On September 11, 2001, Leary experienced a bizarre déjà vu. People perishing in a hellish conflagration, prolonged search for corpses, money dispersed to families: He’d lived through it on a smaller scale fewer than two years earlier.
It was December 3, 1999. In Leary’s hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, a candle overturned by some squatters in an abandoned warehouse ignited a five-alarm fire, and six of the firefighters died, including Leary’s first cousin Jerry Lucey and high-school classmate Tommy Spencer.
Spencer had pushed past his chief’s attempt to block him and returned inside trying to save his comrades. “He wasn’t going to let those guys die alone,” says Leary. “Even if there was just half a percent of a chance he could get them out. The courage that takes is just immense.” He started the Leary Firefighters’ Foundation (learyfirefighters.org), which has raised $4.2 million for 9/11 families and the Boston, Worcester, and New York FDs.
On the morning of 9/11, Leary was unloading hockey gear at the Chelsea Piers rink when he saw smoke and flames billowing from the World Trade Center. His first impulse was to call his friend Terry Quinn, a fireman on the Upper West Side, but Leary’s cell phone didn’t work. As he frantically tried to track down a Wall Street friend, the ice rink was designated as a morgue. Not until the next day did he learn that Quinn and the Wall Streeter were safe but that in a horrible twist, his pal Ace Bailey, a retired pro-hockey player, died on one of the flights out of Boston, where he’d been planning to participate in the next Leary Firefighters’ Foundation fund-raiser.
Leary speedily launched a separate 9/11 fund, hosting a downtown “Bash for New York’s Bravest” on October 15 (it has since become an annual event) and ensuring that checks reached families with young children before that first Christmas.
During the cleanup, Leary says, he couldn’t bring himself to visit ground zero. “No interest whatsoever,” he says gruffly. “Too many similarities in terms of the feeling.” Instead, a few months ago, he donned full firefighting gear and wandered around a Queens-warehouse re-creation of the dusty, chaotic Trade Center rubble, talking to a severed head for a dream sequence in the pilot. “That,” he admits, “was kinda creepy.”
Tolan, who directed the pilot, calls Leary’s performance as the conflicted, emotionally buried Gavin “tremendously well crafted . . . a revelation. People don’t know Denis. They think he’s this guy who’s yelling on MTV. He makes the guy almost charming—and that’s not a word that gets thrown his way often.”
Denis Leary seems an unlikely candidate for sensitive chronicler of anyone’s emotional issues. After all, this is the guy who in No Cure for Cancer hoped to start a new method of therapy called “Shut the Fuck Up.” “People ask me, ‘Is Denis as angry as he appears in his act?’ ” says Leary’s longtime producing partner, Jim Serpico. “People who know him well don’t see it as anger but passion. He believes in stuff and speaks up.”
If it had been up to Leary, today he would be a “broken-down hockey player,” he says. But he couldn’t maintain a C-minus average at St. Peter’s High School and was kicked off the team. And in his Worcester neighborhood, he recalls, “basically your choices were, if you didn’t make it in sports, you had cop, firefighter, or teamster.” His parents, Nora and John, emigrated from Ireland in the early fifties; John was an auto mechanic, an electrician, and a carpenter. (Leary has a brother and two sisters.) Leary estimates that three dozen guys he grew up with became firemen.
His escape hatch was provided by a nun who urged him to try out for a school production of Mame and then a scholarship to Emerson College in Boston, where his fellow students included future comedians Steven Wright, David Cross, Mario Cantone, and Comedy Central president Doug Herzog.
After graduating, Leary taught acting at Emerson (and ended up marrying one of his students, Ann Lembeck) and worked on the docks. Then he heard that his classmate Steven Wright was doing stand-up comedy. “I was like, What?” Leary recalls. “He was literally the shiest person on the planet. I was like, If he can do that, I can do that.” In 1985, his father died of a massive heart attack and Leary decided it was time to make his work more crafted and personal. But club managers balked. “At the time, it was all Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno look-alikes, people that weren’t even funny—they just sounded funny,” Leary recalls. “A lot of the best acts couldn’t get work on the road. And that included myself, Chris Rock, Janeane Garofalo, Jon Stewart.”
A medical crisis ended up launching his career. In the spring of 1990, Denis and Ann, five months pregnant, went to London for a weekend so he could tape a stand-up segment for a TV show. Then Ann’s water broke. Stranded there until she could give birth (a story she recounted in her recent book An Innocent, a Broad), Leary knuckled down to write himself a longer-form show to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. No Cure proved a runaway hit and was moved to New York, where pal Eric Bogosian got the Times’ Stephen Holden to see the show, and the resulting 400-word rave changed Leary’s life.