Lt. Dan And His Band
Years ago when a little-known actor auditioned for the part of Lieutenant Dan, the disabled veteran in the movie hit Forrest Gump, little did he know how much it would transform his life. The film launched Gary Sinise as a movie and television star, made him a role model for disabled vets, and led to a second career as a musician entertaining troops and club crowds around the world. His namesake group, the Lt. Dan Band, performs May 15 at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. The band plays 30 or 40 shows a year, and has played at Camp Pendleton. Sinise, by the way, is the band’s bass player. He has three kids: 21, 19, and 17, and he lives in Los Angeles where most of CSI: New York is shot. For Sinise, life has truly been a box of chocolates. We caught up recently with the star. ANDREA NAVERSEN
R&C: When did you know you wanted to become an actor?
GS: I started acting in high school, when I did high school plays, just kind of stumbled into it. Then after high school I started a theatre company that’s actually survived for over 30 years now, called Steppenwolf, in Chicago. We were just kids who wanted to do plays and it just grew and grew and grew. Now it’s very well known in the theatre world. Out of that I was able to learn a lot and educate myself and become better. I just moved from that into movies and television. I’m on CSI New York on a regular basis. Don’t get to go back to the theatre as often as I’d like but everything is good.
R&C: You have so many credits as an actor and director. But you’re perhaps best known as Lieutenant Dan. in [the movie] Forrest Gump. How did you get that role and how did it change your life?
GS: I heard about it and went in and auditioned for it. I knew it was a Vietnam veteran and I had been very active with Vietnam groups. I had Vietnam veterans in my family. I had been supporting various Vietnam groups out of the Chicago area over the years. And I was very sympathetic about what our Vietnam veterans went through. When Lt. Dan came along, I very much wanted to play that part. And I was able to get an audition for it. I had only done a few things on film. I had done a movie version of Of Mice and Men that I directed and acted in, a few other things, but not much, lots of theater but only a few things on film. I did my audition and left, and called up my manager and agent, told them I thought it went pretty well, and to let me know what they heard. They said they heard it went pretty well but, you know, the producer and director aren’t sure what they’re going to do. So I just kind of forgot about it and went to more auditions and kept trying to get other work because I learned a while ago that it’s out of your hands once you audition. You never know what they’re looking for, what they want. I know that because I’m a director myself. So I just tried to move on, not get too emotional about it even though I really wanted the part. Then about three weeks later, I got a call from my manager who said “Guess what? It looks like this might happen.” [He laughs.] So all of a sudden I was in Forrest Gump. I got lucky because I had screen tested for a couple of other films that it was between me and another guy. One was called Little Buddha. The other was Wyatt Earp. Both of those films did not do well. Had I been cast in those films, I might have taken them because I didn’t know what was going to happen with Forrest Gump. Luckily I didn’t get cast in those because Forrest Gump came along and that, of course, that changed everything in my career.
R&C: I guess that’s what you would call your big break then, and that was meant to be.
GS: No question. When you’re in a movie that size — it won six Oscars and was nominated for like 11 Oscars — I was one of those nominations. It was seen by millions of people everywhere. That can’t help but change the course of things because all of a sudden the business is paying attention. They’re seeing your work in a way they’d never seen it before. So, naturally, I was able to be considered for other parts after that.
R&C: Did your charitable work on behalf on U.S. troops in general and disabled veterans in particular begin with that role as Lt. Dan?
GS: No, I had been involved, as I said, with Vietnam vets groups for many years prior to Forrest Gump, not the Disabled American Veterans. I wasn’t aware of that organization until I did Forrest Gump and played a disabled veteran. I was contacted by the DAV. About a month after Forrest Gump opened they actually asked me if I would come to their national convention in Chicago. I went and they honored me for acting well, I guess, as a disabled veteran. It was a positive portrayal of somebody who goes through real emotional trauma and obviously, physical trauma, but at the same time comes out on top at the end. That was a positive look at one story of a disabled veteran who ended up OK and was able to move on with his life. They appreciated that because so many times when veterans who are wounded come back from war, they can’t readjust in the movies, they’re always portrayed as people that just go off the deep end or something like that and the story of Lt. Dan, of course, is somebody who goes through all the natural trauma of being in battle and, obviously getting wounded, but is able to make peace with that and move on with his life and actually become very successful in his life. That’s a positive story, and a story that seems to resonate with a lot of our wounded guys now and certainly our Vietnam veterans and disabled veterans.
R&C: So did you ever think you’d become a role model for disabled veterans?
GS: No, no. I just wanted to do an honest portrayal. I was already emotionally sympathetic to what our Vietnam veterans had gone through and wanted to make sure that what I was doing on film was as honest and real as possible. And I even remember asking [director] Bob Zemeckis to cut a few scenes and re-arrange a few scenes because I didn’t think they were quite as accurate as they needed to be with regards to the disability aspect of the character. Bob said to me, “You’re the first actor I’ve worked with that’s asked me to cut some of his scenes!” [Sinise and Naversen both laugh.]
R&C: Tell me about your Lt. Dan Band. How did that come to be? I know you’ve done a lot of USO tours with your band.
GS: Yes, I started doing USO tours as an actor after September 11. I would go out and visit the troops and shake hands and take pictures. I told the USO I had some musician friends that I played with from time to time. Why don’t they let me take them with me on a tour and we’ll actually play for the troops. So that’s what we did. I called up my buddies and said, “Look, we’re gonna go on tour, so let’s start rehearsing.” We started rehearsing, we learned a lot of songs, we added some people to the band. We gave it the name Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band because I’d been visiting the troops and they were always calling me Lt. Dan. So they had this funny relationship with that character, so let’s just use it and go with it. It’s become quite fun for the audience. They know me from Lt. Dan, now they know me from CSI: NY. They have a good time seeing the “movie-t.v.” guy up there playing music and I think most people are pleasantly and happily surprised that the band is as good as it is. They’re all professional musicians, I’m the only the part-timer in the band.
R&C: You’ve been to Afghanistan and Iraq?
GS: Well I’ve been to Iraq myself without the band, but I’ve made many visits over there. Four times to Iraq and a couple of time to Afghanistan. The last time I went to Afghanistan was this past Thanksgiving and I took the band with me that time. That was their first time in a war zone, although we’ve done many overseas tours for the troops — Germany, Belgium, the U.K., the Netherlands. We’ve been to Korea and Singapore and Okinawa and Diego Garcia. And we do a lot of shows around the states. During the television season, I can’t go overseas so we’ll play at bases.