Mantegna sees depth in Memorial Day Concert tradition
TV crime-fighters Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise have become perennial co-hosts of the “National Memorial Day Concert” on PBS, which honors those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the U.S. Armed Forces.
But both actors began as guest performers at the event. On the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, the concert with the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jack Everly works its uniquely American magic on the eve of the solemn summer-kickoff holiday — mixing respectful commemoration of the fallen, tributes to veterans and active military and red-white-and-blue entertainment.
“The first year I did it (2002), they hired me just as an actor,” Mantegna said in a recent phone interview. “(In that show), I read a piece by four New York firemen, each of whom had lost a son in 9/11. I did it again in 2003, and then the following year they asked me to take over as host.”
He solo-hosted one year and then he asked fellow Chicago actor Gary Sinise to appear.
“The first year he … performed with his band,” Mantegna said of Sinise. “And he was so taken by the whole event, as I knew he would, I said to him, ‘Gary, if you’d like to keep doing this, why don’t we co-host together?’ And he was all for it.”
While Mantegna always appreciated how close family members had been in the service, he came to take on the veterans’ cause through this PBS show, airing 8 p.m. May 26.
“I gotta say the concert itself did a lot to move me in that direction,” he said. “I had five uncles all in World War II. I was close to all of them, and they all came back though. So Memorial Day didn’t have the same impact as (for) a lot of other military families. When I did that concert that first year, I was just so taken by the whole event, to see hundreds of thousands of people show up and to see what it meant to them.
“And we go visit the guys at the hospital, and you see the sacrifices these people have made. You just meet these young men and women and see how they’re really America’s finest.”
Mantegna, seen in the popular CBS series “Criminal Minds,” said the concert resonated with him as something worth supporting. He thought, “If what I do has any impact, why not use it in this vein?”
He said there’s something awesome about “the energy of a quarter-million people in one place. And you’re doing something that has real significance,” he said.
“I’ve always thought there’s a big difference between the Memorial Day Concert and the Fourth of July Concert… (also on PBS, which) has its own energy because it’s celebratory. While the Memorial Day Concert is more reflective. It’s not like it’s all somber, yet it does have that underlying thing of remembrance and sacrifice. Which gives it, to me, much more depth.”
PBS says both concerts have consistently ranked No. 1 for the network on their nights.
Mantegna knows the needs of returning veterans from two wars are especially acute in the past several years.
“Absolutely, and we’re going to be focusing on a lot of that in our concert this year. … It’s one of the things I brought up in the early planning stages. With the war winding down now, we have to deal with that issue. I was around for the whole Vietnam War, and when it ended, it was almost like everybody just wanted to forget about it, pretend it wasn’t there anymore, and the veterans got lost in the shuffle. And I think we’re doing everything we can, or certainly trying, to keep that from happening again.”
Mantegna said he was in Washington, D.C., in March going over plans for the annual concert. He said as a show producer, he has “a lot to do with the personnel, Hollywood’s contribution to it.”
Singers appearing this year include Chris Mann, Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins.
Another topic of his Washington trip was the progress of the National Museum of the U.S. Army, a sprawling facility to be completed by 2015 in Fort Belvoir, Va., just south of Washington, for which Mantegna is serving as national spokesman.
“I had a meeting with a whole group of retired generals about that. We’re finishing up putting together all the funding for it. The plans have been drawn. They’re ready to break ground sometime this year. When it’s done, it’s going to be the largest military museum in the world.”
Mantegna, son of an insurance man and a mother who worked at Sears, counts himself lucky to have found a career that has seen him work with great directors and actors. He was in “Godfather III,” “Compromising Positions,” “The Last Don,” “The Rat Pack” (as Dean Martin), “Glengarry Glen Ross” on stage and TV’s “Starter Wife” and “Joan of Arcadia,” before landing the steady role as David Rossi in “Criminal Minds.”
Oh, and he’s been the voice of Fat Tony on “The Simpsons” for 22 years.
“I’ve worked with everybody from Francis Ford Coppola to Barry Levinson to David Mamet. And getting to play Dean Martin was a real thrill … I also host a show on the Outdoor Channel called “Gun Stories,” which traces historical firearms. We’re gonna be shooting in Italy and Germany this year. It’s a whole departure from the kind of acting I do on ‘Criminal Minds.’ It’s done almost in a documentary style… It’s historical, it’s educational in a way.”
Mantegna has three movies coming out before long: “Compulsion” with Heather Graham; “The Bronx Bull” about Jake LaMotta’s later years (he plays his best friend); and the indie film “10-Cent Pistol.”
Mantegna has done 129 episodes of “Criminal Minds,” which is about an elite FBI group of criminal profilers, since joining the show in 2007. He’s not surprised by its huge popularity.
“When I was offered the role and I looked at the first two seasons of it, I just felt it was a very solid show. It’s almost like, you know, somebody shows you clips of the New York Yankees playing baseball, and you say to yourself, ‘OK, they want to stick me in left field now. I think I can make this work.’… I felt early on it was a very strong ensemble and that every individual is very well-defined.”
Though contracts are up for five of seven key players on the show, Mantegna expects the show will be renewed soon for next season. And he continues to learn from the role.
“Twice I’ve been to Quantico (Va., where the FBI Academy is located) and done research there. I feel I’ve been able to get a hands-on experience for what that is. That’s real enjoyable; I like that because it’s like when I got to Dean Martin, it’s the same kind of feeling. You get to play a real-life person.”