Gary Sinise finds a purposeful life on screen and off, new memoir reveals

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Actor Gary Sinise speaks onstage during the “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders” panel discussion at 2015 Winter TCA Tour at the Langham Huntington Hotel on January 12, 2016 in Pasadena, California | Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Lt. Dan Taylor: Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?

Forrest Gump: I didn’t know that we were supposed to be lookin’ for him, sir.

The dialogue from the 1994 Vietnam war film “Forrest Gump,” which starred Tom Hanks as the title character and Gary Sinise as his commanding officer can, all these years later, certainly apply to Sinise’s life.

The actor who got his start as one of the founders of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre didn’t know he was looking for Jesus or his calling as a champion of veterans’ causes, but somewhere he found both.

Born in Blue Island, Sinise grew up in Highland Park. His penchant for rock and roll rather than homework led to musical theater in high school, which kick-started his study of theater and eventually the founding of Steppenwolf with his closest pals, actors Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney.

Theater led to TV and films, where Sinise stepped into memorable roles including “Apollo 13,” “Truman,” “CSI: New York” and “George Wallace.”

His role as Lt. Dan Taylor in “Forrest Gump” became the role of his life, on-screen and off. Six years after its premiere, the movie — and 9/11 — led him to “do something more.” Sinise became involved in veterans’ affairs, founded the Gary Sinise Foundation and established the Lt. Dan Band, all to help those “who sacrificed and continue to sacrifice for our country and our freedoms.”

Now 63, Sinise is out with his memoir, “Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service,” (Thomas Nelson Books, $26.99), in which he writes about his early life, his marriage to actress Moira Harris, his struggles and successes and his conversion to Catholicism in the 1990s. He says his faith has been one of the strongest forces in his life ever since.

Sinise is in town Monday to talk about his book in a conversation hosted by Perry. He recently spoke with the Sun-Times:

A Conversation with Gary Sinise Host: Jeff Perry When: 7 p.m. Monday Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Tickets: $45, includes book Info:

Q. You write of 9/11, how it affected your life in ways you could never have imagined.

A. I haven’t been on the stage since 2001. The last play I did was six weeks before those airplanes hit the buildings in New York. Everything since that day started coming at me in a different way, and my life, my career, started turning in a different direction … into this life of service to others, that I have completely embraced. That has given my life a purpose beyond anything I could have imagined. The sad fact about that is that it was a terrible, terrible tragedy in our country that had me turn a corner.


Q. If you hadn’t played Lt. Dan, would your life have taken the same trajectory?

A. So many different circumstances drove me to that role and to the life I have now. Certainly, playing a wounded Vietnam veteran was one element. But who would have known that, six years after that, we’d be attacked in such a brutal way and we would then deploy a new generation of service members to Afghanistan and Iraq? And that so many of them would come home wounded or in caskets? I just started meeting what I call real-life Lt. Dans. They certainly affected me deeply and changed the course of my life.

Q. If you had to pick one word that best describes you now, would it be actor? Father? Philanthropist?

A. It’s all part of the tapestry. I love my kids, my wife. Certainly, having worked with our military community and our first-responders, working with veterans and wounded soldiers and meeting Gold Star families, I’ve been greatly inspired and motivated.

Q. What sets Steppenwolf apart?

A.The last play I did was “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 2001. The company has evolved and changed, and people have come and gone. It’s nice to say that I’ve been a part of creating something that’s lasted so long and I think still has a focus on ensemble work and company work. That was the genesis that got us going all those years ago. And there’s so many quality people there now doing amazing work.

Q. What do you hope this book says about you?

A. Love and dedication for what you do comes through in deeds. You have to give back. I just wanted to share some things that were important to me and hope maybe they’ll ring true for other people. I’m just trying to share what has been an interesting journey for a kid who was really struggling way back when and ended up as a founder of a theater company that’s still here and thriving.

Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band (pictured in 2012) have entertained more than a half a million troops since forming in 2004.  | Getty Images

Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band (pictured in 2012) have entertained more than a half a million troops since forming in 2004. | Getty Images

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