Gary Sinise has played Det. Mac Taylor on CSI: New York for seven seasons. He co-founded the esteemed Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago when he was only 18 years old, directed and starred in a sterling cinematic adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and played larger-than-life politicians Harry Truman and George Wallace in award-winning television movies. But chances are, you know him first and last as Lieutenant Dan. His Oscar-nominated role as a disabled and angry Vietnam War veteran in 1994’s Forrest Gump resonated with audiences, and when he began visiting soldiers with the USO, everyone recognized him immediately as that character. So when Sinise formed a musical band to entertain the troops, there was only one logical name for it.
The Lt. Dan Band, on which Sinise plays bass guitar, performs about 40 shows a year in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, and a new documentary about Sinise’s dedication to the troops is available for pay-per-view online starting today. Lt. Dan Band: For the Common Good is the result of nearly two years of trips around the globe, and it documents Sinise’s bond with the men and women who put their lives in harm’s way. For the next 30 days, the film will be available online for $3.99, with a quarter of that fee donated to the Gary Sinise Foundation.
Tonight, the band will be celebrating the nation’s holiday by performing for soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, but the actor recently talked to EW.com about his music, his movie, and his passion for America’s real heroes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you find yourself flying into warzones like a modern-day Bob Hope?
GARY SINISE: I’ve been involved with veterans groups since the early ‘80s, but I think it was what happened on Sept. 11 that was a catalyst for me getting much more involved. Like so many people, I was feeling vulnerable, fearing for the future of our country and what was going to happen, and I didn’t want to sit back and do nothing. So when we started deploying our troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, I began visiting them. In 2003, I did like six handshake tours, and I just couldn’t do enough of that. I finally said to the USO, “Look, the handshake tours are great and everything, but I’ve got some musicians. Why don’t I put on a show?”
What exactly was your band at that point?
It wasn’t a band. I had struck up a friendship with Kimo Williams, a Vietnam veteran who had composed [the music for] a Steppenwolf play back in 1997. He played guitar, and whenever I came to town, we’d get some guys together and just play and get some pizza and hang out. It was just sort of this jam group. And then I said, “Hey, guess what? We’re going on tour.” So we actually had to start rehearsing and learning some songs. So the band got better and better. I’m always out on the weekends performing, [even] when I’m doing CSI: NY.
Had you always played?
I had my first guitar when I was in fourth grade, and I played music in bands from sixth grade all through high school. When you’re a kid, you’re always thinking, “Jeez I’d love to be up in front of that big crowd, playing away, like the Beatles or something,” but I basically put down the guitars [when I started acting] and didn’t play for a long time.
What kind of band are you?
There’s a curiosity about an actor with a band. They don’t have a very good reputation. [Laughs] But we’re a cover band and we play a lot of great songs. We’ll do anything from ’40’s tunes to Evanesence. It’s all over the map. We can go from “Purple Haze” to “Tuxedo Junction,” you know? I made sure that we put a set together that you know the troops are really going to have a good time with. It’s a high-energy show. When you’re playing all hits! It’s just a series of one great song after another.
When did you think this was something that might make a documentary?
I didn’t. I wasn’t looking to make a documentary or document anything. The director, Jonathan Flora, came to me having heard that I was visiting the troops, and he pitched an idea of following me around. And I had to think about it, because I didn’t want somebody to take footage and do something… You know? I just was worried about how it would be treated. But the first thing he shot was me playing for something called Snowball Express, which is an organization I’ve supported which brings together the children of our fallen soldiers and gives them a great time. So he came down, saw what I was doing with the kids, and interviewed some of the parents, you know, the spouses who had lost either a husband or a wife. I think from that point on, he was absolutely hooked on what I was going to show him.
When you were making Forrest Gump, did you ever imagine your character would become such a part of your life?
No. No, I didn’t. I felt very personally connected to playing the character and just felt like it was such an opportunity. It just felt right. But who would’ve known Lt. Dan would connect to so many military people and that it would become something that would just kind of live with me, you know? I didn’t know that.
I’m guessing you hear a lot of “Lt. Dan?!” wherever you go, whether it’s Iraq or the local supermarket.
Always. Always. From the moment Forrest Gump came out. They do that all the time. You know, I played a lot of characters since then, but people kind of knew my face as Lt. Dan. They didn’t really know what my name was. So they were calling me that all the time on these tours. You’ll see in the documentary, some soldier says, “Hey, Lt. Dan!” When I go into the hospital and I see a guy who’s lost a leg or something, we start talking about Lt. Dan, a guy who goes through a lot of anger but overcomes and perseveres. He’s standing up at the end of the movie. That’s a positive story for a lot of our wounded veterans. They seem to connect to that, and a lot of these soldiers and marines have seen this movie. If they want to call me that, I don’t care. I’m just there to try to make them feel better, so if that makes them feel good, let them do it.
Did the band every toy with other names?
When it was just a jam group, Kimo and I would call it the G&K Band. Gary and Kimo, of course.
Lt. Dan Band is a much better name.
Yeah, I just went with it. And it’s turned into a big part of my mission to give back to [the troops], and to make sure that they see me coming back time and time and time again. They know that I’m in it with them, and I think that’s a good feeling for me to know that I can do something for them. I meet service members all the time who’ve seen the band now in five different places around the world. They know I’m supporting them.