Scripture tells us that God is not found in the storm; he is found in the silence or in a gentle breeze. But that’s not always the case. Actor Gary Sinise and his wife, Moira, found God in a hurricane.
In the late 1990s, the couple drove to Charlotte, North Carolina, in an effort to escape the storm and catch a plane to safer ground.
“It was raining and the storm was coming in, and we were trying to outrun this hurricane,” Sinise explained in a phone interview from his office in Los Angeles. “Moira turned to me and said that when we got home she was going to become a Catholic and our kids were going to go to Catholic school.
“All I knew about Catholic school at that point was from some of my Catholic buddies who said nuns were scary and that kind of thing,” he said. “So I was like, ‘Catholic school? No. We just moved, and there’s a public school across the street—and it’s free!’”
Moira Sinise’s mom was Catholic and her dad was Methodist, but she wasn’t raised in either faith. After the hurricane incident, however, Moira made good on her promise to return to the Catholic Church. She entered an RCIA program and enrolled the couple’s three children in a local Catholic school. The family began going to Mass together, and the actor soon started noticing changes in his family.
“Back in the late ’90s, we had gone through some very dark times in our family with alcohol,” he explained. “My wife had recently given up drinking, and after she became Catholic, I had started to see just how positive it was for our kids being in the Catholic school—compared to the public school—as we were bumping over that period of time. It became a kind of comforting place. Even though I wasn’t Catholic, I was grateful for this little school and the Church and what it was providing for our family.”
The Chicago native grew up in Highland Park, just north of the city. His father served in the U.S. Navy in the early 1950s and was stationed in Washington, D.C., when Sinise was born in 1955.
Sinise’s passion for acting was hatched in high school when, as the member of a rock band, he was handpicked by his school’s drama teacher to play one of the gang members in West Side Story.
“We laughed and thought it would be funny for me to be in a play, but as I stood outside the room where the auditions were taking place, I saw all the pretty girls walking in,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was making jokes during the audition, and people were laughing. The drama teacher thought that was pretty entertaining, so she cast me as one of The Sharks.”
Being cast in his first play forever changed the course of Sinise’s life. Not only did it set him on the road to Hollywood, but it also raised the bar for him academically.
“I was a student who was struggling in school,” he said. “I was playing in this band, but then I found theater, and it changed my life. All of a sudden I began doing plays and taking drama classes, and I started to get As in class. I’d never gotten As before.”
The budding actor had found his calling. As soon as he finished high school, Sinise and two friends founded a theater company.
“We started doing plays in a church, and eventually we ended up in the basement of a Catholic church,” he explained. “That became Steppenwolf Theater Company, and now it’s over 40 years old.”
Since then, Steppenwolf has showcased the talents of notable actors such as Joan Allen, Kevin Anderson, Gary Cole, Ethan Hawke, Glenne Headly, John Mahoney, John Malkovich, Martha Plimpton, and William Petersen. Sinise honed his acting and directing skills at Steppenwolf, which took him from Chicago to New York City and then to London’s West End, where he worked on more than 30 of the company’s productions.
His first major motion picture was one he produced, directed, and starred in—1992’s Of Mice and Men, based on John Steinbeck’s novella of the same name. The film was entered in the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, where Sinise was nominated for the Palme d’Or award, given to the director of the best feature film.
Rallying the troops
With his theater and film career in high gear in the early 1990s, Sinise was already pursuing another passion—serving wounded veterans. The military, you could say, was in his blood. His grandfather served in the U.S. Army in France during World War I, and his dad’s two brothers fought in World War II. One was on a ship in the Pacific and the other was a navigator on a B-17 bomber over Europe.
“It was the Vietnam veterans on my wife’s side of the family that got me talking to other vets in the early ’80s,” he explained. “I started working with Vietnam veterans groups in the Chicago area. So when I had the chance to audition for Lt. Dan [in Forrest Gump], a Vietnam veteran, boy, I wanted that very badly because I had been involved with Vietnam veterans for 10 years prior to that.
“I was lucky I was given that part. That’s how I got involved with our wounded—playing a wounded soldier led me to getting involved with the Disabled American Veterans organization. That’s lasted 20 years now.”
But it wasn’t until after the 9/11 attacks that the Academy Award nominee really ramped up his efforts to aid the troops.
“I felt this very clear calling as to where my service efforts could be most effective,” he explained. “I remember standing in the church a few days after September 11. The church was packed, and the priest’s words were very moving. I was crying, and I felt a calling to use what I had to support our men and women who are serving.”
In 2011 the actor established the Gary Sinise Foundation, which raises funds to build custom “smart homes” for America’s severely wounded heroes. Each home features automated amenities to help wounded vets restore their everyday independence. This year the foundation hopes to build about 30 custom smart homes for severely wounded veterans across the country.
Sinise, who got his first guitar in fourth grade, also raises awareness and funds through his first passion—music.
“Growing up we would just put records on and have concerts in our living room for the neighborhood kids who would watch us lip-synch to Beach Boys records,” he said. “And then eventually I learned how to play a little bit. I was playing in bands from sixth grade all the way up to my early 20s.”
His Lt. Dan Band has performed for more than 300,000 troops and their families in the U.S., Belgium, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They have performed in more than 60 USO tours and 140 USO concerts. The band plays 30 to 40 shows each year, with 75 percent of those shows for charities, benefits, or the USO.
Leap of faith
With Sinise set to star in a spin-off of CBS’ Criminal Minds series this fall, Gary and Moira Sinise’s 34-year marriage is stronger than ever.
“She’s been remarkable in what she’s been through in her life, and she’s got a great sense of humor,” he said. “We keep each other laughing. We have great kids and a great family life. We recognize that a lot of the difficult things we went through early on and throughout our lives have played a role in our journey—and our faith journey is a big part of that.”
Although Sinise went to Mass with his family after his wife’s conversion, he was hesitant to make the leap of faith. His career, however, was on a roll. After Forrest Gump picked up six Academy Awards—including Best Picture and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Sinise— he went on to star in Apollo 13, The Green Mile, and Ransom before landing the lead role as Detective Mac Taylor in the CBS drama CSI: NY.
During this time, Sinise says his perception of Catholicism began to change radically. He sought out a priest who took him through a private RCIA program. Then, on Christmas Eve 2010, the actor was ready to spring a life-changing surprise on his family.
“I asked everybody to dress up and put on good clothes,” he said. “We were on our way to Morton’s Steakhouse, and I pulled into the church parking lot. My wife said, ‘What are we doing here? Aren’t we going to dinner?’
“I said, ‘We’re stopping here for a minute.’ The priest was there and he officially confirmed me with just my family—just my three kids and my wife. He and I had it all set up to surprise them, and then our family went out to dinner.”
Sinise admits that despite his love for acting, his true passion is doing everything he can for wounded veterans.
“It’s very much part of the same thing—the veterans’ work and the Catholic faith journey,” he said. “Service work, charitable giving, and all that selfless sacrifice are so much part of the faith.
“The only way I make a living is spitting out lines in front of the camera,” he said with a laugh. “Luckily I have some investments because I had a successful television show, but other than that I don’t have any money coming in so I need to keep spitting out lines.”