Of Gary Sinise: on brink of world acclaim

October 16, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It was hardly an auspicious beginning: an empty room in a church in Highland Park, Ill.

But that room was the rock upon which the theater was built and the theater was the rock upon which the movie was built, which is why 37-year-old Gary Sinise is standing on the brink of world acclaim as the director, producer and co-star of "Of Mice and Men."

But 20 years ago, how could the young man have guessed? He had just graduated, without distinction, from Highland Park High. He had decided not to go to college. He had decided not to go to New York. He had decided to just stay in Highland Park and start acting.

"If you had a room," he says now, recollecting, "you had enough."

Sinise, unlike today's film and drama school grads, just did it, which may be why his film has such a simple visual purity to it, straight-ahead storytelling of the old school.

He has some mild regrets.

"It would have been nice to have a semester to study 'Citizen Kane' and have some mentor break it all down and analyze it for me. On the other hand, at a very young age, I was working seriously on strong drama in big parts."

Sinise's room in the church quickly became the Steppenwolf Theater Company, moved to downtown Chicago, and, not unlike the young Orson Welles on the Broadway of 1937, he was soon busily producing, directing and starring in some revolutionary dramas, including, as early as 1980, a version of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" with his friend and fellow Steppenwolfer, John Malkovich.

"I'm glad I didn't move to New York. I didn't want to have to hustle for bit parts, trying to get a small role on the soaps, supporting myself as a waiter while trying to meet people and catch a break. What does that get you? I just worked hard, on strong plays, good things, understanding that I couldn't have that without making some sacrifices. It definitely gives you a sense of strength if you can survive."

Sinise always had a fondness for the rough-hewn Steinbeck and his timeless prose. But he says the current film is not related to the 1980 stage version.

"It's not just another version of that production. It's the whole novel reimagined as a movie."

The project originated in a wildly successful stage version he directed and starred in in the mid-1980s, Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."

"Elaine Steinbeck saw the care that I brought to that production, so she let me have the rights to 'Mice.' "

It sounds ludicrous -- an unknown director carrying an ancient story to a major movie company in the go-go, hipper-than-thou high concept '90s, but according to Sinise, getting the production bankrolled was easy.

"We happened to hit MGM when they were trying to dig out of a management crises and they wanted to appear busy. It was a strong story that they didn't even have to read! And it had a modest budget. They felt it was topical -- not a dusty, old classic. I didn't have to convince them. They said yes in 48 hours."

As the poet Robert Burns never said, the best-laid plans of mice and men sometimes really work out swell.

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