June 13, actor/director Gary Sinise spoke to the Veterans in Film and Television (VFT) Los Angeles chapter at the Hollywood American Legion Post. The event, which drew an overflow crowd, was part of a series of interviews, workshops and classes run by VFT to assist vets becoming involved in the entertainment industry. Sinise, known for his iconic role as Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump, was interviewed by actor Tom Ohmer. During the interview, Sinise shared a life changing moment and talked about the long road to his role as Lieutenant Dan.
One Life Changing Moment
Ohmer asked Sinise to talk about Forrest Gump, how it affected him and changed his feelings.
“There were Vietnam vets on my wife’s side of the family,” Sinise explained, “and that really opened my eyes.”
Sinise had worked helping vets for quite some time before landing at the Army’s Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany, but on that day something changed.
“Three weeks after Forrest Gump came out I got a call from the Disabled American Veterans,” Sinise recalled. “They wanted to present me with an award for playing Lieutenant Dan. I had spent time working with vets, but hadn’t spent a lot of time with amputees or wounded vets and going to the DAV really changed things for me. I stayed involved and then 9/11 happened. After that, sitting around doing nothing didn’t feel right.”
Sinise explained how he did USO tours, hand shake tours, and went to events to support “the real-life Lieutenant Dans.” That led to his visit to Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany where military wounded in the Middle East were evacuated.
“It was my first hospital visit and I was very apprehensive,” Sinise admitted. “I remembered my grandmother fading away in the hospital and I was thinking about that when we pulled into Landstuhl.”
Sinise’s first encounter was with a group fresh off the battlefield. “I remember walking into a ward with a big group of soldiers and marines who were going to get patched-up and go back,” he said. “I looked at them and so many had that ‘1000-yard stare.’ It was quiet. Then one of them looked at me and his face lit up. He yelled, ‘Lieutenant Dan!’ Others looked and the whole mood changed because of Lieutenant Dan.”
Sinise smiled. “And most of them didn’t know what my name was, but there I was standing there. ‘Hey, you got legs,’ one of them yelled.”
“Then I went to visit the more seriously injured upstairs,” Sinise continued. “Amputees, brain injuries. I saw family members standing over soldiers who were out cold. I went from room to room visiting everybody I could. When I left I was totally different. When I came in I was thinking about myself, and when I saw what just being there was doing, I left that hospital thinking about what more I could do to help and I haven’t stopped since.”
A Long Road to LT Dan
Ohmer explained to Sinise that 40 percent of the VFT members are actors. He asked him how he developed his acting style.
“I didn’t go to college,” Sinise explained. “My whole schooling was doing it.”
Sinise’s acting career started in high school. He was already a musician and had a band. “I was standing in the hallway with the band,” he recalled, “when the drama teacher walked by. She told us they were doing a production of West Side Story. She said we looked perfect for the gang members and asked us to come to the audition.”
Sinise continued, “I wasn’t sure what an audition was, but I saw these hot girls going in, so I went in, too.”
Sinise said that he stumbled through what they gave him to read, but that he got some laughs and then he was hooked on theater. He wanted to do more plays.
“I remember some of the things I learned in high school,” he said. “The best advice I got was from my wonderful high school drama teacher. She said that she saw something raw and impulsive in me. She told me to trust that intuitive feel.”
Ten years later he was artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theater Company.
After high school, Sinise wanted to keep acting so he and some other “theater nerds” rented the basement of a closed Catholic school and began doing plays at night.
Ohmer asked if Sinise needed a day job while creating Steppenwolf.
Sinise replied, “I worked on a loading dock and as a gardener for The Revinia Festival. It was really rewarding when years later I went back to Revinia as the headliner with the Lieutenant Dan Band.”
Ohmer asked about the other “theater nerds”.
Sinise explained that his troop also included Lori Metcalf, Joan Allen, his wife Moira, and John Malkovich. “We just found as many plays as we could,” Sinise said, “with as many good roles, so we could go on stage and go at one another.”
Ohmer asked about Malkovich’s day job.
“He was a school bus driver,” Sinise recalled. Then he looked at the audience with feigned seriousness and said, “I’ve often thought about those children.”
Sinise’s theater group prospered, eventually moving out of the basement into their own building. They took some of their productions to Broadway and this built Sinise’s reputation as an actor and director.
Ohmer asked if he had to audition for the Lieutenant Dan role in Forrest Gump.
“You know how Lieutenant Dan talks about his destiny?” Sinise asked. “Somehow that audition was mine. But I didn’t hear anything right away, so I went on and auditioned for two or three other things. One was a Bertolucci movie called Little Buddha. Chris Isaak and I were both up to play Little Buddha’s dad. I also auditioned for Larry Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp. I kind of forgot about Gump. I didn’t get those other jobs, then a few days later I get a call from my manager, saying ‘You might get this Gump movie’. If I had gotten Little Buddha or Wyatt Earp, I might not have played Lieutenant Dan. I did get to play Lieutenant Dan and that has been a blessing for over 20 years.”
An Honor from the American Legion
After the interview, Sinise took questions from the audience and received two recognitions. He was presented with a proclamation for his work with veterans from the LA County Board of Supervisors and received a special honor from the American Legion Post.
Although Sinise had never served in the Military, both his father and grandfather were veterans. That made him eligible for membership in the Legion auxiliary organization, The Sons of the Legion. Post 43 members presented Sinise with his membership and official hat.
Photos by author unless otherwise noted.