It was one of those suddenly transforming experiences that become indelibly seared in the memory. On a "a dare," 16-year-old Joe Mantegna auditioned for a high school musical production. To his shock, once on stage he realized that acting was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life — no matter that he wasn’t cast for the show.
"Everything about it was ‘Wow,’ " Mantegna said. "I didn’t even know they had a theater department in the school. I remember that night as if it was yesterday. And you don’t have many of those nights in your life."
Another was when Mantegna, now an award-winning actor in theater, movies and television (including the long-running TV police-procedural drama series "Criminal Minds"), took a turn at the 2002 "National Memorial Day Concert" broadcast live from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol on PBS.
"I did it as a favor for Charles Durning," he said of his friend, an actor and Army veteran of D-Day who appeared regularly on the Memorial Day concert broadcasts until his death 17 months ago.
"I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll swing it.’ Then I go up there … " Again something happened that he’ll remember forever.
"When I left the stage I was weak at the knees. You don’t often get that feeling. I didn’t know it was coming," Mantegna said during a recent telephone interview.
He has kept with the event ever since, and been a co-host for nine years with fellow actor and native Chicagoan Gary Sinise.
Mantegna and Sinise will be in front of the cameras again when the "National Memorial Day Concert" has its 25th anniversary broadcast beginning at 8 p.m. Sunday, May 25, on PBS stations including WGBH Channel 2 in Boston.
There are profound experiences in life that he knew were coming, Mantegna said, such as the birth of his children. But that first audition and the initial Memorial Day appearance were something else.
"These things came out of the blue," Mantegna said. "I didn’t know I was going to be an actor. I didn’t know I was going to be an advocate for the military."
Mantegna has since regularly visited Walter Reed Hospital, met with numerous veterans and Gold Star Mothers, and been a tireless advocate for the National Memorial Day Concert, said the concert’s founder and executive producer Jerry Colbert.
"Joe is a prince. He does anything you ask him. He’s just phenomenal," Colbert said. Sinise is also extremely dedicated to the concert, and known for his USO tours at military bases around the world. "He’s become the Bob Hope of our time," Colbert said.
The May 25 concert will feature musical performances, dramatic readings, real stories and commemorations, including the 70th anniversary of D-Day (with an appearance by 10 veterans who are now in their 90s). Participants will include retired General Colin L. Powell and actress Dianne Wiest (also both regulars at the concert), the newly crowned winner of "American Idol" season 13 (still to be determined at the time of writing), country music singers Jennifer Nettles and Danielle Bradbery, Broadway and television star Megan Hilty, musical prodigy Jackie Evancho, legendary band leader Doc Severinsen, tenor Anthony Kearns and the National Symphony Orchestra led by Jack Everly.
Colbert has said he tries to strike various balances for the Memorial Day concert with appropriate entertainment, history and substance.
"Each year it doesn’t lessen, it even grows," Mantegna said of his feelings about the event.
Mantegna had five uncles who served in World War II (his father was kept out of the war by tuberculosis). "They’re part of my life. I was close to them," he said. However, like many veterans of that war, they seldom spoke about what they went through. "That’s part of the reason I wasn’t involved in Memorial Days."
The 2002 "National Memorial Day Concert" was the first since 9/11, and Mantegna was in a segment where he had to say the words of four New York firefighters who lost their sons, who were also firefighters.
The orchestra was playing Mozart’s Requiem, Mantegna said. In the audience were the firemen in full dress uniform with their wives. "Mothers and fathers. And I’m having to say the words. It took everything I could to get through all of that. I thought, ‘This is not a performance. This is not an acting job.’ "
"We’re honoring those who have given so much for the country. That’s a nice mission," said Colbert.
Colbert grew up in Boylston and graduated from St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury and the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. He made several documentaries for PBS, and then in 1981 created "A Capitol Fourth," a live broadcast celebration of the country’s birthday on July 4 also held on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. The "National Memorial Day Concert" debuted in 1990.
Both have delivered impressive ratings for PBS. Colbert said the Memorial Day show is usually the third or fourth top rated broadcast of the year. About 300,000 people watch the concert outside on the lawn.
"There wasn’t anything like this on television," Colbert said. "I feel blessed that after 25 years we’re still going."
Mantegna said, "Without Memorial Day, we couldn’t have had the Fourth of July."Tags: actor, actress, concert, movie, music, producer, singer, television, tour, tv