Gary Sinise has had plenty of colorful experiences in his extensive career, from co-founding Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theater and leading its Broadway production of “The Grapes of Wrath” to his Oscar-nominated turn as the iconic Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump.” 

He also enjoyed a nine-year run on the CBS hit “CSI: NY” and has traveled the globe performing classic rock for American troops as part of USO tours with the Lt. Dan Band.

But on New Year’s Day, he’ll be seen by millions worldwide in what might be his biggest adventure yet: serving as grand marshal in the 129th Rose Parade.

The selection of Sinise fit the theme of this year’s Parade, “Making a Difference,” since the Chicago native has a long-standing reputation for service with veterans. Speaking at Tournament House on Oct. 29, Tournament of Roses President Lance Tibbet praised that track record.

“The 2018 theme, ‘Making A Difference,’ is a way to honor and celebrate all of the people in our communities who quietly and without desire for reward or recognition act in selfless, generous and kind ways to aid or benefit others,” said Tibbet. “Gary Sinise is absolutely one of those people. Gary’s humanitarian work with our defenders, veterans, first responders and their families over the years embodies our theme to the fullest. As members of a community, a country and a planet, we all have the ability, power and responsibility to help one another, and, as Gary likes to say, we can always do a little more.”

Sinise’s commitment started in the early 1980s when he began supporting local Vietnam veterans’ groups in the Chicago area and co-founded the Vets Night program at the Steppenwolf Theatre. This program continues to this day and invites veterans to a free dinner and performance for each one of the plays produced at the theater. 

Yet it was his portrayal of Lt. Dan Taylor that formed an enduring connection with servicemen and women throughout the military community. Shortly after the film opened, Sinise was introduced to the Disabled American Veterans organization as they invited him to their national convention to present him with their National Commanders Award for playing the double amputee.

His greatest effort in regards to veterans and first responders came with the creation of the Gary Sinise Foundation in 2011. The foundation’s R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment) program constructs specially adapted smart homes for severely wounded veterans nationwide.

Other programs include Relief & Resiliency Outreach, Invincible Spirit Festivals, the Lt. Dan Band, Arts & Entertainment Outreach, Serving Heroes and First Responders Outreach. Its latest program, Soaring Valor, is sending World War II veterans to the National World War II Museum and documenting their firsthand accounts of the war.

As a result, he has earned numerous distinguished awards, including the Spirit of Hope Award, which was created based on the contributions of entertainer Bob Hope to members of the military and is annually awarded to individuals or organizations whose work benefits the quality of life of service members and their families.

Despite all those charitable efforts, the tournament received criticism in some quarters for the selection. Critics from the California Democratic Party and immigrant-rights groups objected to his conservative political views, which inspired him to found the Hollywood-networking group Friends of Abe (FOA).

FOA played host to a speech by President Donald Trump shortly after he announced his candidacy in 2015. However, Sinise later penned an open letter to Trump, strongly criticizing the then-candidate’s derisive comments about Sen. John McCain’s time as a Vietnam War POW.

As grand marshal, Sinise joins a remarkable and varied list of prominent figures from across the cultural spectrum. Last year, former US Olympians Greg Louganis, Janet Evans and Allyson Felix shared the honor, while acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns preceded them.

Up to the early 1930s, grand marshals were usually chosen from people active in the tournament. Either that or they were members of the military or well-known residents. The change came in 1933 with legendary actress Mary Pickford chosen to lead the parade since then, many celebrities have followed in Pickford’s footsteps, some of them multiple times.

Shirley Temple Black, for instance, is the only person to be grand marshal in three parades (1939, 1989 and 1999) and three people served in two parades: Bob Hope (1947 and 1969); Earl Warren, who was California attorney general and governor before becoming Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court (1943 and 1955); and Richard Nixon, who was in the 1953 parade when he was a US senator and in the 1960 parade when he was vice president.

They may have been celebrities, but not all of the grand marshals were human. Kermit the Frog and Mickey Mouse rode in the 1996 and 2005 parades, respectively, and in 1940 puppet Charlie McCarthy shared grand marshal honors with his boss, Edgar Bergen.

News of being named this year’s grand marshal no doubt came as a pleasant surprise for Sinise. Reached for comment by the Tournament of Roses, he replied with a line from “Forrest Gump.”

“Life is like a box of chocolates,” he noted. “You never know what you’re gonna get.”