Actors answer the call of duty

Chicago contingent donates time for children of fallen heroes

By Rick Kogan
Chicago Tribune

In the old days, before they were famous and busy and spread across the country, it might have been possible to see a gathering of actors Dennis Farina, Dennis Franz, Joe Mantegna, William Petersen and Gary Sinise in some local tavern, perhaps at such bygone theaterfolk hangouts as the Gaslight or Joel’s.

But getting that gang together now would seem be an impossible task, complicated by agents, lawyers, schedules and egos.

Yet for the last week or so these actors have been appearing in a public service ad running on local television stations and, in the coming weeks, will appear on billboards around town.

The man who put the whole thing in motion was Joe Ahern, for many years the president and general manager of WLS-Ch. 7 and, later and controversially, WBBM-Ch. 2. Since November 2010 he has been the executive director of the 100 Club, that laudable 45-year-old not-for-profit organization that helps fund the college educations of dependent children of police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel killed in the line of duty.

Last year, he put the arm on his old friend Farina to appear in a successful public service announcement and, never a man of small ambitions (he was a high-profile senior adviser to the city’s 2016 Olympic bid committee), Ahern this year decided to up the stakes and increase the star power. “I just want to increase awareness of the 100 Club,” he says.

So, he called Tom Dreesen, another old pal.

“I was sitting a barber chair when Joe called and told me his idea and who he wanted to try to get,” says Dreesen, proud son of suburban Harvey, former opening act for Frank Sinatra, terrific comic, lovely guy and legendary soft touch. “I thought it was great but tough to pull off. So I made some calls and, even I was amazed, had all yeses within hours. No agents. No lawyers.”

And so, on Dec. 12 on the Los Angeles soundstage of the CBS show “Criminal Minds,” in which Mantegna stars, the actors (three flying in from other cities) came together. The taping lasted nine hours and, according to all there, it was a blast.

“Of course, all of these guys know each other and have for a long time, but that doesn’t mean they see each other on any regular basis,” says Ahern. “It was a great time, and all of them just love Tommy.”

All of the actors, Dreesen, as well as the crew and the creative team of Jim Schmidt, managing partner of Chicago’s Downtown Partners, and local marketing consultant Mark Mitten donated their time and services.

“It was like some sort of divine intervention. (The 100 Club has) no money to pull off something like this,” says Ahern, who adds that he was pinching pennies so tightly that he bunked at Dreesen’s LA house for a couple of days during the shoot.

The organization may not have a lot of dough, but last year the 100 Club provided more than $400,000 in college funds for 22 young men and women; another 43 kids are due to become eligible in the coming years.

Farina was a Chicago cop, and most of other actors have played cops. They are all successful now but they have never forgotten where they came from. They may not remember long nights at the Gaslight or Joel’s, but they know who protects the streets.