WHAT: Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band
WHERE: EAA AirVenture, Oshkosh WI
WHEN, COST & INFO: 7 PM Friday, July 24
Actor/humanitarian/musician Gary Sinise has enjoyed a multifaceted career. He started out playing in bands as a teenager, but became totally captivated by theater after performing in a high school production of West Side Story. Sinise went on to co-found the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and still supports its activities. A prolific actor, he won an Emmy for his portrayal of George Wallace on television, a Golden Globe for Truman, in which he played Harry S. Truman and he was Detective Mac Taylor on CSI:NY. Sinise was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Lt. Dan Taylor in Forrest Gump.
It was this last character that eventually led to his great passion for working to support veterans and veterans’ service organizations for the past thirty years. After forming the Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band, Sinise and his band regularly hit the road to back these efforts, and he also makes solo appearances to help get the word out. His Gary Sinise Foundation was established in 2011 to raise funds and promote resources for servicemen and women. Sinise co-founded the Operation International Children program which ships school supply kits to troops serving in conflict areas overseas. Severely wounded veterans benefit from the Gary Sinise Foundation’s building of custom Smart Homes for them. He has earned numerous notable awards for his work, such as the Presidential Citizens Medal, The Ellis Island Medal of Honor, The Bob Hope Award for Excellence in Entertainment from the Medal of Honor Society, and the Spirit of the USO Award. His most recent award was the 2015 Service to America Leadership Award from the NAB Education Foundation (NABEF).
Gary Sinise called me from Los Angeles not long ago to update me on his activities, including the Lt. Dan Band’s upcoming performance at the 2015 EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh WI.
Jane Spietz: Hi Gary. You initially became hooked on acting in high school.
Gary Sinise: I was playing in bands from the time I was in, like, 6th grade and hung out with the band guys a lot. Living in Glen Ellyn Illinois, I went to a production of West Side Story in high school and really liked watching the play. We then moved to Highland Park. It turns out that high school was doing West Side Story. I was standing in the hallway with some of my band members when the drama teacher walked by. He said we should come audition for the play because we looked like gang members and could play them in the play. I thought that was funny and I had just seen it, so I thought I would go check it out. I was standing outside the audition watching all these pretty girls walking in, so I followed them. (Laughs) I ended up auditioning and got in the show. From that point on, all I wanted to do is act in plays and play in bands. When I graduated high school, I started a theater company called Steppenwolf which has been around now for over forty years. I’m one of the three founders of the company so I’m still involved with fundraising and some of the things going on there.
JS: Have you been involved in any acting projects lately?
GS: Ever since CSI:NY went off the air in February of 2013, I have just poured myself into my foundation and military support work. I’ve been doing that pretty much full time for the past two and a half years. So it’s been a little bit of time away from that, but I have a television series that I’m going to start shooting the end of July. It’s a spinoff of the “Criminal Minds” show on CBS. We’ll be spinning off a new series called “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders.” It explores the international division of the FBI.
JS: How was the Gary Sinise Foundation established?
GS: I had been working with several military charities, involved with veterans’ groups in the ‘90s working a little bit with the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) and in the ‘80s working with Vietnam veterans groups in the Chicago area. After September 11th, I just wanted to do something for our active duty service members who were deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq so I started volunteering for the USO and to support lots of different military charities that were popping up. I would just lend my services with the band or volunteer to help raise money or whatever I could do. After working with some of them for several years, it just became clear that the next step was for me to start my own veterans charity called the Gary Sinise Foundation. I’ve used what I’ve learned over the years in supporting men and women to try to bring some resources to help benefit them and their families. Our men and women are going to be called upon for years to come. Therefore, I stepped up to try to do my part in helping to support them. They are our freedom providers. It’s a dangerous world and they do dangerous things so we should back them up.
JS: What’s your take on the level of support that is provided to today’s service members versus what was offered to veterans in the past?
GS: Let’s look in retrospect. I’m motivated because of the Viet Nam veterans that I know, and the ones that I have in my family. My veteran support work goes back to the ‘70s and early ‘80s with the recognition as a young man that our Viet Nam veterans had really gotten a bad deal coming home. So my motivation today – the seeds of that – were planted years ago by the Viet Nam veterans who educated me. If you look at what’s happening today, I’m certainly motivated to do whatever I can to ensure that our active duty service members today are treated much better than our Viet Nam veterans were when they came home from war, and that what happened to our Viet Nam veterans never happens again. That you volunteer for service or go off to serve your country, you get shot at, you see your buddies get killed or wounded, you struggle with long deployments away from home, serious things happen to you, then you come home and the country turns its back on you. That’s no good. We never want that to happen. That’s a big motivator for me, and I think that’s a big motivator for a lot of people. We recognize that that was a bad deal and that hopefully we learn some hard lessons from that period.
JS: The fact that there are more than 40,000 military charities out there kind of speaks pretty loudly to the fact that people do care about our service members.
GS: I don’t think it’s up to the government to do everything. First of all, because they can’t, and I think it’s up to us as citizens who benefit from the freedom that’s provided by these service members who deploy at dangerous places around the world. It’s up to us, in some ways, to ensure that the veterans in our own communities, neighborhoods, towns and cities are taken care of. We can all do that by just stepping up and saying I want to take some action, or donate to an organization that is taking action. One of the things that I can do as a celebrity, as a public figure, is shine a light on things. It all became clear that there was a useful way that my success in the movie and television business could be applied.
JS: Share the story about the formation of the Lt. Dan Band.
GS: I started doing USO tours after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started. I would go out and shake hands and take pictures. I had these band members that I played with for fun, and I finally talked the USO into letting me take the band members with me. I had been just shaking hands, and I wanted to entertain in some way. I remember the first tour I did overseas in Iraq. I was on a tour with Kid Rock, Lee Ann Womack and these other entertainers that were playing music. I immediately started talking to the USO. I said, “I have a band. I can go do this!” Because I’m an actor, they look at me like “Well, yeah sure, you’ve got a band.” But eventually, after five or six handshake tours, they let me take the band out on the road for the USO to play for the troops. That first year, after we went into Iraq, I went on six USO tours, like every month for six months. I was going “Send me to Iraq, send me to Europe, send me to Asia, wherever.” I just wanted to go be with the troops, visit our military, say thank you and pat ‘em on the back. Everywhere I was going on those handshake tours, they were calling me ‘Lt. Dan’ from Forrest Gump. So, when I started taking the musicians, I said let’s call it Gary Sinise & the Lt Dan Band. We play contemporary, classic, blues, pop, rock, country. I want a big variety in the show because we play for little kids on these bases as well as older veterans. We’ll even play ‘40s tunes if we’re doing the DAV convention, for example, and they’ve got some World War II veterans attending. We try to play a little something for everybody.
JS: What does it mean for you to be returning to perform at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh in July?
GS: What I love about AirVenture is they’re so veteran-friendly. There are so many veterans there. We are always part of the big veterans salute and tribute. It’s always a pleasure to be around so many veteran-friendly families and so many patriotic Americans. I really enjoy our doing it and I’m glad we’re coming back this year. I hope that a lot of people come out to see us again.