Grateful American tells the remarkable evolution of Gary Sinise from a disillusioned teenager into someone who has devoted much of his adult life to serving veterans, active duty service members, and first responders. It’s a life story that easily could have turned out badly, but instead turned out triumphant.
Gary Sinise is a critically acclaimed actor, probably best known for his roles as Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump and later as Mac Taylor in CSI: New York. I have to confess that I’ve never been “into” celebrities. In fact, celebrity worship mystifies me. I really don’t understand it. So normally I wouldn’t be drawn to celebrity memoirs, but in this case I was. Gary Sinise is one of the few celebrities I like, and it’s mostly because of his work with veterans, although I also think he was pretty awesome as LT Dan! (Kelly Ripa, if you’re reading this, don’t worry – you’re also on my elite celebrity “like” list!)
In addition to his charitable work, Grateful American also chronicles his acting career, which began accidentally when a drama teacher asked him to try out for the high school’s production of West Side Story because she thought he would make a good gang member. Before then he had been pretty shiftless, doing poorly in school and often skipping classes to smoke pot with his friends. So, yes, he was good gang member material. But what that teacher did that day quite literally turned his life around. He was cast in the play and loved it. He had found his passion and his tribe. (yay teachers!)
Following high school, he started up the Steppenwolf Theater Company. In its early days, it was just some really young people putting on plays in a school basement, but it grew to be a nationally acclaimed troupe, eventually winning Tony Awards for some of its New York productions. Early members included John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf. Gary Sinise proved to be someone with vision and the ability to make it reality. It was during this time period that he also grew sympathetic to the plight veterans, especially those that had recently returned from Vietnam.
His iconic portrayal of LT Dan, Forrest Gump’s platoon leader who becomes a paraplegic due to war injuries, launched a successful movie and TV career. It also spawned a relationship with Disabled American Veterans (DAV), a group that advocates for disabled vets (including me!). The character of LT Dan had really resonated with disabled vets.
But the tipping point for him was 9/11. It affected him deeply and he felt a call to serve. He started doing USO tours, during which LT Dan again served him well. People may not recognize the name Gary Sinise, but everyone recognizes LT Dan! He even formed the LT Dan Band (he plays bass) and the band has performed countless concerts for the troops. His service efforts grew every year and eventually resulted in the formation of the Gary Sinise Foundation, which has an annual budget of $30 million. The foundation has several focus areas, including building accessible housing for disabled vets, hosting festivals near military hospitals that patients and their families can attend, and sending WWII veterans to the WWII Museum in New Orleans.
Gary Sinise has received a lot of recognition for his charitable work, but that’s not why he does it. “I’ve simply tried to take action whenever and wherever I can, because I care about the men and women who are serving our country and I want to do my bit to back them up.”
A life of humble service? Now, that’s my kind of celebrity!
I recommend this book, not necessarily for the writing (which is utilitarian) but for the story it tells. It’s interesting from a couple of perspectives – you learn about one actor’s rise from small, local stage productions to landing a memorable role that earned him an Academy Award nomination. And you also get treated to a personal testimony about answering a call to service. It’s very moving and inspirational.
Have you read Grateful American? What did you think? Or, if you could read only one celebrity’s memoir (existing or not), whose would you choose?
This post may contain Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn a small commission from qualifying purchases. (This in no way affects the honesty of my reviews!)