In 2002, “The Godfather Part III” star Joe Mantegna received an offer he couldn’t refuse. Charles Durning, a decorated World War II veteran, and at the time Mantegna’s costar in the TV series “First Monday,” invited him to participate in the annual National Memorial Day Concert in Washington, D.C.
Since then, Mantegna has enjoyed a long-term relationship with the event. This weekend, he returns for his 11th time as co-host. He joins Gary Sinise for the 32nd annual National Memorial Day Concert, which will be broadcast this Sunday, May 30 at 8 p.m. on PBS.
“It’s the most important thing I do every year,” Mantegna said, “because it allows me to spend 364 days doing all the other stuff.”
Prior to his first appearance at the National Memorial Day Concert, Mantegna considered Memorial Day to be a day to respect and honor the families of fallen soldiers. But it was also a day that marked the beginning of summer, with watching the Indianapolis 500 and barbecues also on the menu. His first experience at the concert profoundly changed that.
“It was monumental for me,” he said of the 2002 concert, the first after the epochal event of 9/11. “I did not know what I was getting into. I was standing on a stage in front of 200,000 people, with the Capitol building in front me and the flag waving, and on each side of me are screens showing the airplanes flying into the World Trade Center. The Washington Symphony Orchestra was behind me playing Mozart’s “Requiem,” and I was chosen to read the words of four New York firemen who had lost their sons in 9/11.”
Mantegna now feels Memorial Day is “our most important holiday,” he said. “It is the holiday that has allowed us to have the other holidays. If we don’t acknowledge Memorial Day, then we have no business celebrating the Fourth of July, President’s Day, and Labor Day, because without what we honor on Memorial Day, we have no United States of America.”
Mantegna went from a guest to his hosting role after actor Ossie Davis passed in 2005. It was Mantegna who originally suggested to producers they recruit Gary Sinise, the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning actor, humanitarian, and tireless advocate of veterans and first responders through his Gary Sinise Foundation. Sinise performed with his Lt. Dan Band. “Gary told the producers what I told them: ‘I’ll be glad to do it if you want me again.’” Mantegna and Sinise have co-hosted the concerts ever since.
National Memorial Day Concert 2021
This year’s concert will be virtual for the second year. Among the special segments to be presented include a 20th-anniversary remembrance of 9/11 and Gold Star Families hosted by Steve Buscemi, a 70th-anniversary tribute to the nearly two million Americans who fought in the Korean War with actor Joe Morton, and a tribute to nurses who served in Vietnam with a segment devoted to Diane Carlson Evans, founder of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.
Gladys Knight, Vince Gill, Sara Bareilles, Alan Jackson, Denyce Graves, and The Four Tops are among the musical performances.
Mantegna is the consummate character actor, a three-time Emmy-nominee and a Tony Award for his legendary performance as Ricky Roma in the original Broadway production of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” David Mamet, the playwright, directed Mantegna in such critically-acclaimed films as “House of Games” and “Things Change.” Mantegna is also a pop culture icon as the voice of Fat Tony on “The Simpsons.”
Mantegna never ceases to be amazed at the people he has met through the concerts and the experiences he has shared.
“Every year is different,” he said. “I’ve gotten to be good friends with Gen. Colin Powell (who will also be a part of this year’s concert), and I’ve gotten to meet whoever is head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I can remember standing off to the side of the stage and watching some of the talent sing a particular song and finding myself in tears because the song is so apropos to what is happening visually onstage. There have been a million of those moments.”