Hollywood’s Joe Mantegna thinks he knows who the nation’s real stars are.
JOE MANTEGNA is not a Vietnam War veteran—but he plays one on television. The actor portrays FBI Special Agent David Rossi on the CBS drama series Criminal Minds. When taking the role two years ago, Mantegna figured he wasn’t going to fool anyone about his age, so his character’s backstory included a stint as a Marine Corps sergeant major in Vietnam.
The truth is, but for a failed eye examination during a physical to qualify for Marine Corps flight school in 1966, David Rossi’s backstory could have been Joe Mantegna’s true story. That twist of fate looms large for Mantegna, who for the past nine years has been hosting the nationally broadcast Memorial Day Concert, held on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on the Sunday evening before Memorial Day, just a few hours after the last riders complete the annual Rolling Thunder Demonstration Run.
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago with his extended family, Mantegna was well aware that five of his uncles were veterans of World War II, but since they all came home from the war, the meaning of Memorial Day never quite sank in for him. “My family didn’t talk about the war much, as is fairly common among vets,” recalled Mantegna. “The only reason my father wasn’t in the war was because he was hospitalized at the time. He eventually died of tuberculosis at 57.”
Though not deeply steeped in the military culture growing up, at a pivotal point in his life Mantegna had visions of taking to the air in combat. “Around 1966, I was in my first year of junior college and I had just broken up with my girlfriend,” he said. “It was one of those moments in your life when you ask yourself, ‘What next?’ I had this fantasy of becoming a pilot and decided I was going to join the Marines like my uncle Jack had done. At the time, the Marines had a program where they would take you into the occupation area you wanted to be in, but if it turned out you didn’t qualify, you weren’t obligated to stay in, and you could then go into the draft.”
Mantegna’s physical revealed that his vision wasn’t good enough to be a pilot. “The recruiter tried to keep me in the Marines,” he said, “saying I could work on a flight deck of a carrier and load bombs, but I didn’t want to hear that. So I said, ‘You know, I’ll think about it,’ but then decided to just go into the draft. As it turned out, I got a very high draft number and never was called.”
With that turn of events, Mantegna returned to school and soon found himself beginning a career in acting career in Chicago that would eventually take him to Hollywood.“So, the Vietnam thing for me kind of faded into the background,” he said, “and I got a different experience of that time. I’d tried to join the Marines, and yet here I was, an actor whose first professional job was in Hair, possibly the biggest Vietnam-era antiwar theatrical production ever. It was a wild time in the 1960s in Chicago, so I was influenced somewhat by events like the 1968 Democratic Convention and the Chicago 7 trial. I had shoulder-length hair for the play, so even though I wasn’t really living that lifestyle, people who saw me on the street thought I was. But coming from a blue-collar family, and with uncles who’d served in the military, I was split in the middle. I wasn’t an activist for either side, not a hawk nor on the other extreme.”
Still living close to his Cicero, Ill., roots, Mantegna knew friends who did serve.“I would dwell on the fact that just by the circumstances I didn’t go; I wondered who took my slot. I knew of one guy from my high school who was killed in Vietnam, and I knew another who went into the Marines. He would send photos and letters. He was very gung ho, cut his hair in a mohawk. I didn’t hear from him for a long time and was worried about him; then all of a sudden I see him working on a street repair crew in town. When I approached him, I could see in his eyes that something was up. I found out later he’d lost a lot of buddies in Vietnam and out of rage had maimed some Viet Cong; he’d been given a medical discharge. I knew other guys who were never the same when they came back. I also know guys, like my friend Dennis Franz, who came out of it OK. Sure it changed him in some ways, but he was able to carry on and do just fine, as most veterans have.”
It was with these experiences in mind, that, some four decades later, Mantegna was determined to create an episode of his highly rated Criminal Minds that addressed some of the problems Vietnam veterans—and all veterans—can face integrating back into society. The episode, titled “The Fallen,” which was co-written by Mantegna’s longtime assistant Dan Ramm, aired in 2012. In it, Rossi encounters his old unit commander, Harrison Scott, played by Meshach Taylor, who has since become a homeless alcoholic living on the streets of Santa Monica, Calif. Rossi experiences flashbacks of Scott saving his life in Vietnam on two occasions. In the show, Mantegna seized on an opportunity to refer to a real-life veterans’ crisis-intervention center in Los Angeles called New Directions, where he had been a spokesperson for many years. It was a gamble when he pitched the idea to the network. “I knew networks get funny about referring to real places,” he said, “but since the story was taking place in LA, I asked if we could take Meshach Taylor’s character to New Directions for help at the end of the episode. Well, CBS went along with it and they actually showed the New Directions logo. Some 15 million people saw the initial airing, and soon New Directions was getting lots of inquires from people in need. It was a perfect storm: To do what I do, create an entertaining episode but also have some real effect on a real problem and highlight a real organization, not just fictional entertainment. Actually doing something very positive.”
Steadily, Mantegna’s acting career evolved from the cast of Hair on stage in Chicago to include an award-winning performance in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway, 95 feature films ranging from Godfather III to Searching for Bobby Fischer and numerous television roles, including the voice of The Simpsons’ Fat Tony. But it wasn’t until 2002 that his profound dedication to the cause of veterans fully blossomed. That’s when his good friend, the late actor Charles Durning, asked Mantegna to join him on the Memorial Day Concert at the Capitol. “I went, mostly as a favor to Charlie,” said Mantegna. “I didn’t know what it was really all about. But when I performed at the concert, speaking about the heroic firemen at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, so many things hit me. I had also visited Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed. And, of course, I’d watched Rolling Thunder before the concert. It all just hit me like a ton of bricks, the true importance of Memorial Day. It stirred so many things in me. There I was, in front of 300,000 people—these 9/11 firemen and their families are in the front row, along with these young troops, some of whom had already been in combat and lost limbs. All of a sudden I realized that Memorial Day was not just an important holiday, but the most important.”
Mantegna was hooked, and when the celebrated actor and longtime host of the Memorial Day Concert, Ossie Davis, passed away in 2005, the event organizers asked Mantegna to become the host. “I said, ‘Oh my God, those are some big shoes to fill.’ I did it alone the first year.”
In the meantime, actor Gary Sinise, Mantegna’s friend and fellow Chicago native, had likewise become a big supporter of active-duty troops and vets, touring extensively with his Lt. Dan Band.“I told the concert organizers,‘Let’s bring Gary in,’” Mantegna said. “So I asked Gary to come play at the concert. He didn’t know if he could, as he was in Iraq, performing then. I said, ‘No problem, I think we can get you back to D.C.’” Then Mantegna asked Sinise,“What’s the biggest crowd you’ve played to?” When Sinise told him 15,000 to 20,000, Mantegna replied, “OK, Gary, that’s nice, but strap yourself into the saddle for this one.” Sinise, said Mantegna, “was as affected by the experience as I had been. At the end of the concert, he says to me, ‘OK,Joe,I’m in.’That was nine years ago.” While Mantegna’s work for active-duty troops, veterans and a number of other charitable organizations and causes is monumental, he says: “I commit to what I can, but I do a pittance compared to what Gary does.There is no greater friend to the men and women in the military than Gary Sinise.”
Mantegna’s regret about the treatment veterans received after the Vietnam War has led him to action:“When it was over, those guys took the blame and abuse for an unpopular war. I’d like to think that has at least changed. It’s not a political thing. At the end of the day, we have to support our troops.”
Mantegna is working on a proposed TV project, tentatively called Healing Heroes, that will tell the stories of wounded veterans and help them fulfill their dreams even in the face of disabilities.
“The more work I do with our young men and women who are in the military, the stronger I feel they are truly America’s finest,”Mantegna said.“When I go to visit the wounded at Walter Reed and they say to me,‘Thank you for coming, sir,’ it’s all I can do to keep from saying, ‘Why are you thanking me?’ It’s all upside down.”
This year, Mantegna and Sinise, along with an all-star cast, will once again host the Memorial Day Concert before a live audience of more than 300,000 and a national television audience numbering in the millions.
Mantegna explained that a few hours prior to taking to the Capitol stage, he’ll do what’s become a tradition for him and his family: Join in watching as tens of thousands of motorcycles roar through the streets of Washington, D.C., in the Rolling Thunder ride.“It is a ritual for us. We get up, have breakfast and walk from our hotel down to Constitution Avenue and stand on the corner for an hour or so and just take it all in. It’s great!”
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.