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An hour with Gary Sinise on his career, his work for the troops, Iraqi children, and his Emmy-winning performance at George Wallace now out on DVD

Thursday, January 22, 2009
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HH: A special guest this hour. You know him as Lt. Dan. You watch him on CSI: New York. You have seen him in many other venues, and the troops of American know him as someone who’s willing to come to them to play. Gary Sinise is my guest. Gary, welcome, what a pleasure to have you on the program, first time we’ve chatted. Thank you for joining us.

GS: Thanks so much for having me, Hugh. It’s good to be with you.

HH: I want to start by saying congratulations on the Presidential Citizens Medal. That’s a very amazing achievement. What was that like to receive that honor?

GS: Oh, it was shocking and beautiful and humbling, and kind of surreal. I was invited to the White House, and I was able to take thirteen of my family members with me. And I wasn’t sure what it was going to be, actually. I’d been to the White House in the 90s where my theater company received a medal for the arts, and it was a big, big, giant tent, and there were 2,000 people in there. So I wasn’t sure what this was going to be, and then I got there and realized that the other 23 recipients of this medal and I were going to each, individually be taken into the Oval Office and presented with the medal. And so I lined up out in this little corridor while we waited to go into the Oval Office, and the door opened, and the President and the First Lady were standing there, and they invited us into the Oval Office, and all my family followed me in, and I stood there with the President while an aide read the citation, and the President reached over and grabbed the medal off the desk, and handed it to me, and it was just a very lovely five minutes in the Oval Office.

HH: Now Gary Sinise, not a lot of people know the Presidential Citizens Medal is the second-highest civilian honor for, and it’s given for exemplary service to the nation. And I mean, people like Hank Aaron and Colin Powell. You received it because of Operation Iraqi Children, and the fact you go abroad. How often have you been out to visit our troops?

GS: Well, I’ve lost track. I can tell you that I’ve been to Iraq four times, and Afghanistan once. I’ve been to Europe on three different tours to visit troops in Germany and the UK and the Netherlands and Belgium. I’ve been to Korea and Singapore, Diego Garcia, I’ve been to Kuwait and Qatar and various places, and then around this country to bases all over the country where I will go during my television…while the series is being done, I can’t really go overseas. I save that for my hiatus. But during the television season, I’ll go out on the weekends and visit bases all around the country and play music for them with the band, and that kind of thing. We’ve done several tours and visited dozens of bases all over.

HH: You know, Gary Sinise, I was reading when your Fox special came out a couple of weeks ago, the press release that came out, I want to quote here. “I am proud,” you wrote, “that members of my family have served our country. My father, Robert, served in the Navy in the early 1950s, my Uncle Jack was a navigator on a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II, my Uncle Jerry served in the Pacific during World War II, and my grandfather, Daniel Sinise, was in the Army in World War I.” By the way, my Uncle Jim was also a navigator on the B-17. That was nasty work. That was not life affirming work to do forty missions as a navigator. But a lot of people have that in Hollywood. They’ve got people. What is it about their service that compelled you to go out and do as much as you have? And people are already filling up my e-mail box asking me to express to you gratitude, because they have family members in the service, and not a lot of people go to see them. You’re one of the few that do.

GS: Well, I, you know, I’ve been involved with veterans now for many, many years. Prior to my USO work, I lived in Chicago. I grew up in Chicago, and got involved with local Vietnam veterans groups there in the early 80s. And I have Vietnam veterans on my wife’s side of the family. We all remember what it was like for our Vietnam veterans, at least I do, when they came home from war. It was a very, very difficult thing for them to not only endure the battles that they faced, and the difficulty there in Vietnam, but then to come home to this divided and ungrateful nation that treated them like they were baby killers and all this other stuff. We can’t ever let that happen to our service members again. So part of the catalyst for me going out there and supporting our troops is to make sure that they, these active duty volunteers that we have always remember and understand that there are people that appreciate them, and that their volunteer service is appreciated. So I go out there and do whatever I can to just try to play some music for them, help their families. It’s a difficult time. We’ve lost over 4,000 service members in the Iraq War. We lose them in Afghanistan, we lose them all around the world. We’ve lost them in the Philippines. You know, we’ve had an all-volunteer service for over thirty years now. These people don’t have to do that. And what would we do if we had no volunteers? We’d have to do something, and we’re lucky that we have these defenders. So I just want to go out there in a time of conflict and crisis and try to do something to help them and my country and their families out.

HH: Gary Sinise, you just mentioned you’d been an activists on behalf of the military before the 90s began. And of course people know you for a lot of reasons – CSI: New York, one of the most popular series in America, but Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump is one of those roles for which people are always going to be remembered, for which you’re always going to be remembered. I run into it on television all the time, or on DVDs around here. Did that change your understanding? Or had you already been as committed as you are now? Or did the Lt. Dan role up that ante?

GS: Well, as I said, I had been involved with Vietnam veterans…

HH: Right.

GS: …groups for a good ten to fifteen years prior to that, to my work in Forrest Gump. I remember when I auditioned for Forrest Gump and found out that this role was available. And I wanted it very badly, because I knew Vietnam veterans, I have them in my family. I had spent time with them working on material in the theater. I have a theater company in Chicago. We worked on some theater pieces that were totally all about Vietnam veterans. That’s when I got active with the local Vietnam veterans groups. I just felt like I wanted to follow up that work that I’d done in the early 80s by playing a Vietnam veteran in this film. And that…and so I really wanted to do that. And then through Forrest Gump, I got involved with the disabled American veterans. I was playing a disabled Vietnam veteran in Forrest Gump, and I was approached by the disabled American veterans at the time, and have stayed very, very active with the DAV, and I’m the national spokesperson for the American Veterans Disable For Life Memorial Foundation, which is going to build a national memorial in Washington, D.C. to honor all our disabled veterans. So through Forrest Gump, you know, I got active with Vietnam veterans and disabled veterans. After that, it was really 9/11 that kicked me into a whole other series of efforts to help a negative situation out here. And so when we started deploying these service members to Afghanistan and Iraq, I wanted to do something. I was, my heart was aching terribly like so many of us after September 11th, and I wanted to do something. I didn’t kind of go back to the way things were, normal. I wanted to change things and to try to help, and so I jumped in. As a celebrity, what could I do? So I called the USO and volunteered, and started doing that. And that became, that became something that just felt natural to me, and almost has become a great passion to just try to help these people out and keep them strong and get them home safely.

HH: After the break, I want to talk to you about Wallace at length. But I also want to bring up not only have you been out with our troops, you’re also concerned with the citizens of Iraq. You founded, along with Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Sea Biscuit, www.operationiraqichildren.org. Now that’s different from visiting the troops. Why that? Why Operation Iraqi Children?

GS: Well, after my second trip to Iraq, or on my second trip to Iraq, I was able to go out in some convoys and visit the local villages and see. This was early on. This was very early on, actually, about six months in, November of ’03. My first trip to Iraq was June of ’03, and then I went back again. I was very active that year. Every month I was going someplace for the USO – Italy, Germany, Iraq, Kuwait, wherever. And I went back to Iraq in November, and on that particular trip, they took me out so I could visit some schools that they had helped to rebuild, the troops had helped to rebuild. And they were trying to help the kids, and I saw these beat up schools where the kids had no supplies. And I had been trying to think well, what can I do? If I’m not traveling for the USO and visiting the troops, what can I, what is there to do to continue to help the troops while I’m still at home? And so I decided to go to my local school where my kids went, and talked to the principal about doing a drive at the school for school supplies. And I would send them over to the troops that I had met, and they’d take them out to the schools and give them to the kids.

– – – –

HH: That’s the Lt. Dan Band playing Sweet Home Chicago from the first For The Troops CD put together by our friend, John Ondrasik of Five For Fighting. The bass player in the Lt. Dan Band is of course Gary Sinise. He is my guest this hour. Gary, late breaking news this hour, Caroline Kennedy has withdrawn her name from the United States Senate seat vacancy that came about today with the confirmation of Hillary Clinton. Any interest? We wanted to get you put in when Obama quit. We were trying to get you appointed in your home state of Illinois. Any interest in politics for you down the road?

GS: (laughing) What do you mean? No, no, no. Why would you, why would I want to do that? I’m not…I’m an actor. That’s it. You know, I think I could, I have things that I’m interested in besides acting, and get involved in that. But that is a dirty business. I just don’t know that I’d want to…

HH: Especially in Illinois.

GS: Oh, my gosh. Yeah, geez. Why would you want to get into that?

HH: When we went to break, and I have put the link for www.operationiraqichildren.org over at Hughhewitt.com, as well as the link to the DVD for Wallace, which we’ll be talking about in a moment. Finish the story. So you went and you saw these kids in Iraq, and you go to your kids’ school, and you say let’s get some school supplies. How does an organization come out of that?

GS: You know, I was able to kind of, my kids’ school was a very small school, so we were able to bring in a lot of the kids, and sit them down in front of a screen, and I showed them pictures and video of the kids and the troops at the schools that I visited in Iraq. And the kids were fascinated by that, and I said let’s gather school supplies. So all the kids at the school, they started bringing in supplies and stuffed animals and beanie babies and pencils and pens and paper and that kind of thing. We boxed them up, about 25 boxes worth, and I shipped them to the troops that I had met who took me out to these particular schools. And then out of that, I wanted to try to do more, and I was able, I was put in touch with Laura Hillenbrand by one of the majors in Iraq at this Camp Anaconda that I met, and she knew Laura because Laura had contacted her about getting her book distributed over there, Sea Biscuit, to Arabic kids, because one of the colonels over there happened to be reading it, and the kids saw him reading it, and asked him what it was, and he ended up telling them the story of Sea Biscuit. And they were fascinated by that, so he contacted Laura, and Laura wanted to get this distributed over there to some of the kids. And that was going to be kind of a one-time effort. So this major who knew Laura and knew me thought that Laura should meet me because I had this school supply program. So we teamed up, and we said let’s start a website, and we called it Operation Iraqi Children, so that we could inform people around the country on just what I did when I started shipping things over there. And initially, it was very grass roots. I was just kind of telling people here’s what I did, I collected stuff and sent it over, here’s the address, and blah, blah, blah. And then I was, I went on television the day our website went up, and I was on the Today Show, I think, and I talked about it. And a few people saw me, and contacted me, and a guy named Mike Meyer and Mary Eisenhower from People To People International. It was a big humanitarian organization started by General Eisenhower when he was just president, right after he left the office. And it’s run by his granddaughter, very successful humanitarian program. They contacted me and asked me how they could help. And with their help, we were able to kind of take it up a notch, and they helped provide us with a 501c3 so we can take some donations, and warehouse and a staff. And since then, and that was ’04, we’ve sent hundreds of thousands of school supplies over to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, now. And these supplies are taken out all over the country by our troops and given to the kids. And it’s been a really wonderful program for the troops, because through, with these supplies, they can pull into a village that might have been hostile, and they can present them with these tools for the kids. And I’ve been told that this type of program has really been part of the hearts and minds, and part of fighting the war over there, and gaining the trust of the Iraqis. And it’s been very successful. So anybody who’s interested in it can go to www.operationiraqichildren.org, or I guess link up there with you, Hugh.

HH: Yeah, I’ve posted the link at Hughhewitt.com to make it easy for people. But it’s just an extraordinary opportunity to work with the kids of Iraq who’ve put up with so much under Saddam, and through the difficulty of the liberation and the civil conflict. And now they’re finally getting peace, and boy some school supplies helps. So kudos on that. Now Gary Sinise, I want to turn to Wallace, a DVD from a television series you made, my gosh, ten years ago. And I’m fascinated by this not just because it came out for the first time this week, because Evan Thomas and others, I spent a lot of time working with Nixon over the years, and George Wallace is a key, pivotal figure of the 60s. And in the Evan Thomas biography of Robert Kennedy, the Wallace figure is so complicated, and he gets more complicated, and even more complicated. You know, you played Wallace, what an extraordinary juxtaposition between yesterday, the inauguration of our first black president, and talking about perhaps the most famous segregationist ever if we take out the Dixiecrats. What did you know about Wallace at the beginning of that project? And what did you pick up in the course of doing it?

GS: I knew very little about him. I knew the impression that I had, and the reputation that he had of being a racist governor from Deep South Alabama. And he stood in the schoolhouse door and he tried to prevent the two black students from integrating in school, and he said segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever. That’s about it. That’s about all I knew. When I got into it, I was working on just a fantastic script written by a man named Marshall Frady, who wrote a book on George Wallace, and spent time with George Wallace, and knew him personally. And he wrote this book, and then he wrote the script for the movie that we were working on, and I was working with a, just one of our great, great American directors, John Frankenheimer on this brilliant script. And according to Marshall, just one thing that I learned about Wallace was that he was driven by his political ambition as much as anything. His populist view that he was going to go with the majority with whatever the majority wanted. And at that time in the Deep South, early 60s Alabama, the majority was white, and wanted to preserve segregation. The governor that was in there before Wallace, who Wallace worked for, Jim Folsom, was more liberal, and somebody who was as a Southern Democrat, leaning toward, you know, loosening the restrictions on the schools, and the prohibitions against blacks in Alabama, and recommended that Wallace do the same. Well, Wallace lost his first bid for the governorship to a guy who took a strong stance, pro-segregation.

HH: We’re going to come back with Gary Sinise about his DVD Wallace.

– – – –

HH: Gary, yesterday the first black president of the United States is inaugurated, and yet it’s only 1968 when the man you played, George Wallace, carried five states, 46 electoral votes, almost ten million votes cast, 13.5%. What an astonishing forty years we have lived through, and what a gratifying forty years. Whether you agree or disagree with Obama on any particular policy, it’s a great thing that we can go from the era of Wallace whom you played in the DVD, to the era of Obama.

GS: Yeah, I agree, Hugh. That’s what makes the release of this particular DVD, which this movie was only seen on TNT in 1997, and has basically been lost since then. That’s what makes this so particularly relevant. Wallace was the antagonist, an important figure, a nemesis for Martin Luther King and the anti-segregation movement, and the civil rights movement. And that’s why he’s, you know, his story is important, because when you look back at this particular story, you do see how tough the struggle was, and how many roadblocks there were, and how things succeeded and moved on from there. It’s an important story, and this particular movie was just not going to be found again. And luckily, about a year ago, I was at a film festival where they were showing a bunch of my movies, and they asked me to come down to Florida. It was at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival. And I was going to be able to go down there for one night on Saturday, and they asked me to come, and they wanted to present me with an award and show one of my films while I was there. And I asked if they’d shown George Wallace, and I saw it. And it kind of got me off my butt. I called Warner Home Video, because John Frankenheimer, a great director…

HH: Right, right.

GS: …passed away. And he had always intended to put this on DVD, he just never got around to it. And then once he died, there was nobody driving it. So it was just going to disappear. And I think it probably ranks among one of his five best movies. And thankfully, I was able to contact Warner Home Entertainment, who owned the rights, and they get it on their radar and looked at it, and realized they had one of Frankenheimer’s great films. And so they put it out, and yesterday was perfect timing, I think.

HH: Well now, you won the Emmy for this. You won the best actor for this. So it’s great television. It’s never been shown again on television?

GS: I don’t think so.

HH: That’s wild.

GS: I’m not aware of that. At the time, it may have been shown once of twice right around the time it came out in ’97, August of ’97. But I’m not aware that it’s ever been shown again on television. It was released on video at the time, but video is dead…

HH: Right.

GS: And that’s not going anywhere. So a movie like this, which was a two night miniseries, and it was shown with commercials and all that, the DVD is a two-disc DVD, so it’s two halves. So you do get to kind of watch it straight through with one little break while you switch the discs. But it’s, a movie like this, if nobody is working on trying to put it out there, it’s going to fall through the cracks and disappear. And thankfully, now it’s preserved on DVD, and it’s been released.

HH: How does it get ’68? You know, ’68’s very hard to convey to people. And you’re just a little bit older than I am, and you know, I’m twelve at the time, and you might be twelve or thirteen. It’s very hard to remember, it’s very hard to convey part of the craziness of that year of the two assassinations, and George Wallace winning five states. How did that come across in the DVD?

GS: Well, you’ll see. The DVD, actually, the movie takes place over 20 years of his life. It starts in the 50s before he even runs for governor. He’s working for Jim Folsom, who’s the then-governor of Alabama in 1958, I believe. And it follows 20 years of his life, and actually starts out, you know, Wallace was shot in 1972 when he was running for president.

HH: Right.

GS: …then. He ran in ’68, he ran again in ’72. He was shot in 1972, very interesting story. You know, you’d think that the guy who stood in the schoolhouse door would be out of the picture, but…and he stood in the schoolhouse door in 1963. So…

HH: No, he’s a decade.

– – – –

HH: By the way, if you want to find out where they’re playing, you can go to the Lt. Dan Band website, www.ltdanband.com. He’s got a lot of shows coming up in February, March and April. Gary Sinise, we were talking before we went to break about playing Wallace. About ten years ago, I had the chance to sit down before he became ill, with Charlton Heston and talked to him about his career. And he played a lot of historical figures – Sir Thomas Moore, Chinese Gordon, Michelangelo, of course Moses and Brigham Young, and all these. And he said that all those roles turned him into a history buff. Well, you’ve played Wallace, you’ve played Truman. Did it impact how much you love American history or read it?

GS: Oh, absolutely. I was not a student in high school. I failed my history exam, didn’t pay any attention. Of course, later in life, I regretted that because now I just can’t get enough. And being able to play these biographical characters and study them and read about them, and try to create a believable impression of them is something that’s very challenging. And it can be, when they turn out well, very rewarding. And Wallace and Truman both are two pictures that I’m very proud of, and were both extremely challenging, and I learned a lot on both of them.

HH: You know, a lot of people are making comparisons between Truman and especially the unpopularity with which he exited office, and George W. Bush. Any thoughts on that?

GS: Yes, I know. I mean, if you look, there are similarities. Truman was, had an unpopular war at that time. He had sent troops to Korea, and we lost 40 some thousand troops there in Korea in three years. Eisenhower, one of his main platforms was he was going to end the war in Korea. And Truman left office with about a 30% approval rating. I remember reading the David McCullough book Truman, which is what our particular television movie was based on, and he left very down in the polls, and with a new excitement for Eisenhower coming in, much like right now. George W. Bush was very low in the polls, he had a war that was unpopular with the media. But in retrospect, when you look at Truman, he’s now viewed as somebody who had to make very, very tough decisions and strong decisions, and that the country later on benefitted from a lot of those decisions that he did make. And perhaps that’ll happen with George W. Bush. I don’t know, only history will tell the tale there.

HH: Gary Sinise, you’ve got a new project coming out, Brothers At War next month. You made the Fox documentary about the war last month. What’s Brothers At War about?

GS: Well, Brothers At War is, I’m the executive producer on a film that was directed by a buddy of mine. He, like I did, went over to Iraq, but he had a camera crew with him, and he went over to Iraq, and wanted to find out exactly what his brothers were doing. They were both in the war. Both volunteered, one of his brothers was a West Point graduate and an officer, and he just wanted to know why his brothers do what they do. And this buddy of mine, Jake Rademacher, who made this movie, this excellent film, Brothers At War, I guess Jake had told me that he always wanted to be in the service, but just never did. Things weren’t right for him to join. But his brothers were, and he wanted to find out at a time of war, when people are getting hurt, what his brothers felt about their service, and why they’re doing it, and he wanted to see the people they were working with, and he wanted to see what they saw. So he went over there and spent some good time embedded with them, and also wanted to examine his family life, and his military family, the family that these two brothers came from. And so it’s a real wonderful study of why somebody joins the military, why are they in the military, the kind of people that we have in the military, and who are in it. And it’s a great American family story as well. And I got involved when I saw the movie, and Jake asked me to come on board and support the film, and I couldn’t be prouder. And he worked very, very hard to get distribution for the film that’s coming out in March.

HH: When it comes out, we’ll get Jake on to talk to him about that.

GS: Absolutely.

HH: Let me ask you before we run out of time this segment, and I want to make sure a couple of callers at least get to talk to you next segment, about the Lt. Dan Band and about CSI.

GS: Well, I’m glad you’re playing the music.

HH: I know.

GS: You seem to have a lot of the band music. I’m glad you’re playing it.

HH: I HAVE GREAT PRODUCERS! (emphasis mine – the producer) Tell me, how much fun is that? How much is that work that you do because there’s a demand for it now?

GS: You know, the band was something that I was just doing for fun. It wasn’t even a band. It was just a kind of a jam group of guys I know in Chicago. And then when I started doing USO, I would visit the troops and shake hands and take pictures and that kind of thing, and I just, I had done that a bunch, and I said to the USO, why don’t you let me take some musicians, and we’ll put on a show. So we started doing that. It was a lot of fun. We started adding members, making the band bigger, and rehearsing a lot more. And now we play, that was 2003, and now we play about 30 or 40 shows a year. 80% of them are military or charities or something that I’m involved with. But we do play corporate and club dates. We’ve got some club dates coming up in California at the end of March. You can go to www.ltdanband.com, and you can see what we’ve been doing. But we’re very, I’m very involved in supporting the troops, and I take the band with me as much as I can to do it.

HH: That is wonderful. The Canyon Club on Friday, March 27, and the world famous Coach House, where I once heard Joanie Baez play with just a piano and a guitar for two and a half hours, the Lt. Dan Band is coming.

– – – –

HH: Let’s get to Rick in Fort Worth. Hi Rick, you’re on with Gary Sinise.

Rick: Gary, I’m a Vietnam vet. I just want to thank you on behalf of all Vietnam vets for your work for the military.

GS: Well, thank you very much, Rick. I, look, I appreciate so much our Vietnam veterans, and I have, as I said, Vietnam veterans in my family. You don’t get enough thanks. We can never thank you enough, but we can always try to do more, and that’s what I’m doing. God bless you, sir.

HH: Thank you Rick. Let’s go to Dan in Phoenix. Hi, Dan, you’re on with Gary Sinise.

Dan: Hey, morning glory, Hugh.

HH: Evening grace to you, sir.

Dan: Hey, Mr. Sinise, I appreciate, I’m a Navy veteran, and going to Diego Garcia is tough duty, so…having been there, and I just wanted to thank you just on behalf of Navy veterans and all the veterans just for what you do. You’re a throwback to the celebrities of fifty, sixty years ago that somehow balanced their celebrity with honoring the troops and everything. I really appreciate it.

HH: Absolutely. Hey, Dan, thank you. One more, Rick in Glendora, you’re on with Gary Sinise.

Rick: Hi, Hugh, morning glory.

HH: Evening grace, sir.

Rick: Hey, Mr. Sinise, I’ve got to tell you, I’ve got an interesting situation. I’m a white male conservative married to a conservative African-American woman, and I’ve got to tell you, we saw this show on TNT I don’t know however many years ago it came on. You left us both in tears, not because it was so much of a tragic story but had to have a happy ending, but because your acting was so great. I’ve got to tell you right up front that as a former Air Force guy, I support you and what you’re doing with the troops, but also next to Charlton Heston and Ronald Reagan, you have got to be my wife and mine, one of our most favorite actors of all time. Keep up the great work, and all of Hugh’s listeners, you’ve got to get that DVD Wallace. It is a fantastic film that deserves more fanfare than it got.

HH: Rick, thank you. Gary, I’ve got to say…

GS: Thank you, thank you very much, Rick. I appreciate that very much.

HH: Wallace ends with his redemption, and his wife dies, he manipulated her. It’s a tough role to play. It’s a tragic figure who does get redemption.

GS: Well, there’s…you know, it’s a big, big story. Like I say, it was a two-night mini-series. It’s three hours and ten minutes long. It is a big, big story. It takes place over twenty years of his life. It co-stars Angelina Jolie in one of her first, very first roles. She won a Golden Globe for that, and it kind of drew a lot of attention to her, and her career started ascending from there. It’s got Mare Winningham in an Emmy-winning performance. Mare is just absolutely stunning in the film, and it’s beautifully directed by a master filmmaker, John Frankenheimer, who also won the Emmy himself.

HH: And you won the Emmy for best actor in it as well. Gary, we’re out of time. I really appreciate you taking an hour to spend with us, and I hope you’ll come back. And we look forward to promoting Brothers At War next month as well. Thanks for all you do. I’ve got many veterans who want to say this to you. Thank you on their behalf.

End of interview.

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