This Wednesday we will say goodbye to New York City firefighter Tommy Gavin and the guys of 62 Truck with the season and show finale of Rescue Me -- a timely farewell that coincides with the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, an event that served as both impetus and main character for the show's seven-year run on FX.
With the slugline "Brave Men After a Tumultuous Event" Denis Leary and co-creator Peter Tolan combined comedy, tragedy and the absurd with a few ghosts thrown in to imagine what happens after such catastrophic loss. Dysfunction was the norm for Leary's antihero as he struggled with addiction, survivor's guilt and the demands of friends, family and fires (did I mention females?) -- to keep him challenged throughout this successful run of show.
Leary established the Leary Firefighters' Foundation in 2000 after the death of his own cousin along with a close friend and four other firefighters after a fire in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts.
He had been already working on a show about firefighters when September 11, 2001 created what Tolan has called the "tendrils of pain and suffering snaking out still" that served to fuse the essential themes of Rescue Me.
And while viewers are still in the dark as to Tommy's ultimate fate (I myself envision a Thelma and Louise denouement featuring Tommy and Lou) no one should confuse the character's fate with that of his writer/creator. Denis Leary is at the top of his game.
A self-described comedian first and foremost, Leary has often said that what firefighters do is something he would run the other way from while screaming like a little girl. His work on this show, however, along with his film work, books, music, standup and the talents of his amazing wife Ann Leary present a hard-working artist and family man with a very good heart. A closer examination reveals both similarities and differences with his Recue Me doppelganger -- both working class Catholics with a low threshold for bullshit and a high tolerance for the wild side perhaps best described in last week's episode: "He's Mickey Mantle, he's the great home run hitter, the maniac, the Golden Bad Boy who's going to turn it around before it all ends... He's the Mick."
I interviewed Leary last week and found that this Irish bad boy is a surprisingly thoughtful and measured professional who sees the success of this seemingly unruly show as the result of a lot of hard work and collaborative talent.
Ádh mór ort to everyone on Rescue Me.
NDP: Give me five adjectives that best describe firefighters -- NYC or otherwise.
Denis Leary: We have had a technical advisor who is a New York City firefighter on the show for many years, Terry Quinn, and after 9/11 there was some negative press about the guys and some of the firehouse behavior and he had this great quote: "I don't really care about what occurred outside the job, they're all heroes to me."(Five words!) I was in Catholic Schools for 12 years and threw most of it right out the window but what I do remember is "let he who is without sin cast the first stone." What firefighters, and people in our military and cops do is separate from what the rest of us do, basically these people say "I'm going to protect all these strangers".
NDP: What is the best thing about series television as compared to making or acting in movies, and what's the worst thing?
Denis Leary: The best thing about series TV is that everyone you work with is hand-picked, as compared to working on a film. Two weeks into a three-month shoot on a movie there's always the asshole and this is no time to fire that person. In my experience in series TV if you have a good crew and a great cast it's going to be a great group -- similar to the theater where it's a bunch of people who are really talented and go to work each day and challenge each other and if you are lucky enough to get a hit then it's five or six or seven years of this kind of work. The downside is that it has to come to an end.
NDP: You've said that 9/11 itself is a character in Rescue Me -- can you explain that?
Denis Leary: This show began as an attempt to look into the firehouse -- nobody had done that before -- and we tried to do it in as real a way as we could and that involved a big balance of comedy and drama -- a big part of firehouse culture is tragedy -- life and death and grief. And after 9/11 it just became a kicking off point -- it was always going to be just below the surface and something especially Tommy was never going to get over -- it was always looming. And his recovery was basically what the show was about -- firefighters as a family -- all brothers who loved and hated each other... you couldn't be a firefighter in New York and not have that constantly there.
NDP: Tommy Gavin is definitely and literally haunted throughout the seasons of the show... I know neither you nor he are in love with the word closure -- especially when it comes to some of the 9/11 commemorations but at the end of this show is it fair to say this character has had some growth, resolution... even come to a kind of peace with what happened?
Denis Leary: I don't think he's come to a peace -- what I think he's come to peace with is the present -- instead of living in the past. For the last seven years he has been trying to chase away these ghosts and re-live that day and the toll it took on his marriage and his children. He's used a lot of booze and is an adrenaline junkie. That event is never going away and his cousin is not coming back. But as for his wife and kids, he gets one little window of hope from which he is capable of stepping into the present and before the finale he did take that step as he basically made his preparations so that his people know how he feels about him. He's not the kind of guy who necessarily knows how to express himself... but from what I've heard from critics who have seen the final episodes the reaction has been very positive, although shocking to a lot of people -- it's very funny and very sad, and hopeful.
NDP: Talk a little about the writing on this show. It's you, Peter Tolan and Evan Reilly, just the three of you. Who writes the insane, Mamet -- like dialogue about sex or bathroom humor that the guys in the firehouse get into that have become a kind of trademark of the show?
Denis Leary: This is truly a group effort. I'm a method guy and I don't really care -- I don't care how people do it. Strangely enough from the beginning when the guys got into the firehouse and in gear, even when cameras weren't running we would sit around, run lines, improvise. We always had three or four cameras in the kitchen or the apparatus floor or the bunk room so everyone could be on camera -- it was like a play. And we would write something -- generally something we would get a snippet from a conversation with a firefighter on the set, something they said or we would overhear -- and we would go home and one of us would write it out and take it to the actors, like "here are the six pages, you guys play with it."
We'd shoot it in about an hour and usually someone like John Scurti would say "I have an idea" and we would play with it and go in and do two takes on a master with all cameras running to get all the coverage and then we'd have something that works. It was like an amoeba... organic almost. In the firehouse, whether the subject is the fire they just came in from or it's a personal event or a department issue, these guys just start talking, balls out.
NDP: Rescue Me has been a great home for actors with guest stars like Susan Sarandon, Peter Gallagher, Maura Tierney, Michael J. Fox, Amy Sedaris and others. Do they come to you or you to them?
Denis Leary: All of these people have been friends of mine -- Susan Sarandon, Michael J Fox, Peter, Maura is a friend of Peter Tolan's, everyone else I'd run into or be at their house and they'd talk about an episode and say 'if you every see anything..." and I would just keep everyone in the back of my head and carry that around until we came up with a character.
NDP: Callie Thorne!
Denis Leary: Callie Thorne.... I've said this a million times about her -- there are a lot of people on that show about whom you'd think I better have my game on today, it doesn't take them any time to get started, John Scurti is like that, Callie is like that -- from the first moment they take you down roads and improvise while so in character... you go places you would never ever find with a 'normal actor."
NDP: So which do you prefer -- writing and producing or acting?
Denis Leary: Look, I love writing for great actors, for this group of people -- but I have to say having recently been on the set of Spider-Man and not being involved in any other way than as an actor, it was pretty great to just go into the trailer between takes and watch SportsCenter...
NDP: Women and this show -- do you agree it's gone from being perhaps more sexualized in earlier seasons to a sort of cacophony of wives, girlfriends, and daughters who have become more of a part of Tommy's life -- almost like they are seeking revenge in this last season? Or are these women going to Rescue Him?
Denis Leary: Tommy is based on two friends of mine -- not just in terms of his turmoil but also his progression and I can happily say in both cases in real life those guys were ahead of the curve with their eyes and ears open, watching how their life was proceeding. And both these guys have women in their lives -- ex wives, daughters -- who eventually surrounded them in the best way they could as a safe place to go, a place that led them away for the darker elements of their lives. As the show progressed we talked about how Tommy Gavin would get to this end -- his daughters were also growing up -- and while he's a guy who lived in a man's world what really saves him in the end are these women.
NDP: I've written several pieces for Huffington Post on the nature of fame and pointed out differences in people who are well-known for what they do but seem to have chosen not to be a celebrity. This is a subject I know you tackle in a lot of your standup -- what are your feelings on celebrity and were you invited to the Kardashian wedding?
Denis Leary: Look, I'm not on those lists -- I wouldn't want to be on those lists! We have raised two kids who are now basically adults and when I see these types of shows I have just pointed at the screen and said "don't do this, do the opposite."
I think it's a shame when you come across young actors and musicians who haven't had the time to learn their craft. It doesn't matter if it's acting or music, you really have to learn how to do it from the bottom up because unless you have a great work ethic... fame is a terrible thing to have.