By Jenny Peters
Gary Sinise Performs his Third Act
For award-winning actor Gary Sinise, Hollywood success was only his life’s second act, following decades of struggle as a teenage delinquent, garage band rocker, and stage actor. It was his breakout role as wounded Vietnam soldier Lieutenant Dan Taylor in the 1994 hit Forrest Gump that made him a national name, confirmed by an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. After that, his career skyrocketed, with Emmy, SAG, and Golden Globe wins to follow for roles in film, television, and theater, like Mac Taylor on CSI: NY, Jack Garrett on Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, and Ken Mattingly in Apollo 13.
That time of coming of age, his years in Hollywood, and much more are chronicled in Sinise’s new autobiography, Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service, published in February 2019 and a New York Times bestseller. Co-written with Marcus Brotherton over the course of a year, the book covers his life from conception to today, with much of the emphasis on his very personal shift in focus that began with his role as Lieutenant Dan and intensified in the aftermath of 9/11, leading to his life’s third act — supporting the men and women of the armed forces.
“As I worked on the book,” Sinise recounts, “I realized the autobiography aspect of the book was really documenting how the movie business, how the theater business, how the acting career focus started to evolve into something different later on. That was post-September 11, after I’d achieved a certain amount of success and wanted to push into a more service-oriented focus in my life. That’s why the subtitle of the book is ‘A Journey from Self to Service.’”
As with so many Americans, the attacks of that horrible day left a significant impact on Sinise. “September 11 was a big turning point in my life,” he recalls. “I called the chapter in the book, when I talk about that event and what happened afterwards, ‘Turning Point,’ because it really was a moment where something shifted completely in what I wanted to do and what I wanted to focus on. Having veterans in my family, both my side of the family and my wife’s side, and having met such extraordinary people serving our country, I just knew after September 11 that there was a place for me in helping to support these folks.”
For years prior to that American tragedy, Sinise was already moving toward the place he is today, at the epicenter of wide-range of initiatives designed to support and honor American servicemen and women. In his book, he recounts with striking intimacy his first significant experience speaking with a large group of disabled veterans at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago in 1994 during the huge wave of success following Forrest Gump: “It’s a sea of men and women, many with scars, prosthetics, burn marks, crutches, and wheelchairs,” he remembers, “and all wearing the unmistakable look of pride. They’re clapping, cheering wildly, whooping, calling my name. I am stunned. Humbled. The lump in my throat won’t go down. What have I ever done? Here are all these wounded and disabled veterans — men and women who have sacrificed so much — honoring me for merely playing a part in a movie.”
However, it was a single word on the inscription of the National Commander’s Award he received that night that truly stopped him cold. “Your superb performance brought awareness of the lifelong sacrifice of disabled veterans back into public consciousness in a remarkably positive way.” Back? Sinise marveled. That one word embodied the reality for him that honoring veterans hasn’t always been the norm in America, he realized, particularly for Vietnam and Korean War vets. “It’s here when I first begin to ask myself: How can I make a difference in restoring what’s been lost? How can I help make sure our veterans are never treated that way again?”
Ever since, the actor has been devoting even more time to supporting active-service troops and veterans: going on USO tours — during which he started the Lt. Dan Band with a group of Chicago friends and musicians — working with the Disabled American Veterans Charity organization and others, and, in 2011, establishing the Gary Sinise Foundation.
To achieve the foundation’s goals of “honoring our defenders, veterans, first responders, their families and those in need,” Sinise and his partners are working to create and support unique programs “designed to entertain, educate, inspire, strengthen and build communities.” As Sinise explains in Grateful American, the foundation uses a multi-pronged attack to address the issues of American veterans and first responders. These include programs like R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment), which builds “specially adapted smart homes for our most wounded heroes.” Fifty-Five mortgage-free homes have been built so far, and many other houses and vehicles have been modified to meet specific needs.
Another program, Relief + Resiliency, offers more support for military families — before, during, and after the battle — in a variety of ways, including several special events. This includes the Snowball Express program, for children of fallen soldiers and their surviving parent or guardian. “Snowball Express was started by a couple of veterans, a couple of guys that just wanted to do something for the children of our fallen heroes. They thought, ‘Well, let’s see if we can figure out a way to get a bunch of these kids to Disneyland.’ And so, in 2006, they rallied some support and they brought almost 800 kids there for four days,” Sinise remembers.
Sinise got involved in 2007 and soon brought the whole organization into his foundation as a program under its umbrella. “With my having a great relationship with Disney,” he remembers, “We were able to make a nice arrangement to take all the kids and families down to Disney World right before Christmas in 2018 — more than 1,700 of them — for four days. It’s a great way for these children who have lost a parent to meet each other. We give them a lot of joy and a lot of love and a lot of fun,” he says. “They do a lot of healing, because they’re meeting a lot of other kids that are going through the same thing.”
Other events hosted and organized by the foundation include the Invincible Spirit Festivals, which welcomes wounded servicemen and -women and their families. It’s here that Sinise finds yet more motivation for his cause. “I would see very, very badly wounded folks, but yet they were pushing forward in their lives, trying to do great things, not letting their injuries get them down, and that would always be inspirational to me.” At Concerts for Defenders, led by the 13-piece Lt. Dan Band and held in different locations around the country, the bass-playing Sinise brings both cheers and tribute to those who serve to protect our freedom, security, and well-being.
Perhaps the best evidence of the foundation’s success is its ever growing size. Sinise began the work with one collaborator and his own personal investment of time and money; today, the foundation boasts 26 ambassadors, has over 50,000 donors and is a $30M organization. “The foundation has grown relatively rapidly because of our successes, Sinise reflects. “The donors see the work on building specialty designed homes for our wounded and all the different programs that we’re involved in. They’ve seen the people. They’ve gotten to know the people that we’re helping. Now we’re able to impact a lot more people.”
It’s quite the accomplishment for a self-proclaimed ne’er-do-well from Chicago, when reflecting on his troubled youth. “Every report card I brought home stunk,” he recalls in Grateful American. “At school I had trouble paying attention. I was always daydreaming, looking out the window, but somehow, I kept passing each grade with something like a straight D average.” His teenage years only seemed to get worse at first, as Sinise began huffing spot remover from rags to catch a buzz and once even stole the car of a friend’s dad. “For a couple of years, I went crazy,” he remembers.
It was in acting that he found salvation. Initially attracted to audition by a steady stream of pretty girls, he unexpectedly scored a role in the 1971 Highland Park High School performance of West Side Story, as a member of the Sharks. The applause the cast received at the curtain call brought him to tears and changed his life. “I suddenly realized I’d fallen in love with this new community of students. With this new life of theater. My life of purpose had begun.”
Just a few years later, in 1974, this new purpose turned into what would become one of Chicago’s leading institutions of art — the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Founded by Sinise and two friends — Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry — in a Unitarian church in Deerfield, the company has gained international fame, helping to launch the careers of actors like John Malkovich, Joan Allen, and Laurie Metcalf, among many others. Steppenwolf is continuing to grow, they broke ground in March 2019 on a new $54 million education center and a 400-seat theater-in-the-round in the Halsted Street corridor in Lincoln Park, with a goal of opening in 2021.
Fans of Gary Sinise the actor will be comforted to hear that this compelling third act of his life, filled with giving back and devoted to service to others, doesn’t preclude his continuing with his chosen profession, and the 64-year-old thespian has no plans to stop acting. He was in a supporting role in the 2019 film SGT. Will Gardner, about Iraq War veteran Will Gardner who returns home suffering from a traumatic brain injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) sustained in combat.
And there’s more on the horizon for this consummate performer. “In fact, I’ve got a couple of things I may be doing this year,” Sinise says, “just smaller things with friends of mine who want me to be involved in their projects. And something may very well come along — like another television series or something like that — that’ll be of interest.” It just takes the right fit. “There’s a great chapter in my book called ‘Perfect Timing.’ It was about CSI New York and how the timing of getting that television series and the nine years that it lasted was perfect because it just fit my life and what I wanted to do at that point.” As for the future, Sinise considers, “I can play great-grandfathers, as long as I can keep going and remember my lines.”
Right now, Sinise is happy to take the time to do some other types of things that have become very important to him, especially being with his family — Moira, his wife of 40 years, their three children, and two granddaughters. As he candidly reveals in Grateful American, his home life hasn’t always been picture perfect, but these days their challenges are more physical than emotional.
“My dad had a stroke a couple of years ago, and he has special needs, so I’m trying to be home more, to help the family out here,” Sinise reveals. He too, had a scary brush with death in 2012, while in Washington, D.C. to do a charity concert with his band, as a car rear-ended the vehicle he was traveling in. “I woke up in the emergency room. I never saw it coming. I had a fracture in my neck and a concussion. Thankfully, I woke up. It could have all been gone, and I wouldn’t have known the difference.”
Fully recovered today, Gary Sinise certainly values his health and the blessings life has bestowed on him, from the great professional success in his life to the little things, be it the strawberry shortcake at Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse or a game at Wrigley Field. He hopes to keep paying it forward to others for as long as he can. “The blessing here is that I have had some success, and that I can take that success and do something positive for other people. At the back of my book, you’ll see a call to action. I decided to list a number of these organizations and efforts that I’ve been involved with in the years prior to the creation of my foundation, because they were important catalysts to me.
Anything I can do to shine a spotlight on their work, help them raise more money, help raise more awareness for them, I want to do.”