One-on-One with Joe Mantegna (Part Two)

Joe Mantegna

Joe Mantegna

Tony: You were so understated.
Joe: I worked at that. I felt that was the key to Dean. The image I always kept in my mind was that the movie’s called “The Rat Pack.” I think of it more as a dog pack. Frank is the lead dog. There’s a pack of dogs always nipping at his heals, following him wherever he goes. Whatever he wants to do, they’re with him. Dean Martin was the cat that ran with the dogs. When push comes to shove and the leader of the dogs goes, “Come on, we’re going to do this now,” every once in a while the cat says, “You know what? I’m going to go my own way. I’ll be over here. You guys go ahead.”
Tony: Did you know him?
Joe: I didn’t get to know Dean at all. He had passed away before we made the film. I had gotten to know Frank a little bit. I had played in his golf tournament. I just played it in February. In the early days he would be there. I am very good friends with his wife, Barbara. I’m a key supporter of her charity out at the Eisenhower Center in the desert, the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Hospital. So I had a connection and I’ve gotten to be friends with members of Dean’s family. His daughter, Deena, and her husband, John, are dear friends. She’s written a wonderful book about her life with her father, called “Memories Are Made of This.” It would make a nice TV film.
Tony: You do a lot of charity work, like the National Memorial Day Concert.
Joe: Charlie Durning was the guy who got me involved. He asked me and I said, “All right, I’ll do it,” not knowing what impact it was going to have on me. The first year I did it was the Memorial Day after 9/11. It greatly affected and moved me that I said to myself, “I’m aboard. I’ll do this as long as they ask me.”
Tony: What was it that affected you so?
Joe: It was a combination of things. Here you are on a stage sitting right in front of the U.S. Capital. The flags are flying above. It’s all lit up. I’m on the stage. Behind me is the Washington Symphony Orchestra, playing Mozart’s “Requiem.” Next to me are huge 4-story screens. On these screens they’re showing clips from 9/11, just six months fresh in our minds. While this music is playing and they’re showing these images, in front of me are more than 300,000 people. And I’m saying the words of four New York Firemen who lost their sons, who were also firemen in 9/11. Sitting in the first row in front of this whole multitude of people are those actual firemen and their wives, in full dress uniform, all of them retired, sitting there, listening to me saying their words of what it was like to look for the bodies of their sons. All I can tell you is that I’ve been an actor for 40 years. This took me to a level as an actor that I never wanted or looked forward to tapping in to. But here I was in that situation. That transcended a performance. This is life. This is the real deal. This is not fiction, not Hollywood. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were there. Colin Powell was there. This is the United States and the Capital and the flags and the firemen and I’m saying their words. And it took everything I could to get through it. It took everything I could to keep from levitating out of my body.
Tony: Did you tear up?
Joe: Well, I think if you saw the tape of the end of it, it took everything I could to control myself. But I couldn’t allow myself to let loose. I couldn’t allow myself to give in to that. I’m representing these four men and their wives and families. It’s my job to get through it. The emotion was raging through my body; probably more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. But I had to get through it and I did. At the end of it, I walked off the stage and I walked up to them and I’m facing the Mall and that was a very emotional moment for all of us.
Tony: Was that planned?
Joe: The people running the thing knew what this moment might be like, so they told me to feel free to do what I felt. I ad-libbed a line at the end. I was reading it off the teleprompter. When I got to the end, I looked at them and said, “Tonight we are all your sons and we will never ever forget,” then I just walked off the stage and embraced them all.
Tony: Had you planned that?
Joe: It just kind of came to me as I was wrapping it up. I felt I had to say something that was personal.
Tony: So now you’re a regular?
Joe: Oh, yeah. Every year has been emotional in different ways, and it will be this year. I don’t even know what the program is this year. We’ve got great people. It’s a 90-minute show and it just taps on everything. What I like about it is that we’re not trying to make a statement, not political. It’s just saying what it is, that we are a nation united on this day, Memorial Day, to honor all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so we can live this life we live. Whatever our feelings may be, we live in a country where we have the freedom to voice those opinions. We’ve had to pay a price for that. That’s what we’re saying. Memorial Day is more than the Indianapolis 500. That’s all.
Tony: Like Charlie Durning bringing you on board, you brought Gary Sinise into working on the show, too. He’s relatively conservative. Are you, too?
Joe: I think Gary and I balance each other out a little bit. I think I’m a little left of center and he’s a little right of center. I like that because Memorial Day shouldn’t be about politics. I’ve been an Independent my whole voting life. I don’t like to align myself with any particular party or person. I like to see what’s going on out there and base it on that. But my feelings about the military are strong. I’m a strong supporter of all the individuals who serve.

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