It’s been 15 years since actor Gary Sinise barked at Tom Hanks as Lt. Dan Taylor in Forrest Gump, but plenty of people still call the 54-year-old actor by his character’s name. Sinise doesn’t mind, though. In fact, in a certain way, he even takes it as a compliment.
While not a veteran himself, Sinise is a vocal supporter of American troops. Since 2003, the Chicago-area native has gone on many USO tours both across the U.S. and to military bases abroad, signing countless autographs and shaking thousands of hands in the process.
“I have veterans in my family. On my side there’s WWII and Korea. On my wife’s side, she’s got Vietnam veteran brothers and her sister was in the army. And I have Vietnam veteran friends,” Sinise says. “We have an all-volunteer service – we’re lucky that we do – and they get called upon in these tough situations. What would we do if no one volunteered to serve the country and to defend the country?”
His first year doing the trips, Sinise went to Iraq twice to visit the troops, and between mugging for pictures and responding to calls of “Lt. Dan! Lt. Dan!” he had a thought: Next time, he should bring his bass. And maybe a few friends.
Before Sinise was Lt. Dan or Detective Mac Taylor on CSI: NY, he was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Chicago and an aspiring musician playing in bands with his friends. After high school he steered into acting instead of rock ’n’ roll, founding the now famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1974 where he still serves on the board. Music was relegated into the back seat.
However, Sinise’s USO tours offered the actor a chance to showcase his musical talents and entertain deserving troops simultaneously.
“I thought it would be fun to take some musicians with me on a tour with the USO after I started doing these USO tours. The USO agreed, and we set up a tour.”
“Some musicians” are the 12-piece band, which includes multiple vocalists, a couple of horns, keyboards and Sinise on the bass, that became known as Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band – a tribute to both his famous character and to the enlisted men and women he focuses on entertaining. Five years later, the band has played for thousands of troops in the U.S. and abroad, and is preparing to head to Afghanistan for the first time this Thanksgiving. Before they visit the Middle East, the band will play a military appreciation concert this Sunday at the Cannery Casino and Hotel.
“The military shows are always terrific, because it’s a totally appreciative audience,” Sinise explains. “Sometimes we’re playing for folks that haven’t had any entertainment for quite some time. So they’re really up for it and ready to go.”
The live show features a range of covers that seems to make the actor especially proud – everything from ’40s tunes to Evanescence. “It’s all over the place. The mix just keeps coming at you, and by the end of the show you’ve heard so many good tunes that you have made you feel good that it’s very hard to walk away from our show not feeling energized.”
- Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band
- Sept. 6, 8 p.m., $19.95
- The Club at the Cannery Casino & Hotel
The set list even includes songs that Sinise played back in high school in the ’60s, like Jimi Hendrix classic, “Purple Haze.”
“I did ‘Purple Haze’ then and I do purple haze now. We do Purple Haze for the Vietnam era folks and blast it out.”
Most of the time, he says, the crowd responds with as much enthusiasm as the musicians. Sinise recalled a trip to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri during which the band played for about 6,000 recruits and their drill instructors.
“All the recruits are very put together, and they’re standing up straight and doing what they’re told, and then the band comes out and they start going crazy,” Sinise says, laughing. “And the drill instructors are at the mercy of the show. They can’t do anything. The drill instructors, who are used to controlling all the troops, have to stand there being tortured watching all these recruits go completely nuts.”
One instructor glared up at Sinise before venturing into the crowd, the recruits then forced to stop dancing and stand attention as he walked slowly by.
“When he would pass them by they would start going crazy again. He just wanted to remind them that they still had to pay attention to where he was and what he was doing and that he was in control. But you could tell he was just in agony.”
Chuckling at the memory, it’s clear Sinise takes pleasure in his side project as a musician and military entertainer. Still, the Lt. Dan Band is far from a second job.
“ CSI: NY is my job, and, thankfully, it’s also fun. I’ve been fortunate in my life to do what I love,” Sinise says, adding that 75 percent of the band’s shows are USO tours or charity concerts. “The band is something that I don’t really make money on. If I break even at the end of the year, I’m happy.”
A source of pride and fun, rather than money, the band is also Sinise’s escape.
“My income comes from acting,” he explains. “When I was a little kid I wanted to be a baseball player and then I wanted to be in a rock band. It’s come full circle. There was a time when I fancied myself up on stage rocking out, and now we play for thousands of people.”
We always knew Lt. Dan could rock.