Joe Mantegna is an award-winning entertainer with a longtime career in show business, spanning television, film and theater. He recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his body of work, his CBS drama series Criminal Minds is heading into its 10th season in the Fall, which is no small feat in this day and age, and he returns to co-host the National Memorial Day Concert with Gary Sinise on PBS on May 25th.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Joe Mantegna talked about what a dream come true it is to have such a long-lasting television series, getting to direct an episode of Criminal Minds each season, and how he would love to see his character retire and head off into the sunset, once his time is done on the show. He also talked about how he got involved with the National Memorial Day Concert, why he sees Memorial Day as our most important holiday, what he thinks viewers can take away from the experience of watching the special, and what it’s been like to partner with fellow actor, Gary Sinise. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: For someone who has been in the business as long as you have, and has weathered the ups and downs that come with it, what’s it like to know that a show like Criminal Minds still has a big audience and has already been renewed for another season, when so many shows struggle on the bubble?
JOE MANTEGNA: Well, it’s a dream come true, is what that is. It’s what you look for. Especially at this stage in my career, I was looking for a way to spend some more time at home and have some logic in my life. I spent many years traveling to do movies or theater, or whatever it was. So, to find something with legs that would keep me local and give me some sort of a life was real attractive to me. But, the trick is to find that. Hundreds and hundreds of shows get done, and you can count on two hands, the ones that can go 10 years, plus. So, I look at it as a real blessing to be in that position. Sometimes things work out.
Having been in the business for so long, do you know pretty quickly when there’s something you want to do, or do you always have a bit of self-doubt?
MANTEGNA: At this point, I have very little self-doubt. I’ve been doing this for almost 50 years now, professionally. There’s no getting around that this is what I do for a living, and this is what I bring to the table. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. And on we go. So, I feel like I belong. Obviously, I’m not perfect for everything you write. But certain projects that you get involved with, you have a feeling for and you think, “This should go. This should resonate.” That doesn’t always work out, and that’s just the way of the world. Not everybody is going to have the same feelings or tastes. It’s not like I have any self-doubt, as much as I have hopeful anticipation, and sometimes that’s just not realized. You go in with all best intentions. Sometimes you can be more realistic and say to yourself, “Who am I kidding? I knew, going on, that this didn’t have much going for it.” Other times, you think, “I really hope this goes.” And sometimes you get surprised. Sometimes what you think is not going to happen, happens. Sometimes it’s the opposite. There’s no logic to it.
What was it like to direct an episode of Criminal Minds? Do you find it more difficult to direct your friends and co-stars, or to direct yourself?
MANTEGNA: I don’t think it’s any more difficult to do either. I’ve been around the block enough times that I know the process pretty well. It’s just an extension of what you wind up doing anyway. I’ve been on the show seven years, and you have a real strong familiarity after awhile. So, it’s not that difficult to step outside of myself to be the character, and then step back and be myself and direct the actor, whether it’s me or anybody else. It’s just a matter of being comfortable in the environment, which I am. It’s still very demanding, though. It’s not easy. That’s why I only agreed to do one per season, which is plenty for me. Matthew [Gray Gubler] and Thomas [Gibson] are each going to do two each, and they can do that. I’m the veteran of the group. I’m going to let the boys run with that.
People have come and gone on the show, sometimes while their character is still alive and sometimes not. Have you thought about whether you’d leave the show before it’s done? And would you like your character to go out in a blaze of glory, when that time comes, or would you like him to retire to a nice island somewhere?
MANTEGNA: I’d probably lean more towards the island thing, myself. We get enough tragedy and violence on the show, that’s inherent to the program, that I don’t need to add to it. “And then, there was the tragedy of Rossi.” For the most part, FBI employees do retire to whatever island it is they go to, and that being the metaphor for whatever choice they make. I would rather represent them. A person can do a job like that and do it for a good amount of time, and then be able to say, “It’s over. I was able to do it. Now, I’m done.” Personally, I hope that doesn’t happen for a good while yet. I’ve still got things to do, and shows to make.
When you started with the National Memorial Day Concert, did you have any idea that that would become the national tradition that it’s become?
MANTEGNA: No, I didn’t. For me, I don’t want to say that Memorial Day wasn’t a big deal, but it probably leaned more that way than the other. I had a lot of military in my family, but everybody came back. It wasn’t like we were mourning anyone on Memorial Day, for what had happened to them during any conflict. So for us, that holiday fell in with the 4th of July and a lot of other holidays. We were like, “Hey, it’s a three-day weekend.” But after I did it for the first time, which was Memorial Day of 2002, and going to the event as a favor to my dear friend Charles Durning, once I was involved with it, it overwhelmed me, to the point where I thought, “This is very important.” I’m of the mind now that I consider Memorial Day our most important holiday because it’s the holiday that allows us to have the other holidays. Without us honoring the military and what they’ve done for us, for over 200 years of our existence, there would not be a United States of America and we would have nothing to celebrate. It’s taken on that kind of meaning for me, and made that kind of impact. No, I didn’t expect it, but it happened. It’s become a big part of my life, not just Memorial Day, but the support of our military, in general.
MANTEGNA: You get bits and pieces of it throughout your life, in school, and here and there, and you go to parades and functions. That’s why, with the concert that we do, I encourage people to watch. It’s a three-day weekend. Take even 15 minutes and just check into our concert on PBS. If you watch for even 15 minutes, you’ll get an idea of why we have this holiday. And if you watch the whole show, within that 90-minute program we do these dramatic readings. It’s not a feel-good, smile-on-your-face program, for the most part, like a 4th of July celebration. It’s very reflective and it’s a tear-jerker, at times. It’s also very uplifting in portions of it, and it’s positive, in the sense that we’re celebrating. It’s a dichotomy. It’s a holiday to celebrate dead people, but thank god that they made the sacrifice. That concert, in itself, really teaches that moment and gives respect to what Memorial Day is all about. I think it’s important.
What’s it been like to partner with Gary Sinise and share the whole experience with him, every year?
MANTEGNA: I brought him into it. This will be my 13th year doing it, and I think it’s going to be Gary’s 9th or 10th. I had already done it for three years when I mentioned him to the producers. What happened is that Ossie Davis used to be the host, and I was just one of the performers, for the first couple of years that I did it. Then, Ossie passed and they asked if I would be the host. My first year hosting, I suggested bringing Gary Sinise and his band, the Lt. Dan Band, in to be one of the entertainers, and they agreed to that. I have such respect and love for Gary, anyway. There’s no greater supporter of our U.S. military, certainly in show business, than Gary Sinise, and I knew that, early on. So, when I asked him to get involved, I was hoping that he would agree, and he did. He went through the same thing that I did. After that concert, where he was just one of the performers, he came up to me and said, “Joe, this thing was awesome. I would like to volunteer to participate in any way you would need me to, from this point on.” I said, “How about co-hosting it with me? They asked me to be the host, but Ossie Davis’ shoes are pretty big to fill. Why don’t we just do it together?” He said, “I’m in!” So, we ‘ve been doing it together, ever since. I walk in his shadow, in terms of supporting our military. I do things, and I do my best. It’s my hot button. All of us, in this business, have our things that we advocate, but nobody does more for the military, in our business, than Gary Sinise. That’s just the truth.
You recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. When you get something like that, does it make you appreciate just how long of a career you’ve had in this business, or does it also make you feel like you still have so much further you want to go and so much more you want to do?
MANTEGNA: It just makes you feel old. No. I like to think I have more to go. It seems like I do, and that’s fine. But, it also is a wake-up call. You go, “Wow, I guess I have been around awhile and done a lot of things.” It’s very nice of them to acknowledge that. I’m 66 years old. You have to be realistic. With a lot of professions out there, that’s when they get their social security check and they call it a day. They say, “Well, I’m retired. I can play with my grandchildren and sit on the beach.” But, those things haven’t crossed my mind. I have no grandchildren yet, and I have no plans for retiring. One of the great things about my industry is that you can go out like Bob Hope or George Burns, and be 100 years old and still have jobs to do. But, I appreciate that. It was great. It’s a lovely event, and it was wonderful. So, it’s a combination of both of those things. I thank them for acknowledging the career that I’ve had, up until now, and I hope to be able to supplement it and earn their acknowledgment of it, even greater, by doing more to contribute toward it.
The National Memorial Day Concert airs on PBS on Sunday, May 25th. Criminal Minds will return to CBS in the Fall.