Whether someone is an annual participant or a first-timer, the significance of the National Memorial Day Concert is self-evident.
This year, the event — which PBS televises again on Sunday, May 27, from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (check local listings) — has stars of both kinds. Joe Mantegna, fresh off the Season 7 finale of the CBS drama “Criminal Minds,” co-hosts the concert with Gary Sinise (“CSI: NY”) for the seventh time. And his friend Dennis Franz, the four-time “NYPD Blue” Emmy winner and a Vietnam War veteran, debuts in the concert by giving a dramatic reading.
Also on the guest roster: Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn; music stars Natalie Cole and Trace Adkins; two veterans of FOX’s “American Idol,” Chris Daughtry (with his band Daughtry) and the just-ended season’s Jessica Sanchez; actress Selma Blair (“Legally Blonde”); tenor Russell Watson; and another frequent participant in the event, retired Gen. Colin Powell. Jack Everly will conduct the National Symphony Orchestra.
“The credits now list me as a contributing producer,” Mantegna tells Zap2it, who’s making his 11th appearance overall in the National Memorial Day Concert, about bringing other performers into the event. “I didn’t really care about the title, but I said, ‘Fellas, if you want to put something up there, that’s fine.’ I do think it’s appropriate, because that’s how I got involved in the event.
“Charlie Durning (the actor and military recipient of a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts) came to me, and that’s the reason I did my first one. And it had such an impact on me, I thought Charlie gave me a gift by bringing me in. I love the people who stage these concerts, but show business is not their world. I remember even having to kind of explain who Gary Sinise was. It just wasn’t on their radar.”
As the years have gone on, Mantegna notes, he has “picked up the mantle” from Durning by enlisting such talents as Sinise, Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (who did last year’s short-lived CBS spinoff series “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior”), Jimmy Smits, Denis Leary, Laurence Fishburne, Bonnie Hunt and “Criminal Minds” co-star A.J. Cook for the concert.
“We have meetings during the year,” Mantegna reports, “and depending on the material that’s going to be done, I try to find the appropriate actors who will fit that. I think it adds a lot, because you’re saying the words of a real person. It’s not that the actor has to look like the person, but you at least want to be in the ballpark.”
Thus, Mantegna made the call to fellow Chicagoan and close pal Franz to appear in a segment about the plight of homeless veterans.
“We moved out to California together,” Mantegna notes, “and when Dennis got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I gave the speech for him”
In his first major television appearance since “NYPD Blue” ended its 12-season run in 2005, Franz confirms “it’s very meaningful to me, on many levels” to be involved in the concert.
“I’ve been asked to read the story of a Marine who was in Vietnam, and it tells not only about the terror and confusion and loneliness and all the other emotions — not to mention great fear — one can imagine experiencing over there, but coming back and trying to make the transition to life at home without complete acceptance. At that time, the country was pretty anti-Vietnam War, so I can relate to that very much.
“My story ends on a happier note,” Franz adds, “but unfortunately, many of the homeless vets who are alive now are roaming the streets and trying to find shelter. The first time I read this, it brought back many of the experiences I was going through at the same time.”
President Barack Obama’s recent pledge that all U.S. troops will return from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 gives extra poignancy to this year’s concert, which will include a tribute to soldiers already home from that country and Iraq.
“It’s a wonderful time to pay tribute to men and women in the service in general,” Franz reasons, “just to acknowledge their sacrifice. It’s a very admirable thing, and I’m proud to be a part of this.”
So is “Glengarry Glen Ross” Tony Award winner and longtime military support advocate Mantegna, who cites Franz as “the real deal” for his U.S. Army background. He takes a similar view of the audience that typically shows up in person to watch the concert.
“It’s a blue-collar crowd for the most part, and that’s what I like about it,” Mantegna reflects. “It’s the heart of America, if you want to call it that. This is a country of extremes, but at its core, it has one central personality that’s personified by military families and the people who come to the concert.
“We have New York, and we have Los Angeles, which are extremes, and that’s all right … but everything between the Rocky Mountains and the East Coast is the America that I think is the true character of what our country really is, and this concert is a combination of all those things. It’s kind of nice.”