A concert for remembering

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Barbara Ruben

Actors Joe Mantegna (left) and Gary Sinise have co-hosted the National Memorial Day Concert on the Capitol lawn for the last 10 years. Mantegna stars in the TV show “Criminal Minds,” and Sinise can be seen on a recently launched spinoff of that show. Both work closely with veterans’ issues when not on camera.
Photo courtesy of Capital Concerts

For many Americans, Memorial Day is a harbinger of summer, a day off work, and a time to fire up the grill. But for actor Joe Mantegna, Memorial Day ranks as the country’s most important holiday.

Mantegna, who has co-hosted the National Memorial Day concert on the Capitol lawn for 10 years with fellow actor Gary Sinise, says he wishes people would take a more contemplative view of the holiday.

“That’s because I realized without Memorial Day we’d have no other holiday. It’s the holiday that provides us the freedom to celebrate the Fourth of July and Christmas and President’s Day and Labor Day and all these things, because of the sacrifices made by the military over the history of this country,” the star of “Criminal Minds” told the Beacon in an interview.

Mantegna will return to the concert stage, set up in the shadow of the Capitol, on May 29.

Paying respects

Mantegna, 68, wants to boost Memorial Day’s profile and have people experience it with, if not more gravitas, at least a bit more respect.

“Unless they have active military in their families, I think a lot of people tend to say of Memorial Day, ‘Oh, great, I’ll have a three-day weekend, or I’ll watch the Indianapolis 500 and have a barbeque.’ I think what the concert does, or I hope it does, is show that there’s a lot to this holiday, and this is the reason why we have it and why it’s important. That’s why I do it.”

Mantegna first became involved with the concert as a performer in 2002, the first concert that followed 9/11. In that show, he read remembrances by four New York firemen who had lost their sons on that day, with the firemen in the front row of the audience.

“I’m standing in front of a quarter million people, and many millions watching on television. It was all I could do to get through it. I had the National Symphony Orchestra behind me playing Mozart’s requiem, and huge screens on either side of me showing footage of the planes going into the World Trade Center.

“It was one of those moments I’ll never forget as long as I live, where I felt I almost might levitate off the stage. One of those moments where it’s not an acting moment. This is not me performing. This is the real deal. This is history. These are real people’s lives.

“That moment made me feel this was really something special. I’ve had moments in that same vein every year.”

This year, the show features General Colin Powell, the Beach Boys, opera singer Renee Fleming, country music singer Trace Adkins, and Trent Harmon, winner of this year’s “American Idol,” who will sing the national anthem.

So it’s not surprising that Mantegna says, “Veterans are my hot button issue. I’m very pro military.” He is the national spokesperson for the campaign to build the National Museum of the United States Army in Ft. Belvoir, Va. It will be the first museum to represent all 14 generations of American soldiers.

Teaming up with Gary Sinise

Mantegna also works with the Gary Sinise Foundation, which aids wounded veterans by providing home modifications, adapted vehicles and mobility devices, and constructs specially adapted smart homes. The foundation also sponsors festivals and music events for veterans.

Sinise, 61, was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Forest Gump, where he played a Vietnam veteran who lost his legs in the war. His Lt. Dan Band, in which he plays bass, is named after that character.

It performs at veterans events.

After Ossie Davis, who had hosted the Memorial Day concert for 11 years, passed away, Mantegna was invited to lead it. He proposed that Sinise would make a good co-host because of his work with veterans.

The collaboration has even led to Sinise’s latest TV role, as the star of “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders” on CBS, a spinoff of Mantegna’s long-running “Criminal Minds” show.

Mantegna introduced his “Criminal Minds” executive producer to Sinise at last year’s concert. “When she came up with the idea for a spinoff, he was kind of a natural choice for her.

“In a way, the Memorial Day concert helped make that happen. So we’re not only next to each other on stage, we’re back to back on Wednesday nights on CBS.”

Sinise also starred in “CSI:NY” for 10 seasons.

On screens large and small

Mantegna has been playing FBI agent David Rossi on “Criminal Minds” since 2007. An Italian-American, Mantegna early on shaped the character’s background to be similar to his own.

“I thought if this thing has legs, I’ll be doing this character for a long time, and I want to be able to draw on as much as I’m familiar with as possible,” he said.

“I’ve shot over 200 hours of it as this character. So it’s been nice to be able to tap into parts of Joe Mantegna, which is easy enough. I just say, well, what kinds of foods does he like to eat? Does he like cooking? Soccer?”

He also voices mobster Fat Tony on “The Simpsons,” a character that has recurred about once a year since 1991.

Acting was all Mantegna ever imagined as a profession. “I’m lucky that at 16 years old I knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “That hasn’t changed. I still enjoy it. I’ve been doing it professionally for more than 40 years.”

Asked what his favorite memories have been, he cites winning the Tony Award for his starring role in Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway in 1984.

He was also excited to play one of his idols, Dean Martin, in the 1998 TV movie The Rat Pack. His daughter Gia, also an actor, appeared with him in an episode of “Criminal Minds.”

“I’ve got no complaints. It’s been a wonderful career. I have nothing to regret or feel there’s more that I want,” he said. “If it all ended tomorrow, I’d say it’s been a good ride.”