Leary on Fire

Photo: Kevin Cooley

You wanna know how big my balls are? Bigger than two of your heads duct-taped together. I’ve been in the middle of shit that would make you piss your pants right now.”

These are the first lines uttered on the new FX drama series Rescue Me. The delicate phraseology belongs to Denis Leary, who co-wrote the show with Larry Sanders alumnus Peter Tolan and stars as veteran New York fireman Tommy Gavin. Viewers have come to expect such foul-mouthed bravado from Leary, 46. The blue-collar tough blustered his way into notoriety with his singing-and-snarling 1991 downtown show No Cure for Cancer and cantankerous spots on MTV, before transitioning to gruff straight-shooter roles in movies like The Ref and canceled cop sitcom The Job.

What’s unexpected, however, is the source of Leary’s rage: Not Barry Manilow or anti-smoking crusaders, but 9/11 and its aftermath. What defines the Gavin character is that he survived the Trade Center attacks while 343 of his comrades did not, including four from his firehouse. Of Jimmy, his cousin and best friend, only a solitary finger was recovered.

Tommy’s as shell-shocked as a Vietnam vet, suffering survivor guilt and flashbacks, falling off the wagon, alienating his wife, and having unnerving chats with Jimmy’s ghost. In other hands, his attempts to heal himself might be grim grist, but Leary and Tolan have injected plenty of dark-and-dirty humor evocative of M*A*S*H (the movie, not the TV series).

“New Yorkers are proprietary about 9/11, like, ‘How can you use that for your own gain?’”

It sure isn’t Third Watch, which Leary says he’s never watched, labeling it “bullshit. Fake fire shit. Hero worship, what people like to think firemen do.”

Whereas on Rescue Me (which premieres at 10 p.m. on Wednesday July 21) one firefighter complains, “All that pussy I was getting after 9/11? Now, nothing. People forget.” The members of Tommy’s crew shun the shrinks assigned by headquarters, traffic in racism and homophobia, ogle women they drive past on the job, prank “probies” into producing stool samples, and hold betting pools about everything, including the prospects for Tommy’s marriage. Only when no one’s looking do they weep or write poems about what they’ve suffered.

The wry warts-and-all approach has worked for FX’s hit shows The Shield (L.A. cops) and Nip/Tuck (Miami plastic surgeons), but is America ready to see the flawed humanity of its recently enshrined heroes? “It may be too soon to look at this,” admits Tolan. “People are still mourning.”

Of course, Hollywood’s primary reaction to 9/11 was to tighten security at the studios and delay the release of a too-close-for-comfort Schwarzenegger movie. It has reverted with heedless swiftness to producing sensationalist twaddle like The Day After Tomorrow, in which global climate change freezes the Empire State Building. To be fair, with rare exceptions (like All the President’s Men or The Best Years of Our Lives), there’s usually a necessary time lag to turn touchy current events into powerful—and commercial—popular entertainment.

Yet Leary has boldly chosen to wrestle with 9/11 while the front page still covers the emotional briar patches of congressional hearings, site redevelopment, Michael Moore mischief, and married firefighters running off with 9/11 widows. He’s doing it because he grew up among firemen and had already started a firefighters’ foundation before 9/11. For him—and thus for viewers—Rescue Me is not just another TV show, nor is it a cheesy exploitation of a national tragedy. It’s a Passion play akin to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ—but from the bleaker point of view of a lapsed Catholic. “If there is a God,” Gavin says at one point, “he’s got a whole shitload of explaining to do.”

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.

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.”

Leary on Fire