Sinise Speaks about “Grateful American”
Gary Sinise, an Oscar-nominated actor and winner of an Emmy, a Golden Globe and two Screen Actors Guild awards, had more than 270 residents and veterans laughing as he talked about aspects of his life.
Sinise took the stage at American Legion Post 283 on Wednesday night (April 24) and answered questions for more than an hour about his life and his New York Times bestseller, “Grateful American.”
Karen Kraft, the executive director of VME (Veterans in Media & Entertainment), introduced a three-member panel, who led the questioning. They included actor/writer Michael Broderick, a Marine vet known for HBO’s “True Detective” and “Get Shorty,” his wife Dana Commandatore, an executive VP at Deutsch Advertising Agency, who with Broderick founded the autism advocacy website RethinkingAutism.com., and Barbara Autin, the VME director of career placement. An Army engineer, she served two tours in Iraq and one in Korea.
First question: Who was Carlos Huizinga? Well, surprisingly, it was an expired driver’s license that Gary Sinise had “borrowed.”
It turns out Sinise was not a good student in high school. He struggled; his report cards were bad. In his book, he explains that his mom and dad were both busy with their lives. Far from being helicopter parents, they mostly let their children find their own ways. In his book, Sinise concedes that now, he might have been diagnosed with a learning disability. But that was a different time.
He was in high school in the late ’60s, early ’70s when drug use was rampant; it was Woodstock, the hippies–and rock bands were heroes for teens. It was a time that the country was deeply divided over the Vietnam War.
Sinise’s friend had told him that his dad parked his car by the train station and left an extra key hidden in the engine. Sinise hitched over there, found the key, started the car and drove off. He was almost immediately pulled over.
“The policeman asked me for my license, and I said sure and I pulled it out,” Sinise said. “I was 14, but I looked like I was 10.”
The police asked him if he was the 20-year-old Carlos Huizinga on the license, and he said he was.
“Well Carlos, do you know your license is expired?” the policeman asked. “I’m going to have to take you down to the station.”
Down at the station, Sinise said he started crying. “My dad picked me up,” he said and added, “It was a pretty bad week.”
He said he started playing guitar in fourth grade and that the Beach Boys were his favorite band. He and friends performed. “We’d put on a Beach Boys record, pretend to play and sell tickets.”
By seventh grade he was in a different band and several of the guitar players were better than he was. “The best players played guitar, the ones that weren’t so good played bass. I started playing bass.”
He continued to play music in high school, but “this teacher [Mrs. Barbara Patterson] had a major impact. She turned my life towards the theater.
“I was hanging around in the hall with some of the band members and she told us to come audition for ‘West Side Story’ because we looked like gang members,” Sinise said. He auditioned and got the part playing Pepe, the Shark, and two lines. “I’ll never neglect to mention how important that was and how it changed me completely.”
“I was such a bad student; I was struggling so badly. I was a straight D student,” he said, but added that once he found the theater,” I started getting As in theater classes.
“It was such a struggle to get through school, I knew I wouldn’t get into a college,” said Sinise, who had to go an extra half semester of high school. “I was supposed to graduate in 1973, but I say I graduated in 1973 and a half.”
He explained how Steppenwolf came into being and how he acquired the rights for “Tracers,” a play about Vietnam veterans, written and acted by the Vets in Los Angeles.
In the audience on Wednesday was one of the original cast members, Richard Chaves, and Sinise came off the stage and gave Chaves a hug. “It’s the first time I’m seeing him in 35 years,” Sinise said. (See the Chaves story, written in 2015 by Laurel Busby at the end of this story.)
Sinise described his audition for Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump” and the background of his wife’s brothers who had served in Vietnam. He witnessed the hostile climate that Vets received after returning from Vietnam.
“I wanted that role, but I hadn’t done that many movies,” Sinise said. Afterwards he thought he had auditioned well, but his manager told him, “they liked you, but they’re looking at other people.”
In the meantime, he auditioned for a role in “Wyatt Earp.” “I was close to that part, also for a part in ‘Little Buddha.’”
He landed neither role, but “After three weeks of waiting, I got Lt. Dan and it changed so much,” Sinise said, referring to a movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1995.
Sinise’s book has a chapter called “Turning Point,” which centers around the Sept.11 terrorist attacks.
“During the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, seeds were planted that took root after that powerful day. Then it goes full force into service work,” Sinise said. His book details how his family dealt with his wife’s alcoholism and his youngest child’s heart surgery, and how he was confirmed as a Catholic after following his wife’s lead.
“Service is a great healer for heartbreak—and my heart was broken to bits after that day,” he said. “It was a terrible catalyst to a new way of thinking. I’ve been inspired by many and I realized I could make an impact.
“I volunteered for USO,” Sinise said. “I would call them and then wouldn’t hear anything. I called again. Still nothing.”
Finally, he said he called again and said “I’m Gary Sinise, I’m the guy that played Lieutenant Dan.
“‘Oh,’ they said and then they got me on the tour.”
He was asked by audience members, “Why did you write a book now?”
Sinise replied joking, “My memory’s still pretty good.”
He was asked his favorite play. “Of Mice and Men” was his answer.
And he was asked. “Why start your own foundation?”
At the back of his book, there’s a list of 40 nonprofits that Sinise had supported. He then wanted to start his own so he could capitalize on his reputation. “I started with one donor and now I have 50.”
The book is also available on audio, read by Sinise. “I thought about getting Jon Voight to read it,” he joked.
After leaving the stage, Sinise went to a room set up with a backdrop of lights and spent another hour taking photos. His smile never faltered as fan after fan came through the line.
Everyone attending the event received a copy of Sinise’s memoir “Grateful American,” which was released February 12 by Nelson Books.
Chaves Stars in ‘The Great Divide’
By LAUREL BUSBY
(Editor’s note: this story originally ran in the Post 283 News in 2015.)
Richard Chaves got his big break as an actor because of the Vietnam War.
He spent three years in the Army, including a tour of duty in Vietnam. That experience affected him profoundly, and with seven other veterans, he wrote the play “Tracers” to help themselves heal and to share pieces of that time with an audience.
The play won the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award in 1980 for best ensemble and then opened in New York in 1984, earning Chaves a Theatre World Award for outstanding new talent. “Tracers” also resonated with audiences.
Sometimes, Chaves said an audience member would tell him, “’Thank you for letting us know how it was over there. Now I know what my dad is going through’ or ‘Now I know what my son is going through. I didn’t understand,’” said Chaves, 63, who went on to earn roles in the movie “Predator” and the “War of the Worlds” TV series. “That we would be able to convey some type of understanding meant a great deal.”
The play and his war experience have repeatedly circled through his life. For example, Chaves will soon star in the world premiere of Lyle Kessler’s play, “The Great Divide,” which will run July 11-Aug. 29 at the Elephant Theatre Company’s Lillian Theater (1036 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood). The role came to him because the theater’s artistic director knew Chaves from a more recent production of “Tracers” and suggested that he audition for the role of the father, which he won.
However, “The Great Divide” has nothing to do with war aside from the battles that often exist in families. In the black comedy, written by the author of the Tony-award nominated play, “Orphans,” Chaves plays a father whose oldest twin son has stopped talking to him. In order to revive contact, Chaves’ character fakes his own death, and when the son arrives, he miraculously comes back to life. More drama ensues when the son’s thieving friends arrive.
For Chaves, the role has been a surprise. He had given up acting seven years ago and became a handyman in the Palisades, where he lived in the Sunset Mesa area before moving to Sherman Oaks six years ago. However, the Palisades has remained a focal point of his life, not only because of his work, but also because of his connection to the American Legion, where he has been a member for 20 years.
“The Legion is a second home for me,” said Chaves, who relishes having other military people to connect with about his past and his present. “I love those guys. They’ve been very kind to me.”
During his hiatus from acting, he also found success as an artist, burning figures in wood in a specialized art called pyrography. However on Dec. 9, 2013, his life changed.
“I went down like a rock,” said Chaves, who suffered from bleeding ulcers stemming from his exposure to Agent Orange. He spent two months in the V.A. hospital and had to stop working on his art. Yet, in some ways, the experience was a blessing.
“It was an epiphany. It really was,” said Chaves. During his time in the V.A., he repeatedly had people thank him for his military service. “Every single person from the janitor to the doctors thanked me for my service. It brought me to tears every time.”
This experience was in stark contrast to some of the traumatizing, negative comments he had received at times from members of the public when he first joined the Army and occasionally during the years after his service ended. His previous time in the V.A. also had not been pleasant. And yet this stay helped him realize that the path he began in working on “Tracers” was the right one.
“I knew I had to stay on the path that I started when I did that—to heal from it and to use it in a positive way.” He later added, “Somehow, some way, over the years, I’ve been blessed, and I do consider it a blessing. I’ve been able to portray military experience in my work. It’s amazing when you think about it.”
As his health improved, he gradually revived his performing. He began attending open mics in Santa Monica and at the Veterans Alliance Theater Company in Culver City where he read some of his writing. Then, he got the call to audition for “The Great Divide” and he found his acting in the audition was particularly focused and fluid.
“Sometimes you have to go through a traumatic situation to see how wonderful it is to be alive,” Chaves said.