Citizen, Husband, Father, American – Actor Gary Sinise
Finally, after weeks of practice and preparation, the golden hour has arrived for both cast members and playhouse enthusiasts. The stage is lit by one lone ceiling lamp, dangling from a frayed, seemingly infinite wire falling from the darkness above them, and moving ever so slightly back and forth. Its soft radiance casts a circular, warm glow towards the front row of the theatre as the actor’s movements onstage remain shadowed and restless. The side-by-side, crushed red-velvet chairs anchored onto the floor offer a little less padding than desired. A late-arriving ticket holder bumps and shoves their way through a cramped third aisle, searching for their seat assignment which, according to a reluctant usher, is somewhere in the middle of the sea of red velvet.
It’s the summer of 1974, in Highland Park, Illinois, slightly north from the city of Chicago. The air inside the room is electrically charged by both the audience’s anticipation and the actor’s endurance to remain in character as Act 1 continues. There’s a skill to giving a live performance that bends the mind into a created reality. It’s hearing the echo of shoes walking against the wooden floor of the stage, the readying breath as an actor begins to speak the pre-written lines of enticing dialog, and the audience falling in love with the story unveiled before them.
Nearly every actor can tell you, there’s nothing like opening night at the theatre; and even though these participants are young in age, they are on a fast-colliding encounter with destiny. Tonight, this tiny theatre group will rise up to a new challenge; a performance that will carry at least one actor on to unparalleled levels of success.
After opening their first play in the basement of a local church, high school pals, Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry and Terry Kinny, formally opened their newly-named Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The trio, plus several more added-on friends as they progressed, wanted their own place in which to hone their craft – acting.
“We just wanted to act in plays,” says Sinise. “None of us wanted to go off to New York or Hollywood. What do you do when you get out of college as an actor?”
Today, Steppenwolf Theatre has grown into a superstar powerhouse of actors and actresses who have since stepped through its door; with the likes of John Malkovich, Gary Cole, Frank Galati, Joan Allen, Tom Irwin, Ora Jones, John Mahoney, Laurie Metcalf, William Peterson (from the original CSI), and Martha Plimpton. These are just an example of the mega-talent the theatre has embraced.
As for Sinise, his star certainly grew by dedicating himself to his adolescent obsession – that of being an actor. He carries a suitcase full of memorable performances with award winning movies and TV series such as “The Stand,” “George Wallace,” “Truman,” “Apollo 13,” “The Green Mile,” “CSI: Miami,” and “CSI: NY.” He has narrated or played himself in several documentaries as well: “Mission: SPACE,” “Why We Left The Earth: THE NASA MISSIONS,” “Nothing Less Than Heroes, The Honor Flight Story,” “WWII in HD,” “On The Road In Iraq With Our Troops and Gary Sinise,” and, “Lt. Dan Band: For The Common Good.”
“I knew I loved acting, that’s for sure,” says Sinise. “I loved doing it in high school. I learned the sort of do-it-yourself attitude about things early on. I was the kind of person that, to get an idea, you just try it and do it.”
When they were in high school, Sinise and Perry co-directed a play together. At the time, they asked the high school if they could build a small theatre in the cafeteria to enhance their production.
“We made a little theatre in the round. We built a lighting system and got the high school electronics nerd to come up with the lighting board. We hung these lights we built out of coffee cans. Put flood lights inside the cans and built our own lighting system. We created a theatre in the cafeteria and a couple of years later, the high school turned it into a permanent theatre,” says Sinise.
By his own admission, in school Sinise was never awarded, “best of,” or “most valuable,” or “most likely to succeed.” However, he was very active in the theatre department. “There was a group of us who were doing all the plays together and we got a lot of attention.” Today, he has been either nominated or given nearly every award an actor can get.
Sinise’s great-grandfather and half of his family came from Italy to settled in Blue Island, a small town south of Chicago. The family stayed there until he was 9 years old when they moved to the northern suburbs where he has two favorite memories, “Christmas and playing baseball in the summer.” There is one other recollection that sticks out in his mind from living near the “Windy City.”
“Growing up in the Chicago area, I think it was 1967, we had this massive ice storm where everything just froze. It rained and the temperature dropped and everything was frozen. Trees were falling over on people’s houses. Everything was frozen. The whole city was shut down. That’s where I eventually started the theatre company,” laughs Sinise.
Although has played a lot of different characters over the years, whether in plays, movies or television; there’s one character that has really had an impact on him personally.
“Obviously Lt. Dan, (Forrest Gump), was a character that has lived with me because of my association with the military and disabled veterans. Lt. Dan was a disabled veteran and I realized early on when I started doing USO tours and visiting our troops that they recognize me from the movie. That’s why I wound up naming my band after the characters, because so many people recognize me from that.”
When he’s not filming for his current TV show, CSI-NY, or on a movie set, Sinise is doing something to support the military or wounded warriors. The Lt. Dan Band plays a military show to benefit service men and women each month somewhere in the world. In fact, it’s hard to keep up with all that he does in his support of the USO, of which he has been traveling with since 2004, entertaining over 240,000 troops and their families stationed all over the world. In 2011 alone, Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band put on 16 USO performances in 16 different countries. His passport boasts locations such as Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates, Germany and Italy, as well as Alaska and many military installations throughout the United States.
Being in the military community so much, he has been given some unique opportunities. Last year, a group of friends from Beale Air Force Base took him along for a ride on the “Dragon Lady.” It was something he will never forget, being on the U-2 spy plane, cruising at 70, 000 feet.
“It came up every once in a while and I could never coordinate its schedule; but I was able to coordinate a four-day period last June where I could go up to Beale Air Force Base and do the training [and] go on the flight. It was really a very very … just an experience that I’ll not soon forget. It was a very, very special experience.”
A video of the flight will soon be on his website at the Gary Sinise Foundation.org. for everyone to enjoy. “A fun little look at what that trip was like,” says Sinise.
The Gary Sinise Foundation gives a tremendous amount of support for, not only our military, but others as well. There is a lot of information, news and events on his website. You will also find a tour schedule for him and the Lt. Dan Band.
When asked how we could help him help others, he says, “I always encourage people to do all that you can in your own community. There are plenty of charities that you can donate to and certainly, we’ll take donations at the Gary Sinise Foundation, because we’re trying to do a lot of good things around the country for our veterans and military families, but I always encourage people to look within your own community. There are a lot of families that have had to endure long deployments, difficult deployments. They’re going through a lot; and just anything we can do to show our support and to let them know that, what they’re going through and what they’ve gone through, is not forgotten and not unappreciated. We want to try to do something to give back to them to help them through difficult times. A lot of these Marines come back from these long deployments having seen some pretty bad stuff. They’re going through a lot emotionally, physically, and families are going through a lot, so reach out and help them through these difficult times. That’s what I always encourage people to do.”
Gary Sinise had a special message for our Marines and sailors at Camp Lejeune Marine Base in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
“I can’t wait to come back to Camp Lejeune. I’m very much looking forward to coming back. I know our military… our Marines … have been very stretched. I very much want to return to Camp Lejeune to just support our Marines and our families there to make sure they know how much they are appreciated by me and how much I care about what they do and never take for granted what they do for our country.”
Gary Sinise has definitely come a long way from that basement theatre. He’s known around the world for, not only the unique characters he plays in movies and on television, but for his selfless dedication to the military, and goodwill towards others around the globe, regardless of their culture or heritage. There’s just no one that can do it all like Lt. Dan can.
When asked what he would like to be remembered for, his answer:
“Just being a citizen, a good husband, a good father, and a good American, I guess.”
He’s someone that seems happiest when helping others. Classy guy, this Gary Sinise.
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