He’s taking a drag off a cigarette while standing next to a fire truck on the “Rescue Me” set in industrial Long Island City, across the East River from Manhattan. At six feet, three inches, the actor-writer-producer-comedian-philanthropist has a blond moptop, ropy limbs, and weathered skin. His face in repose forms a mild grimace. He looks like a fireman.
And well he should. He plays troubled Tommy Gavin on the acclaimed FX drama, which throws you headlong into the professional and personal lives of New York City firefighters. While it chronicles the downtime antics and risky business of a fictional firehouse, it refuses to give some characters black hats and others white ones. As such, you find yourself getting angry with the guys when they make mistakes. You feel they know better. You care.
That the show is also very funny says something because it probes delicate areas - loss, divorce, addiction, bigotry, even 9/11 - and does so via techniques more at home in “Six Feet Under” than, say, “Emergency!” Sometimes it uses documentary realism, sometimes creative means. An awkward conversation between Tommy and his distant father (Charles Durning), for example, included subtitles that spelled out the emotions each man avoided expressing.
“A show like ours had never been done on television in this country, at least not correctly,” Leary says. “One of the things I was proudest of was when we did the first couple of episodes and showed it to a bunch of guys in the FDNY, and they all said, ‘Christ, this is the closest I can imagine to sounding what it sounds like in my firehouse.’”
He promises the first new episode - airing June 21 - contains a twist that will send shockwaves throughout the entire second season.
When I arrive on set, a production assistant leads me inside to craft services. Amid Warholian wall-hangings of TV moments past - Archie Bunker and Bobby Brady in stills silk-screened with the same dotted pastels - a broad-shouldered man says hello. He has graying black hair and wears the navy-blues of the FDNY.
So naturally I ask him if he’s one of the actors. “I’m a firefighter,” he says. “They’re doing some stunts, and we have to make sure everything goes off okay.” Past him are several off-white tables. Guys in similar attire are seated at two tables - one table a group of actors; the other, of firefighters.
Before long, I’m called outside. The aroma of the sushi being put out for lunch is replaced by an odor of propane and motor oil. A scene involving a fire has just been completed. The sunwashed lot makes everyone squint or don shades. Leary is talking to a woman with a clipboard when his publicist introduces me to him. Leary gives me a who-are-you glance, then nods when the publicist answers him, and shakes my hand. Leary and I amble away from the fire truck and move to a loading dock. We sit on folding chairs and converse over bottles of cold water.
“Didn’t you quit smoking?” I ask. “Or was that your character?”
I figure he’s joking. But he doesn’t smile. In fact, his glacial blue eyes lock in on mine.
“Yeah. In ’98.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah. I started up again.”
“I don’t know. Probably around the time my cousin died.”
He stands and takes off the heavy, smocklike firefighter coat he’d worn in the previous scene. Hanging it over the blade of a prop ax shoved into a garbage can with umpteen hockey sticks, he fishes out a pack of Marlboro Lights and sits back down. Once he drains the bottle of Poland Spring, he uses it as an ashtray.
I know of his cousin.
Jeremiah H. Lucey, 38. A firefighter, eight years on the job. Killed along with five comrades in a warehouse fire in Leary’s hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts. “48 Hours” reported on the 1999 blaze - on the shortage of exits, the depleting oxygen tanks, the temperatures inside that climbed above 3,000 degrees.
Left behind two boys and a widow, Michelle.
“What was he like?” I ask.
“In his obituary, it said he was ‘a firefighter’s firefighter,’ which is exactly true,” Leary replies. “Even the night when he died, he was supposed to be driving. If you drive the rig, you got to stay with the rig, and he hated doing that. So he switched up with another guy and said, ‘Come on, you drive. Let me go in. I hate sitting outside.’ He died doing what he loved to do. And it’s kind of like what Tommy Gavin is supposed to be. You have to have one of those guys who has to be tempered by other personalities, because firefighting is a team sport.”
And Leary is the team’s biggest booster. He has raised over $5 million as of 2004 for fire departments in Worcester, Boston, and New York through his Leary Firefighters Foundation. He created it after Lucey’s death in order to bridge the gap between government funding and the needs of firefighters and their families. Following 9/1l, the foundation launched a special FDNY initiative.
Be it trucks or training, the foundation transforms the funds it raises into tangible resources. Annual events like the Hockey’s Greatest Skate for America’s Bravest and the Bash for New York’s Bravest have resulted in the burn tower training facility for New England firefighters (“It’s booked in perpetuity,” Leary says) and a pair of flashover simulators for the FDNY.
Terry Quinn, an old friend of Leary’s and a New York City firefighter for 17 years, helped instruct how the simulators are used. Each is a hollow, bench-lined trailer with a stage in the back. On top of the stage sits a metal garbage pail filled with paper and other flammables. Once it’s set on fire, the blaze spreads throughout the trailer. The firefighters sit on the benches, gaining experience in an actual fiery room - but one that is also safely controlled.
“Opening the door kind of feeds it, and the flames go over your head,” Quinn says. “It’s all dark in there except for the fire. The simulators have gotten a really positive reaction [according to] the questionnaire guys fill out after they’ve been through it.”
Quinn also serves as technical advisor on “Rescue Me.” On any given day, he consults on story ideas, helps stage stunts, verifies dialogue, or authenticates firefighter materials.
Born to Irish Catholic immigrants, Leary has walked a long, winding road to land the lead on a series. The 47-year-old had an epiphany when he saw Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets some 30 years ago. It was the first film in which Leary “recognized” the characters. But unlike Robert De Niro’s doomed Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, Leary never had to defend himself for his wisecracks. His older brother John, he says, was “a great street fighter.”
A mixture of humor and grimness has been a mainstay in the Leary arsenal ever since. In one of his stand-up acts, he told the hilarious story of John shooting him in the head with a bow and arrow, and segued into the solemn tale of their father falling off a pub barstool in Killarney, dead. The silence that surrounded the latter was as loud as the laughter that greeted the former.
His late father and uncle first came over from Ireland, receiving room and board from the grandmother of Leary’s third cousin, Conan O’Brien. During an appearance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” in the talk show’s shaky early days, Leary tried to get his distant relative to react to his detractors.
“Conan’s one of the funniest people on the planet,” Leary says. “He was from the other side of the tracks - the good side - so he went to Harvard, and I went to Emerson, luckily, on a scholarship. And he was adamant, saying, ‘I don’t want to talk about the critics and what they’ve said about me!’ He was right. Fuck ’em. They all call him a genius now.”
One of his classmates, while he studied theater at Emerson, was Quaalude comedian Steven Wright, who opened Leary’s mind to the possibilities of film and performing; and another was Doug Herzog, one of the founders of MTV. While Leary later taught at Emerson and wrote and acted some, only when he stepped onto comedy club stages, earning $25 a set, did he get comfortable, and confident, in the spotlight.
At MTV in the late 1980s - beside rising stars Colin Quinn, Adam Sandler, and Ben Stiller - Leary attracted more attention. “Now I’m not saying I’m a prophet, but Sandler was never one of those guys who could sit and write and work out an act,” Leary says. “His thing was more going out there and acting foolish. And it worked. And I thought that was going to either die fast or that it would be huge because it was easier to sell.” With Sandler and Quinn, Leary wrote and acted in MTV’s time capsule-ready game show “Remote Control,” appearing as Keith Richards and as cohost Quinn’s brother.
Then fate threw him for a loop in 1990. In London for a gig, Leary traveled with his pregnant wife, Ann - and her water broke, stranding the couple until their first child was born. The stay (chronicled in Ann Leary’s bitingly funny memoir An Innocent, A Broad) proved fortuitous. He used the time to develop a one-man show titled No Cure for Cancer, which had a successful stage run and led to an album and cable special. He was off.
Back at MTV he sharpened his persona as a Westie-ish crank in black-and-white spots the channel played between videos for Ugly Kid Joe and Color Me Badd. With a cigarette-filled fist jabbing the lens, he took aim at targets silly and serious. In one spot, he ridiculed R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People”: “I want the shiny people over here, and the happy people over here!” In another, he attacked racism: “I think Rodney King put it best when he said, ‘Ow! Ow! Ow!’”
In the decade that followed, he hopscotched between independent films and Hollywood fare. He made several movies, including The Ref and Monument Ave., with his late friend from the MTV days, director Ted Demme, and did character turns in Wag the Dog, True Crime, and The Thomas Crown Affair. He also provided the voice for Diego, the wily sabertooth tiger in the animated Ice Age (the sequel arrives next year). With “Rescue Me,” he moves front and center.
“Tommy’s obviously a very damaged, depraved, dysfunctional character, and Denis is more than willing to examine the depths of that depravity,” says cocreator Peter Tolan, whom Leary hired as a writer and showrunner on Leary’s criminally short-lived ABC series “The Job.” “However, Denis has a natural charisma and that’s what makes the character watchable. You feel sorry for him or even think he can be a schmuck, but he’s not a jerk. Denis would hate to admit this, but he has a certain warmth that makes the show work.”