When actor Gary Sinise suddenly got an unexpected four-month hiatus recently from his hit CBS Television series “CSI: New York” courtesy of the Writer’s Guild strike from November 2007 to February 2008, it was easy for him to find something else to occupy his time.
For the multi-talented Renaissance man, who acts, directs, and produces (both onscreen and in the theater), plays the bass in a band, and is a serious philanthropist, knew just what he needed to do.
“I traveled and did concerts for the troops,” Sinise revealed in a phone conversation from the set of that popular show (www.cbs.com/primetime/csi_ny/). As the leader of the Lt. Dan Band (named after the character he played in the classic film “Forrest Gump”; www.thedanband.com ), Sinise has been giving back to America’s troops with concerts and visits to war-torn areas for the past few years. In fact, Sinise has actually been involved with veteran’s causes for decades, since well before he won an Academy Award nomination for his performance as that iconic Vietnam veteran in the 1994 movie.
“I was involved with veterans before ‘Forest Gump,’” he recalled, “with Vietnam Veterans out of the Chicago area. I got involved in some of the veteran groups there. I started a program at the Steppenwolf Theatre [the now venerable acting company he founded in Chicago with two friends; www.steppenwolf.org/] in 1982 where we began to bring in local veterans from the veteran’s hospitals and letting them watch the final dress rehearsals of our plays for free.
“They would be our test audience for the dress rehearsals. So it was an invited dress rehearsal where you brought these people in for free and you’d get to get the reaction from the crowd and it kind of warms you up for your previews and that started in ‘82. That is now a tradition at Steppenwolf and has been for over twenty-five years now. We have brought the veterans in for the final dress rehearsal for every single play that we have done.”
And that was just the beginning of Gary Sinise’s lifelong personal and spiritual connection with America’s veterans, despite the fact that he never served in the armed forces himself.
“I just got involved with Vietnam Veteran’s groups. I have Vietnam vets in my family,” he explained. “I helped to build a Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Lansing, Illinois. And then ‘Forest Gump’ came along and I was approached by the Disabled American Veterans, because I played a disabled veteran in the movie. They approached me and so I stayed involved with them and now I’m a national spokesperson for The American Veterans Disabled For Life Memorial (www.avdlm.org). We’re trying to build a memorial in Washington, D.C. to honor all of our disabled vets.”
And despite all the demands on his time over the years, from starring in numerous feature films (“Apollo 13,” “Ransom,” “The Green Mile”) and television movies (his Emmy Award-winning turns in “Truman” and “George Wallace” included), to acting and directing in acclaimed Broadway productions (“Buried Child,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), to being a husband and father of three now teenage children, Sinise has always found the time to keep giving of himself, especially after the fateful day of 9/11/2001.
“I think that 9/11 had a profound effect on me and woke me up in a way and motivated me to try to do something to give back as much as I can,” Sinise recollected. “I’ve been a blessed guy and have had a lot of opportunities that have been a positive because I live here in America. I just don’t want to take that for granted. So when we started deploying troops into the war zones, I wanted to do something to help them out. So I started getting very active with the USO and now I’ve probably done dozens and dozens of USO shows and trips over the years.”
He’s traveled and played extensively with the Lt. Dan Band for the troops, and has also personally visited Iraq on three different trips, and Afghanistan as well. It was on one of those visits that Sinise was emotionally affected by the plight of the Iraqi children, and decided to do something to help them.
“On one trip to Iraq, when I was in this one area they said, ‘We’ve got a convoy planned where we’re going to take you out and show you some of the schools that we’ve been working with.’ They took me out and the Iraqis were there to greet us. It was a big thing for us to pull in. The headmaster of the school came and greeted us and introduced us to the kids. I walked into one class and they’d been taught how to say ‘Lieutenant Dan’ and they all screamed ‘Lieutenant Dan!’ at me, all these kids, these Iraqi kids. The feeling between the troops and the kids that day was so positive and so warm that I just wanted to continue to support that feeling in some way. So I thought, ‘Maybe if I could provide the troops with something to give to the kids, it would help them.’”
His idea started small, and brought his own three kids into the humanitarian effort. “I thought, ‘I’ll go to my kid’s school and ask them to do a collection of school supplies and paper and even stuffed animals and things like that.’ So we boxed all this stuff up and shipped it over there.”
From that humble grassroots beginning has grown Operation Iraqi Children (www.operationiraqichildren.com), the charity he began in 2004 with “Seabiscuit” author Laura Hillenbrand and that is still going strong, with over 200,000 school supply kits and thousands of toys, shoes, and sports equipment sent overseas so far, for distribution by American troops to children in need, both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The actor, who recently received the Presidential Citizens Medal for his work with the military, is also the executive producer of the new documentary “Brothers at War,” a film by Jake Rademacher that chronicles his two brothers’ experiences in Iraq (http://brothersatwarmovie.com). Sinise has been using his celebrity to bring attention to the film, which is currently in limited release.
Sinise credits his success as the lead actor on “CSI: New York” in the past four years as an elemental part of his ability to give back to the causes and people he cares about.
“I like what the series offers me in terms of stability and security that being on a hit show gives me. I’m committed to it and I know that I’m going to have a certain amount of time off and I can schedule my life around that,” he explained. “It’s kind of the luxury of having a series, you can schedule your life around it. I have a family life and I like to spend time with the kids and do things with them during the hiatus,” he said.”
“At this point in my life having ‘CSI: New York’ is kind of the perfect thing for me because I have so many interests in so many different types of things. There was a time where all I wanted to do was act and direct and perform,” the 53-year-old actor continued. “Now I’ve got other interests and I’ve met a lot of really cool people over the years, who are involved with great humanitarian work and different charities and different things and I’ve got my particular charities and things that I support. So I’m just trying to make a difference.”
So far, it seems Gary Sinise has done just that. As for what the future holds for this gifted Renaissance man? He’s got that in perspective, too.
“It’s a gift to be working on ‘CSI: New York,’ and I’m not going to complain about playing the same character over a long period of time. I know that this job isn’t going to last forever. There will be a time when it comes to an end, and I’ll go on to do something else. While it’s here I enjoy it and I enjoy the people that I work with and I enjoy the security of knowing that I don’t have to think about looking for an acting job right now. We’re still going strong, so who knows how long it’ll last? After that, who knows? Right now I’m going with the flow and enjoying the luxury as an actor of not having to worry about my next job.”