Not only does a traditional concert honor America's military in general this year, it remembers one of its own.
Charles Durning was a Tony-winning and Oscar-nominated co-star of such projects as "The Sting," "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Tootsie"; a recipient of a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for his World War II service; and a frequent participant in the National Memorial Day Concert. The 24th annual event will recall Durning - who died last Christmas Eve - during its PBS telecast Sunday, May 26 (check local listings).
"He's the reason I do the concert," longtime co-host and tireless military supporter Joe Mantegna ( "Criminal Minds") tells Zap2it. "I did my very first one on his invitation. I knew nothing about it, and I did it partially as a favor to Charles because he was so passionate about it. And when I did it, it just spun my head around and changed my whole outlook on Memorial Day."
Fellow co-host Gary Sinise ( "CSI: NY") adds, "Joe's the reason that I'm there, so Charlie's the reason we're both there. It was through the concert that I met Charlie, which was terrific; Joe knew him better because he'd done the concert longer."
Mantegna and Sinise partner as the event's hosts for the eighth time on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., with Jack Everly conducting the National Symphony Orchestra. Retired Gen. Colin Powell is another returnee; actor Ed Harris, latest "American Idol" winner Candice Glover, Season 11 "Idol" finalist Jessica Sanchez and singers Katherine Jenkins, Alfie Boe and Chris Mann ( "The Voice") also are slated to participate.
Durning was involved in the D-Day invasion and then "was captured for a little while and got away" during the Battle of the Bulge, says Jerry Colbert, executive producer of the National Memorial Day Concert as well as "A Capitol Fourth," another holiday tradition broadcast by PBS. "He had really been through combat. On the other hand, he had been a stand-up comic for a while.
"You'd go out to dinner with him (and other veterans who went into entertainment), and it would be the best time of your life. These guys would be telling jokes all night, and it was just wonderful and warm. When he got the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award (in 2008), he knew everybody in the place."
A segment on twin brothers who served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan also is planned for this year's National Memorial Day Concert, as are tributes to the veterans of World War II and - on the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended it - the Korean War. Scheduled as well is a tribute to the police officers and other first responders who aided victims of the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon.
"This is my 12th year doing it," Mantegna says of the concert, "and it's such a comfortable feeling. It's always going to be different, because it's live and much of the talent is different, but they have the logistics down really well. It's like a well-oiled machine."
On this trip to the nation's capital, Mantegna also is helping to honor Sinise -- who regularly performs concerts with his Lt. Dan Band to benefit military personnel and their families -- with an award from the Sons of Italy Foundation at its annual gala, which Mantegna usually hosts.
"We're both Chicagoans, and we'd both been in the theater world, but one of the great things about having been involved in this concert has been my developing this relationship with Joe Mantegna," Sinise reflects. "That is one of the great gifts of this for me, aside from the fact that I get to be a part of something so unique and special ... and so important as a tribute to our men and women who have sacrificed in service to our country."
Photo/Video credit: PBS