The Strategerist Podcast: April 19, 2019

Episode 15: Gary Sinise

Award-winning actor and director Gary Sinise tells the story of how he found his calling: To see that those who defend this country and its freedoms are never forgotten. He shares insights into life before the famous Lt. Dan Taylor character from Forrest Gump, his new book Grateful American, and how he became interested in acting in high school.


Read the episode transcript

00:00 Andrew Kauffman: The classic American success story is a kid with a dream making it big by creating his own opportunity and starting a company. Oscar-nominated actor Gary Sinise did just that by starting a theater company, the now prominent Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. And though many of Gary's connections with the veterans came about because of his work in film and theater, particularly in portraying Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump, the seeds of his passion for veterans were planted by members of his own family. 

00:29 Gary Sinise: But when I met her brothers and her sister's husband, they changed everything for me. They just started telling me about Vietnam and what it was like to come home to a divided nation. 

00:42 AK: Gary shared insights into life before Lieutenant Dan and Forest Gump as a young actor with an entrepreneurial spirit, and we talk about how his foundation and new book, Grateful American: A Journey From Self to Service, highlight the importance of serving our veterans. I'm Andrew Kauffman and this is The Strategerist, presented by the George W. Bush Institute. 


01:06 AK: What happens when you cross the 43rd President, late-night sketch comedy, and compelling conversation? The Strategerist, a podcast born from the word strategery, which was coined by SNL and embraced by the George W. Bush administration. We highlight the American spirit of leadership and compassion through thought provoking conversations, and we're reminded that the most effective leaders are the ones who laugh. 


01:33 AK: Well, we are really fortunate today 'cause we have the wickedly awesome... I'm trying to go... I'm trying an East Coast theme in honor of Matt Amidon here, but we have the wickedly awesome Gary Sinise joining us today, a real treat. 

01:46 GS: Wickedly awesome. 

01:47 AK: Exactly. 

01:48 GS: Yeah, thank you. 

01:50 AK: Co-hosting with us today is Matt Amidon, our director at the Bush Institute's military service initiative. Matt, thank you. 

01:55 Matt Amidon: Thank you, honored to be here. Gary, thank you so much. 

01:57 GS: You bet man. 

01:58 AK: And welcome to the Bush Center, seated on the beautiful SMU campus. 

02:02 GS: Oh, thanks. 

02:03 AK: And a real gem at SMU is the Meadow School of the Arts, where they bake entrepreneurship into their curriculum. And a big part of your story is that you founded the Steppenwolf Theatre. So for the students out there listening, did you ever envision yourself as an entrepreneur? 

02:21 GS: Well, I guess if you look back at some of those things that are in the book that I wrote, you see a kid who kinda is a little bit loose, a little bit lost, a little bit trying to find his way, and eventually having to make up things to get along. And I was, from an early age, I think, I was always the type of person who just took initiative. My dad was working all the time, and my mom had her hands full with my brother and sister, my grandmother, her sister, they all lived with us, and my mom just had her hands full. So I was kind of running around like on my own, trying to figure things out. And so I ended up being the kid who kind of organized the baseball game in the neighborhood, or the football game, or the hockey game, or the rock concert or whatever it was. I took initiative after high school to start a theater company, and because I was not a good student in high school and the idea of going to college just wasn't... 


03:37 GS: It wasn't making any sense to me after struggling through high school so much, but I wanted to continue to doing what I was doing in high school; I learned how to act in high school, I stumbled into theater in high school, and I wanted to continue that. And so, what do you do if you're not going to college? You either go... As an actor, you go to Hollywood or you go to New York or... At that time there wasn't a whole lot going on in Chicago theater-wise, there were a few theaters, but I just wanted to continue doing that. So I started the theater company at 18 years old, and that theater company is now 45-years-old, we own four buildings in Chicago and it started by kids. So it really is, there's a part of Grateful American, the book I wrote here, that really talks about the freedom that we have here in this country to take initiative to do things. If you can dream it up, you can figure it out, you can do it, and that's kind of... There's some pretty funny stories about the lost kid in this book, but it all sort of manifested itself into action, and that's kind of the kind of person I've been. My life is just to kind of see something and go get it. 

04:56 AK: Right. And that's, to me, the best part of the book, is that over and over there's that lesson that you gotta go take action yourself. And from the 18-year-old kid at the Steppenwolf Theatre to the man that made the Gary Sinise Foundation, which now is supporting veterans and doing such great work there. 

05:14 GS: Well, yeah, yeah. I mean that's a... Is that a question? 


05:20 AK: Not a very good one. [chuckle] 

05:21 MA: Well, I tell you, I think the title of your book is so meaningful and so appropriate, of course, as we all should kinda reflect on the blessings that we have in this nation. So I was very taken with your book and with the title, but I'm always fascinated with those decisional inflection points in somebody's life. So, I think it was you randomly on a whim auditioned for West Side Story, is that right? Your first ever in high school? Can you just... So that was a decision you made that really started a path that leads to today almost. And what was that decision, what was the call of the theater? Was it just something new or... 

05:58 GS: You know what? We all have those moments in our life where we're standing there and just something happens. And next thing you know, 10 years later, it was the moment that changed our lives. And you look back at it and say, "If I wasn't at that particular place or didn't meet that particular person at that moment, I don't know what I'd be doing now." Same thing with me, in high school I just happened to be standing there when the... As I said, I was really a struggling student, and so much so that it's possible I would have been asked to leave the school, [chuckle] gently asked to leave the school because of the trouble I was getting in. And music was kind of the only thing that was keeping me motivated. I loved playing music, I had bands. I was standing in this hallway with some of the people in my band, and we looked pretty rugged, and the drama teacher walked by and saw us and said she was directing West Side Story, about the gangs, right? And she just thought we'd look good... 

07:08 MA: Representing a gang. 

07:09 GS: And she looked at us and thought we looked like gang members. So, she invited us to come and audition for the show. And me and another guy, one of the other band members, did. And I didn't know what an audition was, I had no idea what any of that was, but I saw all the pretty girls going into the audition, we just followed them in and sat down and didn't know what... And then they handed me a script and I was like, "What do I do?" And all the... You could tell all these theater kids were used to it, they had auditioned before. And so they were getting up and they were very poised and polished and spitting their lines out, and I could barely read, and I just started making jokes when it got to my turn to talk, and everybody was laughing, and she, the teacher was even laughing. So next thing I know, next day, I see my name on the cast list and I got in the show. And she put me in the show. The chapter in my book that I talk about this is called baptism. And it was... It really was the moment that I was baptized into this new world that changed everything for me. I went into the business, I created a theater company, I ended up making a living at it, I had a film career; and the moment that it started was that moment where she walked down the hallway and I got in the play. 

08:32 GS: And I remember I was such a struggling kid that I didn't know what it was gonna be like, but by the end of that experience in West Side Story, I was totally submerged into it. I remember crying my eyes out when the play was over because it was so life-changing. And I think it's kind of a very moving section in the book for any young student who kinda may be searching for something and not connecting to his fellow students or anything. I, all of a sudden, stumbled into this thing and the community of the theater kids kind of embraced me and saw that something special was happening to this kid who was just about to get kicked out of school, and it was life changing. And from that point on, I auditioned for every play I could, I went to build the sets, I painted the sets, I ran the lights, I did the sound, whatever theater experience I could have in high school, I did. And as soon as I graduated, I started the theater company that's still here 45 years later. 

09:42 AK: It's the power of a good teacher. 

09:44 MA: Absolutely. 

09:45 GS: She was... You know what? I didn't go to college, but the experience that I got from her and the incentive that she gave me to just rely on my instincts and to trust my natural ability to sort of just get up there and do it, I learned so much there in those early days, and I just took that right into the founding of a theater company, and that theater company included John Malkovich and and Joan Allen, the woman who would become my wife five years later, Moira, and we've been together now since 1976. So a lot of things happened because of that theater life, and we have a nice space at the Gary Sinise Foundation, it's called our Center for Education and Outreach, and it sort of tells the Gary story of how I kind of stumbled into the acting world, and then took that... 

10:50 GS: It's a little bit like the subtitle of the book here, it's called A Journey From Self to Service. And it tells that story, and it starts with the theater and the acting part, and then moves into the service work, but without the theater and without the acting career, and without... I don't... I would have never played Lieutenant Dan if I wasn't an actor, and life would have been very, very different. Lieutenant Dan was something that changed my life in many ways, not just as an actor, because I hadn't done that many movie parts up to that point, but it set the stage for so much of the good things I have been doing with regards to our veterans. And that was 25 years ago, when the movie came out. 

11:40 MA: That's a proud organization that you created in the Steppenwolf. And before we get to more important things, I have to ask, why Steppenwolf? 

11:49 GS: [chuckle] Yeah, it's funny. As I said, when I was 18, we just got some high school kids together. I tell a story in the book that my class, my graduating class, was in 1973, but because I was such a screw up in high school, I didn't have enough credits to graduate with my class. So it was either just not graduate or go back and graduate with the next class, the 1974 class, and take another semester of school. I wanted to get a diploma, so I went back and did another semester in high school. And I talk about this in the book, how I felt just terrible, like a terrible failure. Even though I was one of the top theater kids at that time, I was still... I didn't feel good about myself. But I ended up doing another play, and it was very meaningful, and it was a good play to do. So I graduated with the class, we say in the book 1973 and a half. 


13:00 MA: A mid year. 

13:01 GS: Yeah, that was my graduating class. 

13:04 AK: You can go to both reunions if you want to. 

13:05 GS: '73... 


13:07 GS: You're absolutely right. 

13:07 AK: Choose the younger one. 

13:09 MA: Yeah. 


13:12 GS: You're right. I never thought of that. And so, when I graduated, I wanted to keep that feeling that I was having in high school with doing plays. So, I just got some kids together that were still in high school, kids that I knew from the theater department, and we started doing plays. And the first play we did, we did at this church that my parents knew the architects of the church, and I asked them, "Can you talk to the church and see if they'll let us use the space to put on a play?" And so they did. They gave us a key and said, "Just lock up when you're done rehearsing." And we went in there and... You know, we didn't charge for tickets or anything like that, but we advertised and all the parents were coming, all the cousins and nephews of everybody and everything, that's what the audience was. And we wanted to have something on our program that said we were a theater company. So we were looking for a name, and we were at rehearsal one day and we were all just sitting around, "What are we gonna call this thing?" And somebody happened to be reading the book... Do you know the book? It's by Herman Hesse, H-E-S-S-E? 

14:19 MA: Oh, yeah. 

14:21 AK: Absolutely. 

14:21 GS: And it's called Steppenwolf. 

14:22 AK: Yeah, okay. 

14:23 GS: He was reading that book, and we looked at it and I said, "Let's put that on the program." And so we put Steppenwolf Theatre on the program. I never read the book and... 


14:34 GS: He never even read that. 


14:34 AK: Have you read it since then? 

14:36 GS: I think it's a better story, they keep saying that I haven't read... 

14:39 AK: I thought it was the band, I thought it was your favorite band at the time. 

14:42 GS: No. Well, we would have people call the theater and say, "Is Steppenwolf playing tonight?" 


14:47 AK: And you'd say yes, get the audience. 

14:48 GS: [14:48] Yeah, John Malkovich is in Steppenwolf. 


14:53 AK: Well, and those early theater days brought you to the play Tracers, which, according to the book, is really where a lot of your work with veterans started. Did you anticipate at that point that that play was going to be such a life-changer in your career? 

15:08 GS: I didn't know. What it was was, because of the veterans in my own family and particularly the Vietnam veterans, because they were not that much older than I was, the Vietnam veterans on my wife's side of the family, I started to meet them when I got together with her, and she introduced me to her brothers and her sister's husband, all who served in Vietnam, all in the US Army. They started to kinda educate me a little bit. And when I was a kid, the Vietnam War was raging on; combat operations were over in 1973, the year I was supposed to graduate from high school. So all through my high school years, and all those years preceding it, the Vietnam War was raging on. And yet... And on television, you would watch the casualty reports, and I knew my mom and dad were kind of fearful that I was going to graduate and get drafted, all these things. It was a difficult time for our country, difficult time for our soldiers. But as a kid, I was preoccupied with my rock band and my theater stuff and the girlfriends... 

16:23 MA: As you should be, as you should be. 

16:23 GS: And all these things. I wasn't really... I was just being a kid, I wasn't paying attention to what was going on with the war that much. But when I met her brothers and her sister's husband, they changed everything for me. They just started telling me about Vietnam and what it was like to come home to a divided nation and a nation that had turned its back on the veterans. So when I took over as artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre, I was so kind of tuned in to Vietnam and wanting to do something for the Vietnam veterans. And so, as an artistic director of a theater, your primary job is to find plays to do, right? So I'm always looking for plays, and I'm looking at publications from around the country that tell what their local theater communities are doing and everything, and I found this play called Tracers, and it was written by a group of Vietnam veterans, and they were performing the play on stage. And most only a couple of them had ever done any theater before, the rest of them were just Vietnam veterans at this... There's one guy who'd done theater, conceived this... And who was a Vietnam veteran, conceived this idea to put a play together and get a bunch of Vietnam veterans together and write a play based on their experiences. 

17:51 GS: They would all sit around every day and talk about what they did, and what they saw, and who they knew, and experiences that they had, and then they would act it out, try to act it out together. And this one guy would sit there and write it all, and he ended up creating a play. And then the same guys would go on stage every night and perform it. So most of these guys had never done plays before, they wrote a play, and now they were on stage performing their own stories up. And so I flew out from Chicago and saw it on stage in Los Angeles and was completely knocked out by it. Went back the next night and saw it again, and it was exactly... This is what I want, I want to be a part of this. It's telling the stories of our Vietnam veterans.

18:40 GS: And prior to that... This is in the early 80s, this is 1980 when I saw it. Prior to that, Vietnam veterans were in the shadows. This is two years before the Vietnam Wall was built and dedicated. Vietnam veterans were still hiding, yet these guys were coming together every night and performing for 200 people every night 'cause the show was a big hit in Los Angeles. So I begged them to let me do it. I said, "You gotta let me do this show in Chicago." And I tell the story in the book that the guy who wrote it, he said, "No, no, no, 'can't do it. It should only be done by veterans. Veterans are the only ones that should ever perform this play." And I said, "Okay, but I'm gonna still keep bugging you." 


19:27 MA: I'm not going away. 

19:28 GS: Every three months I would call the guy and say, "Well, let me do it." And then it closed in Los Angeles, and then I would call and call and say, "What are you doing with the play? Nothing's happening with it, it's just going away." 

19:39 MA: Yeah, and it shouldn't. 

19:40 AK: Right, someone's gotta see that. 

19:40 GS: And it should be seen. And so he didn't know who Steppenwolf was, nobody really heard of Steppenwolf at that point. So I had him come out to Chicago and see another play that we were doing that Malkovich directed, that I was in, and a whole bunch of our ensemble were in. It was just a rocking show, I mean it was... It was one of our... In the history of Steppenwolf, it stands among the top 10 shows. It was called Balm in Gilead, and it was just a wild show, it had Springsteen music in it, and Tom Waits music, and Ricky Lee Jones, and it was just a really great show. He came and saw it and now he thought, "Steppenwolf, they're good. If anybody should do the play, I'm gonna let these guys do it." So he gave me the rights and I directed the play on stage, put a cast together, two of which were from outside our company, but were Vietnam veterans. And then the rest of my cast were not veterans, but he didn't mind that. He said that was okay, but he would only give me the rights for Chicago, he wouldn't give me the rights for New York or anything. I wanted world-wide rights to do it. [chuckle] 

20:53 GS: And we ended up doing it, and that show was so powerful in Chicago that the veteran community, just the word started to spread. And so I wanted to create a night for veterans at the theater, so every Tuesday night veterans would get in for free. And we had 220 seats and we'd have 200 veterans in the audience every Tuesday night who would show up for free. And some of these guys would come back week after week after week, their stories were now being told on stage. This was now 1984, the wall had been unveiled at that time, some things were starting to change right around in there. It was about 10 years after the fall of Saigon, not quite nine years, and the Vietnam veterans were starting to be... The country was starting to say, "Hey... " 

21:50 MA: Coming out of the shadows. 

21:50 GS: "Hey, we didn't do right by our Vietnam veterans." We've now got the wall, there were some parades, several things like that. And these stories of veterans were being told on stage every night. It was a galvanizing moment for me, I took my cast to the VA to talk to veterans who were dealing with Post-Traumatic stress in 1983, learned quite a bit. And the unfortunate thing is, when I made the decision to do it, when I got the rights, I was really looking forward to my brother-in-law, Mac Harris, who was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, who had taught me a lot about Vietnam and leadership and West Point and all this stuff, I wanted him to see it so bad, and he was diagnosed with cancer just about three months before I started rehearsing the play, and he died. He died about a month before I started rehearsing the play, so he never got to see it. But that, in some ways, just motivated me even more to do right by our Vietnam veterans. 

22:55 MA: What an amazing opportunity through the theater company to use that as a megaphone and a mechanism to kinda deal with the misperceptions by seasoned opinions of the Vietnam generation. It's fascinating to know that you had vets and non-vets in the cast. Were there initial tensions when they started working with one another? 

23:13 GS: No, because the vets who were in the cast were also actors. 

23:20 MA: Okay. 

23:21 GS: So... And they were bringing really... One of them was Dennis Farina, remember Dennis Farina? 

23:26 MA: Oh, yeah, yeah. 

23:27 GS: So Dennis was just starting out as an actor, he was a Chicago cop. And he was just getting into acting, and he'd done something else with us, and I asked him to play the drill instructor, and he was a Vietnam veteran, he served in Vietnam in 1963 and '64, early on in the war. So he was great, he was really into it, and the Vietnam veterans who were in the cast, another one, also they were real contributors, 'cause they had been there. And so it was good to have a couple of veterans in the cast. And I just had a great visual idea of how to stage the show, and it was very dynamic, very exciting, very powerful. And to this day, 35 years later, every one of our plays at Steppenwolf, we have a vets night. And veterans get in for free, we provide a meal for them, every single play since 1984, since we did that show. And that's a lot of plays. So a lot of veterans have been through Steppenwolf to see our shows over the years. 

24:36 AK: That's awesome. One of my favorite spots of the book is in the very first chapter where... It's in a foot note that you had called it post-traumatic stress instead of post-traumatic stress disorder. You, as President Bush has said many times, you've dropped the D on the disorder. Through all of your work with veterans, at what point did you realize that that was a powerful move to try to focus not just on their physical injuries, but on their mental state as well? 

25:04 GS: Yeah, well, as I'm sure it's been for President Bush, the more folks you meet that are going through trauma, and that have been to war, and that are dealing with physical challenges, and marriages that are impacted, and families that are going through difficulty, folks who've lost friends, children who've lost parents, families who've lost loved ones, all these things, there's a lot of mental stress that accompanies that service. And I started working with our wounded 25 years ago after I played Lieutenant Dan, supporting the Disabled American Veterans organization. There's a story in the book... In the very beginning of the book, I talk about a moment where I was invited to the National Convention of the DAV, and I didn't know what the DAV was at that point. I'd been very tuned up to Vietnam and the Vietnam veteran experience, so when 1993 came around, and I had the opportunity to play a Vietnam veteran, I very much wanted to do that. I had been working with Vietnam veterans since the early 80s, but I haven't really spent any time with disabled veterans or Gold Star families or that much. It was when they invited me to the national convention where there was a galvanizing moment in terms of... When you walk on stage, you're introduced in front of a crowd of 2,500 wounded veterans, it's gonna have some impact. 

27:05 MA: Yup. 

27:06 GS: It did with me, it impacted me so much that I never left it and continue to support the DAV all these years. Ramped it all up after September 11th, when our new generation of real life Lieutenant Dan started coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. But prior to that, I was teed up, I was teed up to support in any way I could. And I'd learned some valuable lessons from the Vietnam veterans that were in my family and that I'd befriended after that experience in Chicago working with them, supporting them in different ways, some that I talk about in the book, and then the opportunity to play a Vietnam veteran who's struggling with post-traumatic stress. Lieutenant Dan isn't just somebody who's missing his legs, but he was the lieutenant-who marched his platoon into an ambush, into a spot where they were just surrounded by tree lines, and they got cut down, and a bunch of his guys got killed or wounded, and he's dealing with that. That's when you see Lieutenant Dan, and he's not doing well, and he's drinking too much, and he's isolated himself, and he's by himself, and he's down and out and everything, that it's not just his physical disability that he's dealing with there, he's dealing with a lot of pain and anguish of being the guy responsible for losing people. And that is not an un-typical story for people that go to war. 

28:55 MA: I love that trajectory in the story there in the movie where you really see it initially, the war he wanted wasn't the war he got, in terms of his history. And then you see that sort of the moment on the fishing boat where he faces the storm and the positive end, which is you see him in a wonderful relationship at the end of the movie. And what an example for those who perhaps are facing the same challenges. 

29:18 GS: And I found that, Matt, when I started visiting the hospitals after our deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and visiting this new generation of wounded, and I'd walk into a room, and nine out of 10 of them wouldn't know my real name. They would just say Lieutenant Dan, and they'd... 

29:43 MA: It's meaningful. 

29:43 GS: And they'd wanna talk... And here they are, they're missing their legs or whatever, and they're in the hospital bed, and they wanna talk about Lieutenant Dan. Lieutenant Dan is such a... That story line in the movie is such a positive one because he's alright in the end. He's successful in business, he is moving on with his life, he's on new legs, he's married, he's forgiven himself, he's forgiven God, he's moving forward in his life. And I always talk about this in all my messaging. I mean, I've played hundreds of concerts for our troops, and I get up, every single one from the time I started back in '03, to just the other night, and I deliver a message all the time, and it's a very... It's a positive message, because the story of Lieutenant Dan is the story that we want for everyone coming home from war, that they can make the transition, that they can be okay, that don't keep going in this direction, but... 

30:54 MA: The next chapter can be a good one. 

30:56 GS: It can be a good one and that's a hopeful story. And you know what? That story of a Vietnam veteran had never been told before in the movie business. If you go back to 1978 when they started making movies about Vietnam, and that's when the first movie started to come out about Vietnam, The Vietnam Experience, it was The Deer Hunter, it was Coming Home, it was Platoon, it was Casualties of War. Some of these movies in the late 80s, early 90s, late 70s, they started to come out, but you always had this question at the end of the film, if the Vietnam veteran was gonna be okay. 

31:43 MA: Broken generation. 

31:45 GS: Yeah. There was so many. You can look at it just a dozen of them, and the Vietnam veterans... Apocalypse Now, he's crazy at the end. You just don't know if Martin Sheen is gonna be okay after that 


32:00 MA: Right, right. 

32:02 GS: And then along comes Forrest Gump. And you think maybe it's going one way because he's down and out, but by the end of the film he's standing up, his friend's getting married, he's a business guy, he's successful. And that story of the Vietnam veteran had never been told before, and there were many stories like that of guys who were able to put their war years behind them and move on in business and succeed... 

32:29 MA: Continue leadership. 

32:31 GS: So it was kinda cool that that story line started to resonate. And I certainly found it was resonating with the people that I was visiting in the hospitals, that they wanted to hear about that story. 

32:43 AK: Gary, we can't thank you enough for the time you're spending here with us talking about your book, and with our Engage at the Bush Center presented by Highland Capital Management audience after this. And of course, for all the time that you spend serving our veterans over the years. 

32:56 GS: Well, thank you, and I hope the book resonates with folks and that they're able to see if there's some positive things. And I talk about a lot of wonderful people in that book. 

33:09 AK: Grateful American: A Journey From Self to Service. The New York Times Best Selling Grateful American, is now on sale in bookstores, be sure to get a copy. It's a great read. Thank you so much, Gary. 

33:21 GS: Thank you, you bet. 

33:23 MA: Thank you very much. 


33:25 AK: If you enjoyed today's episode and would like to help us spread the word about The Strategerist, please give us a five-star review and tell your friends to subscribe. We're available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and all the major listening apps. If you're tuning in on a smartphone, tap or swipe over the cover art, you'll find episode notes with helpful information and details you may have missed. The Strategerist was produced by Ioanna Papas at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, Texas. Thank you for listening.

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