Theater Company, he directed a play called Tracers, which was written by veterans. “I spent the three-week rehearsal and the five weeks prior to that work-shopping the screenplay by going to the VA and other war-related places, and I started to really connect [with military personnel].”
Shortly thereafter Sinise worked on a play titled Streamers, which was set in an army barracks near DC in 1965, and performed at the Kennedy Center in DC. “Those two plays got me focused on Vietnam vets and what they were going through.”
While some actors struggle to break free from an early-career hit character, Sinise embraced the double-amputee shrimp-boat captain identity and launched the Lt. Dan Band (with Sinise on bass), which performs 40 to 50 shows a year; Sinise pays the band but donates all proceeds to wounded veteran causes.
His work brings him to DC frequently, including for the annual National Memorial Day concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol, visits to military hospitals, and, this year, a 9/11 benefit concert at Ft. Belvoir.
“I love history and I love my country, and DC is a confluence of those passions,” he says. You probably won’t see him on the glitterati trail—he eschews ritzy restaurants and bars—but you might bump into Sinise and his family at one of the Smithsonian museums or the National Archives. “I go for those places you can only find in DC.”
Sinise’s other love, theater, was sparked at the age 19, when he and two friends founded Steppenwolf in a church basement in Highland Park, Illinois, in 1974. He had caught the acting bug while playing a role in a school production of West Side Story and decided then to make acting the centerpiece of his life.
“It was either acting or music for me, and I felt I had better technical skills for acting. To make it in music, you have to practice eight hours a day.”
Sinise also directed some Steppenwolf productions, including Sam Shepard’s True West—the company’s off-Broadway debut—in which he also starred. He was simultaneously launching a television and movie career, which featured director credits for the TV series Crime Story, and another directing-starring role combo in the 1992 feature film Of Mice and Men. This was followed quickly by a starring role in the miniseries The Stand and, shortly after, his Lt. Dan masterpiece.
His star continued to rise in Hollywood, but 9/11, he says, compelled him to dedicate more of his time to first responders and veterans. He recalls spending time with one man, John Vigiano, who had lost both of his sons in the attacks. “He took me to the fire station where they had worked—that station lost six of 12 firefighters that day—and I got very close to members of the FDNY.” Sinise helped to fund the Brooklyn Wall of Remembrance memorial, which includes engraved images of 346 firefighters, 64 other responders, and one K-9 police dog who died in service on 9/11.
It is no accident that Sinise’s character on CSI: NY is a family man whose wife perished in the 9/11 attacks. He worked closely with the show’s writers to create an episode at the beginning of season 8—titled “Indelible”—that bounces between New York in 2011 and the day the planes hit the towers. The episode features the Brooklyn Wall.
True to his direct Chicago style, Sinise does not shy away when asked about the government’s care for wounded vets. “If you compare it to 40 years ago, it’s better. But is it enough? No, never.” He points to the sheer numbers of disabled veterans and notes the “big suicide problem” that plagues the war vet community.
“It’s a good thing there are a lot of nonprofits [serving veterans]. Where the government can’t manage, citizens need to step forward,” he says. Sinise’s only problem is that he can’t seem to say no. In 2004 he and author Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit: An American Legend) founded Operation International Children, which until its closure this year supported US troops’ efforts to help Iraq’s war-ragged young people. His Gary Sinise Foundation also builds custom homes for the severely wounded; offers a full suite of support to veterans and their families struggling through trauma and loss; and hosts concerts and daylong festivals, some featuring celebrity-chef-cooked meals, for military personnel and their families.
Elaine Rogers, the president and CEO of USO Metro Washington and Baltimore, has been working with Sinise on his military hospital visits in and around DC for years. “I work with a lot of celebrities,” Rogers says, “and Gary is the real deal.”
She recounts “hours and hours” of military hospital visits, often arranged on short notice at Sinise’s request. “He will sit down not just with the veterans but with their families, girlfriends, and wives,” she reveals. And because Sinise has been to Iraq and Afghanistan—not just US bases in Korea and Germany—he brings a legitimacy to the interactions that some other celebrities lack.
Rogers recalls her phone ringing in March 2012 when Sinise was driving to visit Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. It was the police, calling from Gary’s cell phone. “He had been rear-ended and was fairly seriously injured,” says Rogers. “The officer said Gary’s first request was to call [me] and make sure the troops knew he wouldn’t be there on time. His top concern was that he might let them down.”
In December 2008 President George W. Bush awarded Sinise the Presidential Citizens Medal for his work with the USO and Operation International Children. The medal is second only to the Presidential Medal of Freedom and is bestowed on citizens who have “performed exemplary deeds of service outside their regular jobs.”
For Sinise, serving veterans and their communities has become a very regular part of an extraordinary life. Perhaps it’s most fitting, then, that he chooses to blur the lines further in closing this interview. “Lt. Dan, the movie character, is a great message for these guys,” Sinise says. “In the end, his life doesn’t crumble. He moves on, despite everything that has happened to him.”
Photography by robert ascroft; by gary sinise foundation (Fort hood); getty images (benefit); Sittings editor: Joan Allen; Styling by Stacey Kalchman; Grooming by Benjamin Robin
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.