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Gary Sinise went from being depressed about not getting work to being in two of the hottest shows of the year. He was an overnight sensation—if you can say that about an actor who had invested two decades working in theater, TV and film. Finally, it seemed he had made it. But that’s not the way Sinise saw it. Although the world took notice in 1994 of his back-to-back performances in the blockbuster miniseries The Stand and the box-office smash Forrest Gump, Sinise wasn’t betting his future on his newly minted star power. “I don’t know many people who go through one ascendancy the whole time. [Careers are] really made up of ups and downs,” he tells SUCCESS. Sinise already had worked extensively on stage and screen, earning a Tony nomination for acting and another for directing, and he had combined those talents in the critically acclaimed 1992 film Of Mice and Men. He was philosophical: “Careers, like rockets, don’t always take off on time. The trick is to always keep the engine running.” So, even after his Oscar-nominated performance in Forrest Gump, Sinise kept honing his craft and kept his priorities straight. He did not fall into that Hollywood trap that ensnares so many rising stars; he did not start believing his own press, and he did not take any of it for granted. Instead, he banked his earnings when he was working so he wouldn’t feel the desperation that drives an actor to take a role just to pay the bills. “I’ve never had to compromise myself for a job, ever,” he says. And he didn’t have trouble getting work either. In 1995 came the box-office hit Apollo 13 and the HBO film Truman, which garnered Sinise Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards and an Emmy nomination. In 1998, he won an Emmy for his performance in the title role in George Wallace. Keeping a level head about his work and success gave Sinise the freedom to devote time to other priorities. “When I think of work, it’s mostly about having control over your destiny as opposed to being at the mercy of what’s out there.” Now 56, he has settled into the starring role of crime scene investigator Mac Taylor on CSI: New York. Taking that role in 2004 provided an opportunity for more time with wife Moira Harris and their three kids. When the weekly TV drama isn’t in production, he works on feature films and other projects. He also focuses on helping veterans, active-duty service members and children in nations where they serve. And in 2008, Sinise earned the Presidential Citizen’s Medal, the second highest honor given to civilians, for humanitarian service helping Iraqi schoolchildren and his support for U.S. military veterans.
A Regular Guy
The patriotic, hard-working family man who is Gary Sinise today is a different person than the teen who attended a Vietnam War protest just to get out of class. Back then, Sinise was aimless. “I was raising hell, and my mom was trying to keep me controlled and focused; my dad [a film editor] was away a lot for work,” he says.
When he was a fourth-grader, Sinise’s parents bought him a guitar and shirt suitable for membership in the Beach Boys. “I wanted to be a Beach Boy and lip-synched their songs,” he says.
But when he discovered theater “sort of by accident” as a high school student in Highland Park, Ill., everything changed. “The wonderful drama teacher at my high school, Barbara Patterson, saw me standing in the hall and told me I should audition for West Side Story. I guess she thought I looked like a gang member,” says Sinise, chuckling during an interview with SUCCESS.
“Before discovering theater, I was sloughing off and didn’t have any passion for school. Then I couldn’t get enough. All of a sudden I was getting good parts in all of these plays. I just loved it. I started getting A’s in acting, directing and technical theater. I found something that clicked.”
Sinise’s parents happily cheered their son on and attended his plays. “My parents let us have cast parties at our house. The kids came to love my mom and dad, who were thrilled that I found something I liked. I have great, nurturing, loving parents.”
Even when Sinise declared his intention to forgo college, his parents’ support never wavered. “They were Midwestern working-class folks from the South Side of Chicago and didn’t attend college, either,” he says. “I wasn’t going to wait around for something to happen. I was going to make it happen. I had always been one to organize things—the baseball team and the rock band.”
Building Something Big
At 17, he landed his first professional role. A couple of years later, friends Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry joined Sinise in producing plays, the beginning of Steppenwolf Theatre Company. In 1975, they incorporated Steppenwolf as a not-for-profit organization. “I told my mom, ‘We’re going to build this thing, and it’s going to turn into something big.’ ”
Not surprisingly, the fledgling troupe faced challenges. “We first performed in the basement of a Catholic school in Highland Park,” rented for $1 a year—a far cry from the multimillion-dollar theater the company built and owns today. “Then one of the kids’ parents knew someone who had access to theater seats from McCormick Place, which had burned without damaging the seats. They gave us 88 seats, so we had actual theater seating three rows. I put a shoe box out in the lobby and wrote ‘donations’ on it, and we hoped people would throw in money. We didn’t charge for early shows. Then later we charged $3.”
Along with the highs and lows came important lessons: “You learn from things that don’t go well and you try to capitalize when they do. You build on those strengths and try to make your weaknesses stronger.
“When [Steppenwolf was] going on the national scene… we were flying by the seat of our pants. In those early days, there were times when we thought we couldn’t get over something: We were broke; nobody’s coming to the plays. We just kept plowing through it.”
Camaraderie fed their perseverance in building Steppenwolf to national prominence. “The fact that we had each other, a group of friends and this little stage we could call our own, gave us the courage and strength to keep going… until the critics would all of a sudden rave about us and we would pack the theater. When we overcame these challenges, it made us stronger and gave us more confidence.”
Channeling Empathy into Activism
His work with the theater company shaped Sinise personally as well as professionally. In 1981, he married fellow Steppenwolf actor Moira Harris. Her brothers were Vietnam veterans whose experiences got Sinise’s attention.
Through his work, he became more interested in veterans. To prepare for directing Steppenwolf’s 1984 production of Tracers, a play in which real Vietnam veterans relive their war experiences, Sinise visited a Veterans Administration hospital to talk to vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “The battles they described, the haunted look in their eyes —I couldn’t get them out of my mind,” Sinise wrote in Guideposts magazine in 2007.
His takeaway was that “we have not been grateful enough for our soldiers,” and Sinise channeled his empathy into activism on behalf of veterans.
Throughout the past three decades, Sinise has lost count of his 200 or more visits with U.S. troops at home and abroad, including several to Iraq and Afghanistan. Often he performs with the 12-member Lt. Dan Band, which he formed in 2003 with Chicago musician Kimo Williams. The band, named for the character Sinise portrayed in Forrest Gump, plays gigs at military bases across the country and abroad, as well as public performances benefiting military personnel and veterans. Sinise has also made several solo visits to the wounded at Walter Reed Medical Center.
His Facebook page is replete with messages from fans describing how much Lt. Dan Band performances have meant to them. They tell Sinise how grateful they are that he cares. They write as though they know him, because, in a way, they do.
After the actor’s first two trips to entertain troops in Iraq, he broadened his humanitarian efforts to include schoolchildren there. Sinise teamed with like-minded Laura Hillenbrand, author of nonfiction best-sellers Seabiscuit and Unbroken, to start Operation International Children (originally called Operation Iraqi Children) in early 2004. Each year, the charity provides tens of thousands of school supply kits to needy children where U.S. military personnel serve. It also sent classroom materials to those affected by Hurricane Katrina.
More to Do
Since 1994, he has worked on behalf of the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial and became its national spokesman about six years ago. Sinise continues to raise money toward the monument’s cost, an estimated $86 million.
“He rolls up his sleeves and goes to work, whether it is meeting with legislators and donors, speaking at public events [or] playing with his band to raise money,” says Lois Pope, co-founder and chairman of the Disabled Veterans LIFE Memorial Foundation. “His passion, enthusiasm and commitment to our veterans and especially to our 3 million living disabled veterans is genuine and praiseworthy.”
Sinise sees Operation International Children as a conduit for “helping our troops feel they’re doing some good, even if it’s just one pencil at a time.”
As busy as he is, Sinise says he has much more he wants to accomplish—he has much more to give—and plans to continue doing so. He hopes to inspire others along the way, including his children. “If I can do one thing for my kids… it’d be to try to give them a sense of confidence,” he says.
And as for himself: “I’ve got more to learn,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m done or I know it all.”