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Gary Sinise finds himself among stars

Every government facility has its information leaks, and NASA's Space Center is no exception. Somehow, word is out that actors from the true-life movie Apollo 13 are in the futuristic building today.

Tourists crowd below a second-floor balcony, hoping to glimpse a different sort of star than they expected on this trip.

Universal Pictures' publicists aren't happy with this breach of security. One wonders if the actors will step to the railing and greet the crowd, perhaps hurrying everyone along to the NASA exhibits they came to see.

Gary Sinise emerges from an interview and a Universal staffer whispers a request to greet the crowd. Sinise's face puckers in an "are you kidding?" expression, as he declares aloud: "Those people don't know who I am."

A reporter nearby can't resist a suggestion: "Why not get down on your knees, sit back on your feet and wave? They'll know you then."

Sinise spins around, eyes widening behind his wire-rim glasses. "That's funny," he drawls, "but, you know, you're absolutely right."

Get this straight. Gary Sinise does have legs, despite what your eyes urged you to believe while watching him in Forrest Gump.

His ferocious performance as Lt. Dan Taylor, Gump's commanding officer, earned an Oscar nomination and countless stares on the street from gullible moviegoers who truly believed the special effects that made him look like a double amputee. Hanks must listen to people imitate his "box of chocolates" line, and Sinise must assure people that his lower appendages are, indeed, flesh-and-blood _ the price of starring in such a ridiculously successful film.

But Sinise's performance wasn't mere cinematic slight-of-hand. When Lt. Dan's legs were amputated, it was like shortening the fuse on a keg of dynamite. So intense was the portrayal, and so touching was Lt. Dan's redemption, that Sinise was jettisoned from the ranks of "interesting actor" to "important actor."

In Hollywood, that's the difference between being used as leverage to hire another actor and getting the job yourself.

"In the past, I would always face this thing with producers and directors, where I wasn't famous enough to be in the movie," Sinise recalled. "I was great in the role, they said, the best actor for the part. But they couldn't cast me because they needed a "name' in the movie."

That was before 1994, when Sinise had one of those spasms of professional success that can make a career. In May, he starred as Stu Redman, laconic hero of the ABC-TV miniseries The Stand, based on the Stephen King novel. Sixty million people watched him save what was left of the world after a killer virus attacked.

One month later, Gump happened.

Quite a leap for a 39-year-old actor whose first feature film role occurred only three years earlier, in the underappreciated war drama A Midnight Clear. Between that debut and The Stand, Sinise gained respect, if not a wide audience, for two films he directed. Miles from Home, with Richard Gere, and an adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, in which he co-starred with John Malkovich, both premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to standing ovations. Both tanked at the box office, although Of Mice and Men quickly became a video staple of high school English departments.

That educational contribution amuses Sinise, who will admit that his own high school days in Chicago were dotted with discipline reports, including smoking marijuana on campus. Acting was for wimps, until Sinise heard about the drama class field trips. Staying overnight in a hotel with girls sounded pretty good. He talked his slacker pals into a production of West Side Story _ they played gang members _ and Sinise was hooked.

At age 18, Sinise wanted to guarantee that he would have his chances on stage, and started his own theater group in 1976, named after a Herman Hesse novel he still hasn't read. The Steppenwolf Theatre Company became a springboard to Broadway and Hollywood for Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) and introduced Sinise to his wife, Moira Harris. Steppenwolf is still a vital part of the Chicago arts, while its founder becomes its latest acclaimed alumnus.

"I'm not that trippy about becoming a big super movie star or anything like that," Sinise said, with his flat Midwestern twang. "It just feels kind of natural, in a way. Much more natural than if I was 20 years younger; I wouldn't have any sense of anything else. It just feels like part of the long-haul progression.

"There were times when I wished it would have happened a lot faster than it did. On the other hand, I'm still doing work that I want to do. There's not a lot of work that I've done that I'm embarrassed that I did. Maybe a couple of episodes of some cheesy TV series, or something."

Such an admission is unusual by star-ego standards, but Sinise projects a refreshing lack of pretension and paranoia. He's aware that Hollywood always wants to compare actors, usually unfavorably, with everyone else in the business. He knows it all depends on who gets the best roles, and that depends on who is hot. Sinise is hot, right now. And that means that scripts are stacking up in his Los Angeles home.

"But that doesn't always mean you should do them," he cautioned. "I could be working more than I am right now, maybe making a little more money, but I can't. I'm still trying to keep the level of quality intact.

"I've just got to be able to connect with (a role) in a certain way. Or, I've got to really, really, really need the money."

Sinise laughed, then added: "Maybe a couple of years from now I'll see (reporters) who'll say: "Hey, we thought you weren't going to take any bad jobs. How much did they pay you for that one?'

"

These days, one only worries that Sinise is getting paid enough for challenging roles undertaken. He's a tragic hero as astronaut Ken Mattingly in Apollo 13, and his performance as President Harry S. Truman in the HBO movie Truman already is garnering Emmy-award buzz, months before its Sept. 9 playdate. By that time, he'll be finished with Albino Alligators, a quirky crime flick that will be actor Kevin Spacey's directorial debut, and ready to stage Sam Shepard's Buried Child with the current Steppenwolf ensemble.

On the back burner is another, undiscussed film to direct, this one starring Hanks, with whom Sinise has forged a personal bond to match the professional one. Sinise is so devoted to his friend, and so uncaring of convention, that he incredulously responds to the suggestion that a third pairing with America's most popular star might stifle his individual development; make him part of Hanks' "rat pack." Ask Sinise about Tom Hanks and he'll respond with an anecdote that speaks volumes about both actors.

"We were in a plane, on a runway, going somewhere, and there were these guys working on the side of the road; hard hats, sweaty T-shirts and everything," Sinise remembered.

"Tom turned to me and said: "Why are we in here and they're out there?'

"We were both thinking exactly the same thing, watching these guys; why am I in this jet, flying around, and not working on a road?"

Sinise paused, and came up with the best answer a fortunate son can muster:

"Just because that's circumstance and that's the way the cards were dealt."

Sinise let those words sink into the conversation for effect, before that sheepish Midwestern modesty kicked in again.

"You know," he mumbled through a thin smile, "I was probably thinking that road thing a lot more than he was."

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