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Leary on Fire

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On the set in Yonkers, the six-one bleached-blond Leary alternates between smoking and busting everyone’s chops. “Denis is more than just ‘angry,’ ” says Tolan. “He’s certainly a curmudgeon; he’s willing to grouse about everything. But he’s a complex guy. And a fun guy. When we’re doing good work, nobody enjoys it more, and he’s got a good eye for when it’s right.”

After the Worcester fire, Leary had started to write a movie about a firefighter whose life was falling apart, but set it aside. It was Tolan who suggested a series. Leary says that though 9/11 haunts Gavin, the show is also about the other people he hasn’t been able to save before or since, and the fact that “he can’t talk about it, and doesn’t want to talk about it, until at some point he tries to talk about it.” It’s a high-minded concept and a tough sell, especially given that Leary and Peter Tolan’s last effort, The Job, a similarly ribald half-hour cop show, floundered on ABC in 2001–2.

They first tried HBO, which passed. USA Network committed to several episodes, but demanded certain scenes be filmed in Toronto—anathema to Leary both artistically and personally. FX would only agree to shooting a pilot, but Leary had been impressed with how the fledgling network had given free rein to The Shield and promoted it to Emmy status. Peter Liguori, the network’s president, says he loved the “honesty” of the project. As for any controversy, he says, “The big networks look at what’s working, and it’s leading to a world in which you get 100 hours of Law & Order and 100 hours of CSI. You’ve got to make bold choices to get people to go to channel 58.” The boldness is, of course, Leary’s, in trying to wring art from both individual and public tragedy. Even the playwright Tony Kushner, no stranger to tackling controversial subjects in Angels in America and Homebody/Kabul, admits to staying deliberately clear of 9/11. He hasn’t seen Rescue Me, but says, “I wouldn’t go near it right now. Nine-eleven is very dangerous. I have this feeling that certain events are so horrible that certain kinds of art are not appropriate. It’s going to vulgarize it.”

There are also inevitable artistic issues. When director Brad Silberling—who turned the story of his girlfriend’s being killed by a stalker into the movie Moonlight Mile—was asked to direct a movie about the Worcester fire, he turned it down. “My worry was, I thought it could become The Perfect Storm, consumed with the pyrotechnics, and lose the sense of who all these guys were.”

To keep the budget down to $1.5 million per episode—about half what a network hour would normally cost—the main sets are a shuttered firehouse in Yonkers and a warehouse soundstage in Long Island City. Rescue Me also tries to shoot each episode in seven days instead of eight. It helps that a few of the actors are former firefighters, like Jack McGee, a compact bulldog of an actor who plays Gavin’s chief, Jerry Reilly. McGee, who was in Backdraft, Hollywood’s last big firefighting movie, says Rescue Me is much better at dealing with the “day in, day out. I always think that when doctors and nurses get exposed to this carnage, they can deal with it as an intellectual thing. Firemen are glorified laborers in the back of a garage who bring victims to emergency rooms. No one can prepare you for it.”

Therapy looms large in Rescue Me—almost as a threat. Like Tony Soprano, Tommy and his brethren mistrust treatment as potentially detrimental to executing their jobs. “There’s this delicate balance,” says Leary. “That mechanism in their head that lets them have balls of steel, it’s like a clock, and if the world shifts ever so slightly, who knows? You get a split-second decision in a fire, a moment of doubt, and it could screw you and all the guys you’re there with.”

The question is, how real does America want the show to be? FX president of entertainment John Landgraf says, “Test audiences felt they were being hit over the head too hard. Audiences get things very quickly. It came on a little too strong. We thought there was too much 9/11, not enough firefighting. These men are suffering not just because of 9/11; any fire, they witness suffering.”

“There’s a tightrope involved,” says Tolan. “We’re not going to go there very often, but some of the characters were killed that day.” He attributes the audience reaction to several factors: “There’s an American thing, they don’t wish to remember unpleasant things—‘Why are you showing us that?’ And some New Yorkers are proprietary about the tragedy, like, ‘How can you use that for your own gain?’ And then there are people who lost loved ones, who’d have a difficult time seeing it.”

The recent 9/11 hearings, which in part blamed the firefighters’ deaths on mistakes with radio equipment, have predictably stirred Leary’s ire. “This is a country that likes to point fingers and blame people for their problems, like suing McDonald’s because they’re fat,” he says. “When it comes to 9/11, it’s far beyond Monday-morning quarterbacking. The FD has been underfinanced, understaffed, and left alone for years. They knew their radios were bad. My foundation is all about trying to get them the new equipment. And instead you have senators spending all this money to sit on a dais to blame people, and getting on the news, instead of solving the problem.” Leary still has the fire in him. “The things that make me angry still make me angry,” he says. “George Carlin is 67, and he’s as funny as he’s ever been, and he’s still angry. And that makes me feel good, because I feel like if I stick around long enough, I’ll still be able to work.”


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