Man On Fire
High above Park Avenue, in New York City's posh Waldorf-Astoria,
it's quite clear who's in charge of the television show being shot
here. The FX hit Rescue Me —a part-time drama, part-time
black comedy about firefighters and their full-time dysfunctions—is in
production, and today's schedule calls for a few scenes in a plush
apartment setting, a backdrop the Waldorf has in ready supply. As
usual, the cast and crew are on schedule. This has everything to do
with Denis Leary. * The 48-year-old Worcester native, the
brash actor and comedian who has long embodied the caustic Boston
attitude, is the show's cocreator. He is also an executive producer.
And writer. And he plays the lead. Leary is involved in nearly every
aspect of the show, and that includes making sure things move along at
the proper clip. * “There's a lot of guys in this
business who put in 16-hour days,” Leary says between long, comforting
puffs on a Marlboro Light 100. He has a cigarette in his hand so often
it can sometimes appear he has an extra digit. “All that means is
they're basically jerking off. If you're doing 25 takes for a scene,
unless it's a special thing, or an exact artistic shot, or you're a
genius à la Martin Scorsese, then there's really no reason for it.”
Leary likes it this way—being in control. He comes off surprisingly
prepared and calculating. Even a bit uptight. I'd never met Leary
before, but I was familiar with his work—at times crude and bright and
unapologetic, but almost always funny. This side, the business side,
isn't exactly funny. It makes me wonder if all the elements he must
attend to on Rescue Me haven't commercialized him a bit,
sapped him of the qualities that made him Denis Leary in the first
place: the blue-collar bent, the in-your-face sarcasm, the biting wit,
And then, suddenly, loudly: “Put it on his crotch.” It's Leary,
abruptly demolishing my half-witted theory about the corporate takeover
of his outrageous personality. On set, the crew is prepping to shoot a
scene in which Leary's character, Tommy Gavin, a firefighter with
myriad issues (here being played by a stand-in), is at a family dinner.
Across the table will be Gavin's estranged wife, who is to engage in a
game of footsie with him. Actually, Rescue Me would never
portray something as tame as footsie; she's really supposed to give the
area between his legs a good rubbing with her foot. This, apparently,
is Leary's way of getting the scene exactly right. (Not to mention
making the crew snicker.) “Put your foot on his balls. ”
“His family jewels,” someone else chimes in, futilely trying to keep pace.
“Just say 'balls,'” Leary corrects, applying all the appropriate comedic authority.
All of a sudden, the boring production, the almost entirely quiet
set, is loud and boisterous and full of belly laughter. All of a
sudden, everyone is loose and having a grand time. All of a sudden,
Leary is Leary.
Accordingly, it becomes clear that Rescue Me hasn't
changed him at all. On the contrary, the show lets Leary be who he
always has been—funny and bawdy, yes, but also talented and capable
and, at the appropriate moments, serious. After years of being written
off, after being assailed for his role as the obscenity-spewing smoker
from his standup act and '90s MTV commercials (“I think you hear me
knocking!”), he is, it turns out, being praised. This hit show, now in
its second season, offers redemption, then—a big, fat middle finger
flipped at everyone who said Leary wasn't any good. It is, in so many
ways, perfectly suited for him—equal parts professional haven and
Rescue Me, indeed.
People don't want to like Denis Leary. They never have, and he knows
it. Maybe it's the smoke-stained teeth that come at you through his
omnipresent mocking smirk—as though he knows something you don't, and
he's amused (or appalled) by it. Maybe it's the fact that he's been
around for what feels like forever, that he continues to work when some
critics were long ago convinced he should have gone back to Worcester,
gone back to something more suitable—like laying brick or driving a
truck. For as long as Leary has been a professional actor, for close to
15 years now, the critics who didn't ignore him were cowed by him, much
like studio execs or some of his peers. For someone who made his name
by making people laugh, there sure were (and still are) a lot of people
calling him an asshole.
“I've always said that anyone in this business who calls me an
asshole is an asshole themselves,” Leary says. It's one of his favorite
words: asshole. It slips off his tongue effortlessly. (On the show, his
character gets a poodle and, naturally, names the puppy Asshole.) “I've
never been an asshole in terms of showing up late or making crazy
demands about my trailer or something. I have been an asshole in the
sense that I'll say, 'This is not the script you told me we were going
to make.' I won't go on Letterman and push a film if it's a piece of
shit. I called people assholes who I thought were assholes. So I was
perceived as being difficult.”
Whether people like him is largely immaterial now. Because, love him or hate him, there's no denying his talent any longer. Rescue Me has gotten serious attention, trumpeted by the New York Times and the Washington Post and the New Yorker and so many others. The viewers have been equally kind—for a cable show, Rescue Me
has done well, particularly among the coveted 18-to-49 demographic.
(Still, like Japanese soldiers who hid in Philippine caves for decades
after World War II, refusing to concede defeat or embrace their
one-time enemy, some continue to stubbornly fire shots at Leary. When I
call Pulitzer Prize?winning TV critic Joe Morgenstern at the Wall Street Journal, he blows me off, saying he doesn't “pay attention to Denis Leary.”)
Rescue Me is daring, smart television, a sort of sanctuary
for the anti-PC set—by turns dark and hilarious, uncomfortable and
touching. There are no rules, a fact that has a lot to do with the
show's being on FX and even more to do with Leary. Much like Leary's
comedy act, there's nothing the show won't poke fun at or dramatize:
the alcoholic priest who has (adult, hetero) sex; the firefighter on
Gavin's crew who is tricked into hooking up with a transvestite; the
fire chief who is homophobic but whose son is gay; Gavin's elderly
father and uncle who find their second childhoods by playing the
ponies, whoring, drinking, and smoking herb. And then there's Gavin
himself—a drunk who punches cops, tells a woman he loves her though he
doesn't know her name, and, most notably, is so haunted by the people
he can't save that he sees, and talks to, their ghosts.
“[The characters'] lives are just as fucked up and funny and tragic
as yours,” says Robert Wilonsky, an NPR contributor and newspaper
critic. “It's one of the best shows on TV right now. But here's the
reason why it may not be a huge hit: People hate watching themselves.
TV is supposed to be what you want your life to be, not what it is.
People don't want to acknowledge that they drink too much, that they're
homophobic, that they smoke or swear or fuck too much. No one likes TV
that makes them feel guilty. And who's Tommy Gavin? One of the most
guilt-ridden characters on television.”
Leary knows plenty about guilt. The man wears it the way he wears a
shirt or a pair of cargo pants—just drapes it over himself, carries it
throughout the day. He's the first to admit it, even offer it up in
Most people he knew growing up in Worcester ended up working the
kinds of jobs that hurt your back or get your hands dirty. His father
was an auto mechanic. Leary? He got lucky, went off to Emerson to study
acting, and never looked back. He's led an auspicious life. He's the
first to admit that, too.
His cousin and a childhood friend weren't so fortunate. In 1999 they
were among the six Worcester firefighters killed in the city's infamous
cold-storage warehouse fire. Leary was crushed. He'd always been awed
by firefighters. But until the tragedy, he was like most of us—thankful
for their effort but too self-absorbed or lazy to show any real
appreciation. After the death of his friend and cousin, Leary started
the Leary Firefighters Foundation, one of the few private organizations
that raise money to help develop and provide needed equipment to fire
departments in Worcester, Boston, and New York. Since its creation, his
foundation has raised more than $5 million.
“Guilt? Oh yeah. No question,” Leary confesses. “My cousin . . . he
was the mouthpiece for his crew about the lack of money and training
and equipment, and it would go in one ear and out the other. So when he
died, the foundation was a way for me to deal with the guilt for not
having listened to him when he was on the planet.”
There was no foundation to form, though, when another friend,
director Ted Demme, died three years later. (The pair met at MTV in the
late '80s and later collaborated on projects including The Ref, No Cure for Cancer, and Lock 'n Load .)
Once more, Leary was consumed by death; he still is. Some people see a
psychiatrist. Leary's preferred method of therapy instead has him
funneling his grief into writing and acting.
That doesn't mean his method gives him closure, or even that it's terribly effective. On Rescue Me,
death is as much a part of the show as the actors or crew—from the
firefighters who confront it in each episode, to the passing of Gavin's
mother in the first season, to the near-fatal car accident of Gavin's
“It's cathartic to write about [death] and think about it and play
with aspects of it,” Leary says. “But going through with the scenes is
entirely different. All these people that we carry with us are right
there below the surface. [The memories] make for really great
scenes—and tough days.”
For Leary, there is a residue left by forever dealing with death. He
questions God, so much so that it's become his default position. He was
raised Catholic, but parted ways with the church when he was a teenage
altar boy, shortly after getting drunk during Mass on holy wine. It
just wasn't for him (the church, that is, not the wine). In Rescue Me,
the Catholic Church, much like death, is at the fore. And, much like
death, it is played with and analyzed and, at times, mocked. Jesus
visits Gavin, but instead of offering guidance, he asks for a sandwich.
Mary Magdalene pops into Gavin's apartment to raid his liquor cabinet.
Gavin's cousin, the aforementioned alcoholic, whoring priest, leaves
the order to do more whoring (but not drinking—he's in AA).
Leary admits it's been difficult to wrap his head around losing
people who were “in the good-guy camp.” The Catholic Church, he says,
“will tell you it's a mystery. But you reach a point where you want
some goddamn answers. I don't think they have them to give. So you're
sort of left to deal with it on your own.”
He stops for a moment, perhaps realizing how heavy this conversation
has gotten, perhaps because he's opened up his mental window and he's
okay with us looking in, but not necessarily making ourselves at home.
And then, just like that—just like the show—he transitions from the
deep and disturbing to more-comfortable ground. Like any accomplished
storyteller, Leary understands the value of juxtaposition: Drama is
fine, but it's better digested when served with lighter fare.
“Someone was saying this, and it's really true: Everyone makes fun
of [Scientology], how the aliens came down and the L. Ron Hubbard
thing,” Leary says. “But the church I came from? There was a guy who
walked on water, who also had a bottomless jug of wine. After being
crucified, his pals put him in a cave and then he came out and he cured
the sick. It's all magic. But Tom Cruise is crazy, the rest of us are
normal, and I have to have sex with my wife through a hole in a sheet.
He is a funny man, Denis Leary. The irony is that his comedy routine
made him famous, but it also held him back. No one cared that he'd been
trained as an actor first, that he'd only gotten into comedy because he
needed a gig and some stage experience. The character that developed
from his standup—the brazen, over-the-top ass—wasn't just a put-on in
most people's view. It was Leary. What ultimately slowed his career
growth was the lack of understanding that his comedy was Leary to a point.
It was him in the same way that Jon Stewart's anchorman/jokester is
real. While some of it speaks to their actual personalities, most is
exaggerated for effect.
“Because I went into standup, I knew I was going to take a beating
when I tried to act with De Niro or whoever—you know, what's this comic
guy doing?” Leary says. “And a lot of guys wrote that. Everyone gets
pigeonholed, and that's what I had to deal with.”
He did work with De Niro. And Dustin Hoffman. Clint Eastwood, too. He got some respect for his acting chops in The Ref, but he took a lot more heat for films like Loaded Weapon 1. It wasn't until The Job debuted on ABC in 2001 that some critics began to see him differently. Like Rescue Me, The Job —a
comedy with no laugh track about a screwed-up New York City cop that
Leary starred in, wrote, and executive produced—was edgy and sharp. But
major networks don't really like edgy and sharp. They like safe and
profitable, whatever will numb minds and keep viewers properly sedated
so they won't change the channel. Not surprisingly, The Job —despite largely effusive reviews of Leary's writing and acting—was canceled after two seasons.
Rescue Me offers a second chance for Leary to play the
role he's always loved—the flawed antihero. Maybe he's just one of
those guys who has to go do his own thing because too few people “get”
“I don't think this show could have been done by anyone else,
anywhere else,” says FX president and general manager John Landgraf.
“When you're on a network, it's like the Matterhorn: You're up and down
and it's fun and exciting but you're strapped in and on the rails and
you know nothing bad will happen. With us, we want you to feel like
you're about to be thrown. That's what Denis does best. He's spicy
food, just like us. We're not for everyone and neither is he.”
Nor is Tommy Gavin. Leary's character tries to live a “respectable”
life but his intentions generally lose out to his desires. When Gavin's
cousin and best friend, who was also a firefighter, dies on 9/11, Gavin
honors his memory by knocking up his widow. And yet Leary manages to
pull off the impossible by making Gavin sympathetic. In the end, the
viewer doesn't hope for his demise or even expect he'll change; rather,
we pray he finds absolution—from others, but mainly from himself.
“You know, it's much easier to write [a character like Gavin], in a
way, because there's no perfect person,” Leary says, pushing his
floppy, dirty-blond hair back over his head and out of his eyes. (He
has good hair. Handsome hair. The kind that's just fine on Brad Pitt,
but looks somewhat odd on Leary. The attendant irony, I suspect, is by
design.) “One reason I loved Dirty Harry was because he wasn't like the
normal TV cops, like Steve McGarrett from Hawaii Five-O.
Probably the worst thing you could say about [McGarrett] was that he
got too angry at criminals. That's cardboard stuff. None of the guys I
grew up with, or even my dad, were perfect. On my block, every sin you
could think of committing was committed on a daily basis. I find that
much more interesting.”
He's not alone on that score. Not anymore. In March, Leary was
nominated for a Golden Globe, awarded by the Hollywood Foreign Press
Association, for best actor. He didn't win— Deadwood' s Ian McShane did—but it was still a significant moment for Leary.
“He should have won,” says Lenny Clarke, a longtime friend of
Leary's who plays Gavin's obscenely funny (and just plain obscene)
Uncle Teddy on Rescue Me. But McShane is brilliant on that
show, I remind Clarke. “Sure,” he says, pausing for comedic effect. “If
you like that kind of thing.”
Of course, Clarke and Leary know McShane does fine work. They both
concede that the nomination alone was a seminal moment for Leary as an
actor and a writer, not to mention wonderful publicity for the show. So
he didn't win—big deal. Who needs a marble-and-gold trophy when he's
writing what he wants and acting how he wants? Besides, Leary hardly
comes off as someone who would care about an award doled out by some of
the very same people— the assholes —who can't stand him.
“It was fun to go, because I'd never been to that event before, and
because you can smoke and you can drink and they serve food,” Leary
says. “But, having said that, I'm a competitive son of a bitch. As a
businessman, I want as much attention for the show as I can get. But if
you're going to invite me, I don't want to go and not win.”
I wonder if, deep down, despite all the confidence he exudes, Leary
is less sure of himself than he puts on, if the past criticisms have
hurt more than he'll admit. I wonder if winning a big award would fix
all that—if that's why he wants it so bad. So I ask him.
Leary considers it for a moment, then leans forward.
“Nah,” he says. “I want to get up there and lord the trophy over people.”