Advocate and actor Gary Sinise has a long pedigree in the acting field, dating back to when he cofounded Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company at only 18 years old. While he has played a long list of characters over the years, there was one pivotal role — portraying Lieutenant Dan Taylor in the film Forrest Gump with Tom Hanks — that had a significant impact on Sinise personally and professionally, and took his life on a new path he never anticipated: creating a foundation to support veterans.
Sinise is AARP’s honorary Purpose Prize Award winner for his founding and leadership of the Gary Sinise Foundation, which was formed in 2011. The Foundation honors military members, veterans, first responders, their families and those in need. It creates and supports unique programs designed to entertain, educate, inspire, strengthen and build communities.
We spoke to Sinise, 68, shortly after the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — which, coincidentally, became the catalyst for what would become an unforeseen life’s mission for the actor.
You are receiving this award for your work with the military and first responders, and you just celebrated a First Responder Appreciation Day event recently.
As part of our Gary Sinise Foundation, we’ve done several of these events over the years, sometimes related to something that has happened, a fire, flood, hurricane or whatever. We roll in and try to back up the first responders who were responding to a particular event. This past weekend, it was revolving, of course, around the 22nd anniversary of September 11. We did a couple of different events, one in Charlotte, [North Carolina], and one in Erie, Pennsylvania.
The foundation and your work with first responders and military has probably taken your life on a path that you never anticipated years ago.
There’s no question about it. There’s the pre-September 11 activities, and then there’s the post-September 11 activities, and I feel like some of the things that I was doing in the ’80s and ’90s were just a prerequisite, preparing me in some way for a broader mission of service that would take place after the attacks on our country on September 11, 2001. Could you predict where that was going to go? No, but nobody really saw that coming and what that would do to our country and what it would do to the men and women in uniform who responded to those attacks, and I just wanted to play a role in supporting them. With many veterans in my own family, I have great respect there, and I wanted to do something positive — and that turned into a full-time, full-on mission to go where the needs were and to raise money and to raise awareness and to create a foundation that could support people.