Joe Mantegna knows well that honoring America’s veterans involves more than just a couple of days each year.
The “Criminal Minds” star and “Glengarry Glen Ross” Tony Award winner frequently visits military hospitals, in addition to filling his now-traditional role co-hosting PBS’ annual National Memorial Day Concert with friend and equally committed soldier supporter Gary Sinise (“CSI: NY”). The two actors have an extra chance to show their appreciation this year, since on Veterans Day, they preside over the inaugural “National Salute to Veterans” special Sunday (Nov. 11) on PBS.
“It’s not like we’re just doing an entertainment show,” Mantegna stresses to Zap2it. “The nature of the Memorial Day concert is that it calls attention to the support and recognition of our military, so the fact that we can do this for Veterans Day is timely and important, I think.”
The “National Salute to Veterans” offers new introductions by Mantegna and Sinise to clips from National Memorial Day Concerts they’ve hosted together. Among those featured: Oscar winner Forest Whitaker; Mantegna’s “Criminal Minds” co-star A.J. Cook; actor Jason Ritter; gospel singer Yolanda Adams; two “American Idol” veterans, winner Kris Allen and finalist Pia Toscano; “The Voice” winner Javier Colon; and Gen. Colin Powell (Ret.).
Though he wasn’t involved in the selection of the clips, Mantegna says, “That’s fine. I have input in the sense of casting [the concert] each year, who’s going to do the readings and so on. Once it’s done, I’m glad to make a suggestion, but it’s [the main producers] to do with as they want.”
The introductory segments for the new special were taped while the involved parties were in Washington, D.C., last May for the National Memorial Day Concert. “Especially with Gary, it’s so hard to nail him down,” Mantegna notes, “because he’s always going around with his band (The Lt. Dan Band, which plays many engagements to benefit soldiers and their families). We did those segments a day or two before the concert, as I recall.”
For Mantegna, the “National Salute to Veterans” also is something of a time capsule of the years he’s been involved in the National Memorial Day Concert. “I had done the concert for about three years prior to Gary coming in. As it turned out, he had been over in Iraq or Afghanistan with the band entertaining the troops, and they finished right before Memorial Day that year.
“I hosted that concert myself. I was the sole host since [previous host] Ossie Davis had passed, and Gary was coming in just on the musical end. And, as I knew would be the case, his reaction to the whole event was similar to what mine had been the first time.
“When it was over,” Mantegna adds, “he was blown away by the whole experience, and I asked him, ‘Would you consider doing this on an ongoing basis? Ossie Davis’ shoes are kind of big to fill.’ And he said, ‘Joe, as long as you do it, I’ll do it.’ And I said, ‘Great. Then that’s what we’ll do.'”
Mantegna also has another opportunity to pay tribute to veterans, via the plot of Wednesday’s (Nov. 14) new episode of “Criminal Minds” on CBS. Co-written by his longtime producing partner, Danny Ramm, it takes David Rossi’s (Mantegna) FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit to the famous Santa Monica (Calif.) Pier to investigate the strange deaths of several homeless people.
“We’ve been trying to get this done for a couple of years,” Mantegna reports. “The episode deals with my character’s history in the military, and it has a flashback to the Vietnam War and that kind of stuff. I asked them to hire Meshach Taylor, who I’ve known over 40 years; he plays a guy whose eye Rossi catches in a homeless shelter on Skid Row, and we discover that he is Rossi’s sergeant from Vietnam.”
Thus, explains Mantegna — who also will serve as Grand Marshal of this year’s Hollywood Christmas Parade — “The Memorial Day Concert is not the only arena where I try to call attention” to veterans and related causes. “I grew up in the Vietnam War era, so I know what it was like to have a whole generation ignored in a way in terms of their service. I just don’t want to see that happen again.”