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Walk of Fame Honoree Gary Sinise Reflects on Steppenwolf Theatre Memories

Asked to pick his favorite memories at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Gary Sinise can only muster: “Oh, geez.”

It’s a tall order, for sure, and one on which Sinise could spend hours ruminating. One of the most prominent theater companies in the United States, if not the world, Steppenwolf Theatre was founded in Chicago by Sinise, Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry in 1974. Alumni include the likes of Joan Allen, John Malkovich and Tracy Letts. Asked about its enduring success, Sinise says: “It was always about the actors. In the beginning we had no money so we couldn’t make big sets or fancy things. We relied on the actors to go out there and tell the stories. We started as actors and looked for great roles.”

On the day of Sinise receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and with some pressuring, we got him to expand on shows that were significant to him.

1981: “Of Mice and Men”
Sinise played George to John Malkovich’s Lenny in this adaptation of the John Steinbeck classic. Years later, Sinise would win acclaim directing them both in a 1992 film version. “It was a great privilege and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t met Elaine Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s widow. I got to know her during the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and I asked her if she’d give me the rights, and I’m so grateful she did.”

1984: “Tracers”
Sinise flew out to Los Angeles to see the play written by Vietnam veterans, including creator John Di Fusco, about their experiences. “I begged John and the others to let me do the play in Chicago,” says Sinise, who directed the Steppenwolf production. The show launched Steppenwolf’s Veterans Night program, which continues to this day.

1989: “The Grapes of Wrath”
“It was one of our great moments,” says Sinise of the adaptation of the Steinbeck classic. “We started with the book and adapted it and did it in Chicago, then moved to La Jolla, California, then London, then Broadway, where it won Tony Awards for best play and best direction of a play for Frank Galati.”

1995: “Buried Child”
Hot off his “Forest Gump” success, Sinise returned to the theater to direct Sam Shepherd’s Pulitzer Prize-winning family drama. It moved to Broadway and he earned two Tony nominations; one for best direction of a play and one as the show’s producer.

2000: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
In this stage adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel, Sinise played R.P. McMurphy, the same role that landed Jack Nicholson an Oscar in the 1975 film adaptation. The production shared a connection with that film, as well. “Tim Sampson played the chief in our production. His father, Will Sampson, played the chief in the movie.” The play moved to London and Broadway, where it won a Tony Award for revival of a play, and Sinise scored a nomination for lead actor in a play. It was the last play he did, having spent the previous 16 years concentrating on television and his foundation.

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