The star of FX’s hit series Rescue Me talks to The Daily Beast about Michael J. Fox’s return to TV, penis size, his new comedy tour, turning down Scorsese, and firefighters doing musical numbers.
In the kitchenette of the trailer Denis Leary uses during Rescue Me location shoots, a number of newspaper and magazine clippings are taped to a cupboard over the sink. "This is our crazy wall," says Leary, pointing to each clipping and describing why the subject looks crazy. Mario Lopez? "Crazy hair." Hillary Clinton? "Crazy face." Amy Winehouse? "Crazy."
Considering the downtime inherent in shooting an hour-long TV drama—on this chilly early-spring evening, the trailer is parked in a Sunnyside, Queens, neighborhood, where a single car-crash scene is to be shot—putting up a "crazy wall" seems like a relatively benign way for Leary and Rescue Me co-creator Peter Tolan to pass the time. But when you hear the two of them banter, you tend to understand why they don't need a bunch of outside distractions to keep them entertained.
"We were on the set, and the two firefighters that work here, I overheard them talking about, 'Yeah, you know, if I’d known I could measure from the pubic bone…’”
"Our 10th anniversary as a writing couple is coming up," Leary says about his partnership with Tolan, shortly after flopping down on a leather couch and lighting up a Marlboro Light. "I’m gonna get him another TV show, and he’s gonna get me the same."
"But I do believe the 10th anniversary is the balsa-wood anniversary," retorts Tolan. "So I’m gonna get him a model plane. And then we’re going to Fire Island just to consummate it."
"To fly the plane…" says Leary, laughing.
Tolan laughs back. "Yeah, exactly. Get in the cockpit."
Leary, Tolan, and their third writing partner, Evan Reilly, are wrapping up production on a 22-episode fifth season of the firehouse dramedy, which premieres on April 7 on FX. This season, the after-effects of tbe 9/11 attacks on firefighter Tommy Gavin (Leary) and his colleagues at the Engine 62 company will come to the forefront in the form of a reporter looking for information. As she interviews the crew for a book about the historic day, the firefighters will dredge up feelings about the attack and its aftermath that will set them down different personal paths, all of which will be explored this season.
The specter of 9/11 has been hanging over the show since day one, but rarely examined this deeply. Why explore the tragic day's effects now, eight years after the event? "In real life, I think [with] the vast majority of firefighters, the reason that they can still get on their rig and run into the burning building is because, yeah, it’s there, but they can’t think about it on a daily basis," says Leary. "Otherwise, they wouldn’t run into a burning building. They wouldn’t be able to carry on."
As an example, Leary—whose interest in the lives of firefighters was piqued when his cousin died a decade ago trying to control a fire in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts—tells the story of a colleague of his New York Fire Department friend Terry Quinn, who returns to the station after toiling at Ground Zero. "He’s down there in his shift for like six hours, now he’s coming back to the firehouse to work. And Terry and some guys are putting their shit on to go down, and as he comes in the door, they said, ‘Um, how is it down there tonight?’ And he goes, ‘Eh, you know, sucky…good food though.’ He’s not being an asshole, he’s just stating the truth."
The finale of the fourth season aired more than 18 months ago, due to the 2007-08 writers' strike. FX ordered ten mini-episodes to fill the gap, and Leary feels like doing them energized the cast, because they could keep on top of their storylines. "That really helped us as writers. Because their work just kept getting better and better, and you’re going, 'These fucking actors are chewing this shit up.'"
In fact, both creators feel that the energy on the set and in the writers' room has been unusually high this year. "We’re coming in 110 miles an hour, the episodes are gonna be great, we’re gonna kick ass, we’re gonna hit the ground running, and we’re gonna come in with enthusiasm and hope that it passes on," says Tolan.
The 22-episode run for Rescue Me is unusual for the show and for FX; the network usually either orders one 13-episode season, or splits 22 episodes into two half-seasons. "(During) the shorter seasons, by the time we’d get to 13, we were pretty tired. But this year, we sailed past 13," says Tolan.
At least they're at a place that will give them a chance. At ABC, their ribald cop show, The Job, was jerked around the schedule before finally being canceled in 2002 after two seasons. So when the pair decided to pitch Rescue Me, they did things a little differently, says Tolan. "We felt like perhaps The Job would have survived if we’d taken it to cable. We’d have had more latitude. So we went straight to cable [with Rescue Me]."
Thankfully, their place on basic cable allowed them to show what really goes on at a firehouse between fires, not all of which is network-friendly, something Leary heartily endorses. "We were on the set, and the two firefighters that work here, I overheard them talking about, 'Yeah, you know, if I’d known I could measure from the pubic bone… And they were talking about a cock-measuring contest.' And I go, 'That’s going in the show.'"
Guests this season will include ER's Maura Tierney playing a gritty new firefighter, who's like "one of the guys in the firehouse, but with a skirt," according to Tolan. "We de- ER her pretty early on, and she was game for it," says Leary.
Also, Michael J. Fox will end a three-year acting hiatus to play a wheelchair-bound love interest for Gavin's ex, Janet. It's one of the darkest roles of Fox's career, according to Leary. "[The character] is a really fucked-up guy. He’s an addict."
There will be another interesting twist, something you'd never expect from such a black comedic show: musical sequences. The character of Sean Garrity (Steven Pasquale) will go in for cancer treatments, and in his haze he'll hallucinate that he and his fellow housemates (not including Tommy Gavin, unfortunately) are singing.
"Steve has a Broadway-caliber voice," says Tolan, who wrote musical theater in his distant past. "So I said we’re going to take advantage of this—and potentially jump the shark. All at once."
To help promote the upcoming season, Leary and co-stars Lenny Clarke and Adam Ferrara are doing an 11-city Rescue Me Comedy Tour, which started on March 21 in Atlantic City. In between the comedians' routines, exclusive trailers of the show's upcoming season will be played. After more than a year away, Leary figures, it's a good way to get people's attention again. "You send 5,000 people out of the theater happy, and they saw a sneak preview of the show.”
With the return of Rescue Me and his revived stand-up career, Leary seems to be in a good place. Good enough, apparently, to turn down one of his heroes, Martin Scorsese. Due to his commitment to the show, Leary had to refuse the legendary director when he was offered first Alec Baldwin's part, then Mark Wahlberg's part in the Oscar-winning epic, The Departed.
But Leary has no regrets. "I already worked with Clint Eastwood and De Niro, and my top guys. I thought Wahlberg was fucking brilliant, and Baldwin I just think is a brilliant fucking actor. He’s so fucking good."
Controversy has followed Leary during his career, as one would expect from a guy who broaches topics other comedians won't touch. But he's quick to defend himself with a flurry of words. Take the case of Bill Hicks: Six years after refuting Fear Factor host Joe Rogan's claim that he stole his cigarette-smoking, sacred-cow-skewering act from the late comedian, the accusation still lingers.
Leary, who played the New York comedy circuit with Hicks in the late ‘80s, has nothing but respect for his late friend's legacy. But he feels that there's a good logical argument against the theft accusations: Fifteen years of a world without Hicks. "Bill wrote a lot of shit [after he died] then. Because then I did Lock and Load, hundreds of talk-show appearances, The Job, Monument Ave., Two If By Sea, my book. When did Bill stop writing all this material?"
"It’s like conspiracy people about 9/11, or JFK, whatever," he continues. "They get the ice cube around their head. Every fact that you tell them goes into that ice cube and gets convoluted into their point of view on it."
Then what about the parents of autistic children, who protested Leary after he wrote in his book, Why We Suck: A Feel-Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid, that most kids aren't autistic, but just a product of "inattentive mothers and competitive dads [that] want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can't compete academically"? Despite the fact that he eventually apologized for the passage, he still doesn't seem convinced that the people who protested knew what they were yelling about.
"Well, the statement itself was not about autistic [kids'] parents, you know? So then, at that point, whenever something like that happens, you realize: You know what? There are people that are never going to read this the way it’s meant to be read."