Life profoundly changed for Gary Sinise after his Oscar-nominated role in Forrest Gump as the Vietnam vet and double-amputee Lieutenant Dan—a character at first supremely bitter who ultimately finds the courage to come to terms with his disability and even thrive. Wounded vets everywhere responded, and Sinise found himself at the center of a vital cause—to bring attention, appreciation, and help to America’s sometimes-forgotten heroes, the real-life disabled military men and women.
To this day, the busy actor spends countless hours visiting hospitals and meeting severely injured vets. To entertain troops and raise funds to assist the wounded, he tapped his own musical roots to form the Lt. Dan Band, which drives crowds wild. He also formed the Gary Sinise Foundation to organize future veterans programs.
Through all this, Sinise has continued his acting career, playing a range of historical figures from Harry Truman to George Wallace. And he just completed a nine-season stint as Detective Mac Taylor in the recently cancelled CSI: NY series on CBS.
Question: Playing Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump really changed your life didn’t it?
Gary Sinise: Prior to doing the movie, I had been involved with Vietnam veterans groups, so I wanted to play that part very badly. But afterwards, vets reached out to me, and it just snowballed.
Q: To this day, you seem as committed to veterans issues as to your acting career.
GS: It’s not a side thing that I do. I’ve been all over the world to talk to veterans and active duty service members and visit hospitals and raise money to help our wounded soldiers. I’ve seen some very sad things—the injuries that our men and women have suffered. And the grieving families that have lost a loved one.
Q: Any personal memories of the wounded heroes you’ve met that stay with you?
GS: There are many. I remember a horribly injured marine in intensive care. His wife asked me if I would go and see him. He had lost three of his limbs and most of his other hand. He was burned over 90 percent of his body, and he had suffered a very severe brain injury. She said, “He’s probably not going to know you’re there, but could you do it anyway?” I could see his eyes flickering as I was talking to him. I don’t know if he knew what I was saying, but I was just letting him know that I was there and that I supported him. It was very challenging because he was one of the most severely wounded that I’ve seen—and I’ve seen a lot of very, very badly injured vets. I never forgot him. Later, I called up his wife, and she told me they were moving from place to place, convalescing. I said, “We can build you a house.” That project will be completed this fall, and they’ll be able to move in. His wife is going to have to care for him for the rest of his life, and she’s so heroic and so incredible.
Q: That’s just one of many, what you call “smart homes,” that your foundation is building for disabled vets.
GS: Yes, each one is designed specifically for the particular needs of the individual. You might have a warrior who’s going to be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, but maybe he’s got his arms so he can get around and push buttons and do different things. His needs might be different than somebody who’s totally dependent on the caregiver. We figure out the best way to make life easier with things like kitchens that can be operated with a smartphone and cabinets that drop down to wheelchair height at the push of a button.
Q: No one would have guessed how your life turned out. It’s not a secret that you weren’t exactly a role model as a teen.
GS: No, I was just goofing off. I was a kid absorbed with my own particular interests—playing in bands or looking at girls or whatever, and really not thinking much beyond my small world. I knew the Vietnam War was a bad thing. I saw the news on TV, the body bags coming home. I never thought about the young guys who were wounded until I got to know some veterans. It made me realize there’s a lot more to life than your little piece of it.
Q: When did you figure out that you could act?
GS: It was sort of an accident. I was asked to audition for a play by the high school drama teacher because she was going to do West Side Story and she needed guys that looked like gang members. I wasn’t sure about it, but I saw all the pretty girls going in there to audition and so I sort of just followed them. Thankfully, I had a natural ability to get on stage and goof off and ham it up so I was able to find something that I was pretty good at.
Q: A lot of parents have doubts about their kids becoming actors. How did your mom and dad react?
GS: When I started performing in plays they were thrilled because I wasn’t going to get kicked out of high school. They were worried because I was not a good student. I just could not sit down and study. But my dad was terrible in school too, so what could he say? Actually, they’ve always been very supportive. I went on to help start the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago while I was working as a gardener, a shipping clerk, doing all kinds of things.
Q: After you became successful, did your parents brag about their son the movie star?
GS: Oh good lord, yes. I still get requests from them for autographed pictures. They live in a small town, and you know that kind of stuff gets them points. My 89-year-old World War II vet uncle recently asked, “Can you send me a picture for Estelle? She works over at the library.”