Telling the stories of firefighters is close to Leary's heart

Actor tries to depict their lives as he thinks they are on his FX drama

August 23, 2004|By Diane Werts | Diane Werts,NEWSDAY

Denis Leary isn't saying his lines precisely as written. Playing a domestic scene on a Long Island City soundstage with the actress cast as his ex-wife in FX's drama Rescue Me, Leary adds an extra word to his dialogue. First here. Then there. Then everywhere. He uses the word referring to the ex-wife's hated new boyfriend. He adds it as emphasis in addressing his fellow firefighter cousin.

It's not a word you can print in a mainstream newspaper. It's hardly polite language. But it's sure Denis Leary language, as evidenced in his caustic stand-up comedy rants, in its use as a song title in his No Cure for Cancer one-man show. It's tough, raw, expressive, colorful and potentially offensive.

Welcome to Leary land. Welcome to Rescue Me. Welcome to the New York City Fire Department.

Whether Leary's offhand dialogue survives into this episode's final cut remains to be seen, but it represents the rough-and-ready attitude he believes essential to a realistic depiction of life as an urban firefighter, especially in New York after 9/11. In the same way that Leary's offbeat 2001-02 The Job captured the edginess, monotony, danger and absurdities of city detective work during its acclaimed but abbreviated ABC run, Rescue Me (which premiered in July) aims to get under the skin of a profession that attracts equally distinct personalities.

"It's territory that I've never seen growing up, and we've all seen a lot of cop shows and cop movies," the 45-year-old actor-writer-producer says of both The Job and his new take on firefighters. He remembers watching Emergency in the 1970s, when the Jack Webb-produced hour drew family audiences with its screaming sirens, firehouse horseplay and emphasis on Dragnet-style procedure. "I don't think I've ever seen it done the way I know it happens," Leary says in his fusillade fashion, "which is funny, and dangerous, and scary, and a sense of family at the same time."

Leary lives and breathes the firefighting scene. He has hung out with firemen for years, decades, going back to his hometown roots in Worcester, Mass. His cousin Jerry Lucey was among the six fighters killed in the savage 1999 Worcester warehouse fire, alongside Leary's childhood friend Tommy Spencer. That tragedy prompted the star to create the Leary Firefighters Foundation to raise money for survivors of firefighters killed in the line of duty, as well as for the equipment and training perpetually in short supply.

His resolve heightened after the events of Sept. 11 in New York, Leary's adopted home and the city where he has long hung out with friend Terry Quinn at West Harlem's Ladder 22. Leary's foundation then launched the separate Fund for New York's Bravest, each fund supported by annual charity bashes and other efforts claiming more than $3 million raised.

But his personal interest became professional after ABC canceled The Job. Leary finished a couple of movie commitments, then got working on a long-held notion that firefighters' lives are about the most inherently dramatic around. And he wasn't thinking in terms of high-speed runs and flaming action. He was thinking of the internal churning in the firefighters he knew.

"If your life is built on adrenaline and danger, you can't really do that unless you've got somehow control of your emotions, and the scores of deaths you might have witnessed, or the losses that you've been involved in," Leary says. He's sitting between takes at a table in the firehouse kitchen that's been constructed for Rescue Me in another part of Sony's soundstages at the foot of the Queensborough Bridge, the same studio where interiors for The Job were filmed.

"How does a guy deal with keeping his emotions at bay so he can still run into the building and save people, and yet grieve over the people, the relatives, the friends, the brothers, who were killed? It's a really interesting place to examine," Leary says, "especially for men" - and especially for men like firefighters who so doggedly camouflage any hint of vulnerability.

Tommy Gavin is in that place in Rescue Me. Leary's character has become a veteran in the wake of 9/11, with so many of the department's senior fighters perishing with the World Trade Center. As created by the writer-producer in Leary (his Apostle production company also made The Job in partnership with Rescue Me co-creator Peter Tolan), Tommy is much like the comic's stage persona - verbally assaultive, cynical, hardened, self-assured. But viewers see how haunted Tommy is by the losses he's seen.

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