- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Gary Sinise began providing free performances and dinners for Vietnam veterans — what he called “vets nights” — in the late 1970s, long before he was a household name thanks to his Oscar-nominated portrayal of the man who loses his legs in the jungles of Vietnam.

Even before he portrayed Lt. Dan Taylor, the Vietnam commander saved by Forrest Gump from certain death in the 1994 best picture winner, the Chicago native and co-founder of the iconic Steppenwolf Theater knew he had to do something to give back to America’s heroes.

“I have lots of veterans on my side of the family and on my wife’s side of the family,” Mr. Sinise told The Washington Times.

Despite a storied theater resume in Chicago and on Broadway, to say nothing of a Hollywood career encompassing 50 film and television credits, Mr. Sinise is proud that his greatest role is away from the cameras — shining a light on those who fight to keep America safe.

“I spend all my time these days working with veterans,” Mr. Sinise said.

From the ashes

After 9/11, Mr. Sinise felt a calling to support the armed forces greater than ever before. He founded the Gary Sinise Foundation, which proclaims on its website, “While we can never do enough to show gratitude to our nation’s defenders, we can always do a little more.”

“I started doing USO tours right after Sept. 11 as an actor, and I would go out there and would shake hands and take pictures,” Mr. Sinise said.

With a few Chicago-area friends, Mr. Sinise even formed the Lt. Dan Band, whose initial mission was to travel the world to USO shows to entertain troops like a modern-day Bob Hope revue program.

“I just really wanted to entertain and do something,” Mr. Sinise said. “I talked the USO into letting me take the musicians with me on the tour, and that began a very, very serious effort to entertain wherever I could.”

He estimates that he has performed in over 150 USO shows at military hospitals and bases around the world. His schedule to do so opened up significantly when the TV show “CSI: New York,” on which Mr. Sinise starred, went off the air in February 2013.

Now all of his efforts, he said, in one way or another, are for the veterans.

Through Sunday, Mr. Sinise is lending his time to the ninth annual GI Film Festival at the Angelika Film Center & Cafe at Mosaic in Fairfax, Virginia. He has been a patron of the event since its founding in 2007.

“I’m just a big, big supporter and a big fan of [festival co-founders] Laura [Law-Millett] and Brandon [Millett] and what they’ve done,” he said.

The Milletts started the festival specifically to screen films that cast active-duty service members and veterans in a positive light. “Everything over the years has evolved in such a positive way, and I’m just a big fan of theirs and a big supporter and love what they do,” Mr. Sinise said.

In the wings

Mr. Sinise knew from a young age that the stage was where he belonged. As a teen growing up in the Chicago suburbs, he was especially affected by a rendition of John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel “Of Mice and Men.”

“I didn’t know anything about Steinbeck, knew nothing about the story,” he said, “and was just completely choked up and sobbing at the end of it. I just starting acting, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do; I want to be onstage and move people like that.’”

In 1980, Mr. Sinise and fellow Steppenwolf actor John Malkovich starred in the Terry Kinney-directed stage version of “Of Mice and Men,” with Mr. Sinise as George and Mr. Malkovich as his tragically dim-witted companion, Lenny.

Steinbeck’s work continued to haunt Mr. Sinise’s proscenium career. In 1990, he was Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath” on Broadway — in a production blessed by no less than Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine.

“I was just standing backstage with her, and we became very good friends,” Mr. Sinise recalled. “The run was about to end, and I knew I was going to go back to California and just hit the ground again trying to pick up work.”

Recalling the impression that the summer stock production made on him at age 16 — and mindful that a working actor must think about his next meal ticket — Mr. Sinise asked for and received from Steinbeck’s widow the rights to a film of “Of Mice and Men.”

Mr. Sinise returned to Los Angeles and quickly set up the production with himself as producer, director and star — with Mr. Malkovich reprising his Lenny to Mr. Sinise’s George. Horton Foote wrote the screenplay, and Mark Isham penned the tender musical score. The film played at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival to a standing ovation and was a critical success when released in theaters later that year.

For Mr. Sinise, his professional acting career already had come full circle. But two years later, a supporting role in a whimsical drama about a mentally challenged but well-meaning Alabama gardener, played by Tom Hanks, would change his professional life and forever cement his focus on the cause of veterans.

Life is like…

For his role as Lt. Dan Taylor, the career soldier who spends years recovering his soul from an internal pit of darkness, Mr. Sinise met with Vietnam veterans to get a sense of the physical and mental toll that combat takes.

“[Playing] a Vietnam veteran in ‘Forrest Gump’ got me involved with the Disabled American Veterans organization and working with our wounded and supporting them,” Mr. Sinise said. “And that’s led to the creation of the Gary Sinise Foundation [and] support[ing] the GI Film Festival each year.”

For the initial GI Film Festival in 2007, Mr. Sinise was invited to attend a screening of “Forrest Gump.” He discovered that festival co-founders Laura Law-Millett and Brandon Millett had the same commitment as he did to serving active-duty service members and military veterans.

“They were right in line with a lot of the work I was doing, and I felt honored to be asked,” Mr. Sinise said. “I’ve been so impressed with what they’ve done and how they’ve built it over the years, having watched it from the beginning.”

Mr. Sinise has attended nearly every year since the festival’s inception.

“I was always looking for ways to highlight the positive things that our military and veterans community was doing,” he said, “and when the festival began, it was in the midst of a time where there were films coming out of the entertainment industry that were kind of portraying the military in not such a good way. I think that was one of the catalysts for Brandon and Laura to address that issue and kind of highlight films that were celebrating our defenders and some of the things they’ve had to do.”

Additionally, his Lt. Dan Band performs at military hospitals and USO shows, bringing homegrown rock ‘n’ roll to Americans serving around the world and raising money for various military charities with every set list.

“It’s a tight group; the music is great,” he said. “The whole point is to give people a lot of fun, lift their spirits. So it’s a great joy to be out there on the stage seeing everybody have a good time.”

Laurels aren’t for resting upon

Despite his extensive credentials, his Oscar nomination for “Forrest Gump” and an Emmy win for portraying segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace — who eerily died the night Mr. Sinise accepted his award — Mr. Sinise is not one to relax on his heap of accolades.

After his commitment to the GI Film Festival, Mr. Sinise’s busy schedule takes him to New York for a fundraiser alongside Bill O’Reilly. He will return to Washington this weekend to co-host the annual National Memorial Day Concert on the Capitol lawn alongside fellow thespian Joe Mantegna. Then it’s off to Korea with his band for five scheduled concerts.

“It’s a busy time,” the actor noted in a heavy understatement, adding that he has every intention to return for the 2016 GI Film Festival.

Ever-gracious, Mr. Sinise said he doesn’t mind when fans wish to run lines from “Forrest Gump” with him.

“It’s always amusing,” he said of obliging the impromptu line-readings with those who approach him on the street. “You know, it’s just one of those movies that kind of just lives on, and new generations of kids have seen that film. So I don’t mind.”

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

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