Denis Leary: Firefighters and Fiery Tempers In Rescue Me, writer, actor and producer Denis Leary plays a macho fireman with a hot temper. The outspoken actor and comedian talks with Terry Gross about Rescue Me, dealing with fame and learning to ride horses.
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Denis Leary: Firefighters and Fiery Tempers

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Denis Leary: Firefighters and Fiery Tempers

Denis Leary: Firefighters and Fiery Tempers

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Comic actor and writer Denis Leary first became known for his short corrosive satirical beats on MTV. Now he's co-creator, executive producer, co-writer and star of the series "Rescue Me." The fifth season has just premiered on FX. Leary plays Tommy Gavin a New York City firefighter who's constantly risking his life to save others but constantly letting down his friends and family and getting into fights.

In this scene from next week's episode, he's facing expulsion from the fire department because of his reckless behavior and he's sent to meet with the department shrink.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Rescue Me")

Unidentified Man (Actor):(As character) Let's see, what do we got here? You dress up in your dead cousin's gear and going on calls with your crew and the crew another on an other shift. You'd hide in the truck and you'd go out on calls as your dead cousin. This dead cousin thing: what is up with that?

Mr. DENIS LEARY (Actor): (As Tommy Gavin) After 9/11 - well, it's kind of complicated but basically in a nut shell, I suppose my wife, drinking, pills - lot of pills, lot of drinking, and my brother and my wife had an affair, and he's dead now so. And then I quit drinking and pills and everything so…

Unidentified Man (Actor):(As character) Okay, get out of here.

Mr. LEARY (Actor): (As Tommy Gavin) I didn't kill him…

Unidentified Man (Actor):(As character) Yeah.

Mr. LEARY (Actor): (As Tommy Gavin) …my brother.

Unidentified Man (Actor):(As character)It's okay, go.

Mr. LEARY (Actor): (As Tommy Gavin) You know, guys like you, I mean, you know, you just - I get what four seconds to explain myself. I've been fighting fires…

Unidentified Man (Actor):(As character) (unintelligible) go back to work. You're cleared. Case dismissed.

Mr. LEARY (Actor): (As Tommy Gavin) Go back to the fire house?

Unidentified Man (Actor):(As character) Look, Mr. Gavin you're a vet. You've got all the years, the saves, the medal recommendations…

Mr. LEARY (Actor): (As Tommy Gavin) That's right.

Unidentified Man (Actor):(As character) Whack job or not, the department can't afford to lose guys like you. Maybe you're little nuts, yeah, but all the guys we lost in the towers, all guys who got out after, you know, there's just too much fresh blood on the job right now. We need you.

Mr. LEARY (Actor): (As Tommy Gavin) Well, thank you. So, I'm, I'm not crazy.

Unidentified Man (Actor):(As character) Oh, you're crazy. You're like Margot Kidder hiding in the bushes kind of crazy. But, you know, if your job is to run into fire, you've got to be a little crazy, right?

Mr. LEARY (Actor): (As Tommy Gavin) Right.

DAVIES: Denis Leary also has a book released last year called "Why We Suck," and he's on a new comedy tour. Terry spoke to Denis Leary in 2007.

GROSS: Denis Leary welcome back to FRESH AIR. "Rescue Me" was inspired by a couple of firefighters you were close to. Would you tell us something about them?

Mr. LEARY: They're - one is the technical advisor to "Rescue Me" - an old, old friend of mine Terry Quinn(ph) who's been in New York City firefighter for 20 some odd years now. And he is one of my oldest friends and much like Tommy Gavin has no interest in becoming an officer or anything other then a truck guy, which means the guys who actually, you know, run off into the fire, you know, when they jump off the rig at an event. He's an action guy. So he's also our technical advisor in charge of all of our big fire scenes.

And the other guy who shall remain nameless who's a good friend of mine as well - whenever I see him, whatever he's talking about in terms of his personal life becomes fodder for the upcoming episodes of "Rescue Me," because he lives such a rich and interesting life. And two of those guys combined are who Tommy Gavin is. He lives and dies to fight fires.

GROSS: You have a cousin who is killed in a fire…

Mr. LEARY: Yeah.

GROSS: …and did you - do you think he ever thought that will happen to him?

Mr. LEARY: He used to say when his wife or his mother or anybody would say, you know, what are we going to do if something happens to you because he was considered a, quote unquote, "fireman's fireman", like, he was the first guy in. The night that he died he was filling in for a guy who had done a favor for him and he was supposed to be driving the truck but he hated to staying with the truck while guys went into a fire. So he traded with another guy, and he said, you know, I don't want to sit with the truck if something happens tonight. I want to be in, in the building.

So, he wasn't supposed to be working that night and he wasn't supposed to be actually going into the building but he was because that's where he wanted to be. He was looking for two homeless people. He used to say, you guys are just going to have to deal with it if I get killed. See, the amazing part of that story with my cousin is not just that he went into a burning, you know, inferno of a cold storage warehouse building that the windows have been bricked up - he went in looking for two homeless people. He got trapped with another guy, the kid that I grow up with, that we grew up with, named Tommy Spencer who was outside when they closed the building down.

The chief said nobody else is going in, it's too big. We're shutting the building down. Tommy Spencer tied three other guys to himself and he walked up to the chief who was blocking the doorway and said get out of the way or I'll knock you down. I'm going in to get Paul and Jerry. And they went in and within, you know, minutes the building went up a second time. That is an amazing amount of courage. There was a sense of brotherhood and just, to begin with, the sense of brotherhood towards your fellow man - two homeless people that you don't even know - and then the sense of, well, we know this probably not going to work but we have to - to make that last stand to see if we can get those guys out.

GROSS: I'd imagine that, you know, starring in, doing some of the writing and of course also producing the series "Rescue Me" has you thinking a lot about death. And about, kind of, self-destructive impulses, because like your character Tommy he deals with life and death everyday in putting himself in life threatening situations to rescue people. At the same time he flirts with the death through smoking and alcohol and really stupid risks he takes in his personal life.

Mr. LEARY: Yeah. Yeah. I think part of the attraction to writing these guys was the male ego as it exists in almost every man and then the male ego as required for the type of courage that this job takes. One of the things that the male ego does when mortality bumps up against it is you want to have sex, you want to prove, I'm vital, I'm alive. Look at me, I'm alive. And these guys are living this crazy job that has everything to do with life and death but nothing to do with life as we know it: love, death and taxes, you know - the way we look at it.

So that's where I find it to be very rich and this - it never ceases to amaze me, these stories, like - a buddy of mine tell me a story today, who's a firefighter. He was at work he got a phone call from his brother. And his brother said, I got some bad news and he said what is it. He said dad died. He said, when - like, about five minutes ago. And he said, all right, and he went back into the bunk room, he fell asleep. The alarm went off an hour later, he went to a fire. Never dealt with his father's death because he dealt with death. And then one day he was reading "Flag Of Our Fathers" last year, and he collapsed for two days and basically couldn't stop crying. You know, 10 years after his father had died - because he's so afraid of letting the other emotions about the girl that he didn't save here, the guys that came out of 9/11 like him and the guys who didn't, guys that he knew and loved and so many emotions that they - they're like, you have to be an animal. You have to be like a shark. You have to keep moving forward - yeah, everything's behind me, everything's behind me, everything's behind me. That's an interesting story. I mean, what's going happen? What's going to happen to Tommy Gavin when he stops moving?

GROSS: Yeah, well…

Mr. LEARY: …and you know what…

GROSS: Well, here's this character who is really attracted to extremes, you know, so like, you know, rescuing people and fighting fires and stuff. But those extremes don't match in, say, the life as a spouse or as a father and he has real trouble in those areas.

Mr. LEARY: Yeah, and most of the guys that I know, even the guys that this character is based on, have those same…

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEARY: …issues. But, you know what, if you ask them, if you cornered them - you wouldn't even have to corner them, you could just ask them, they'll say that's what makes them a great firefighter. One of the things they talk about women compartmentalizing emotions and approaches and how they live and - that's one of the things about, like even my cousin, Jerry. He knew that there was a chance every time he was, you know, at work that he wasn't going to come back and he was okay with that, even though he loved his kids and his wife. And his wife understood when she met him that that's what he wanted to be. He knew that was a box in his head, that this is always a possibility and it doesn't matter, I still will take the chance. It's like rolling dice, you know.

GROSS: Has it been like oddly therapeutic to write your character of Tommy in "Rescue Me"? Because he has so many of the extremes of the male ego that you've written about and probably some of which you've had…

Mr. LEARY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: …and probably some of which you've tried to like undo, but like by putting all of these extremes, you know, like the fighting, the…

Mr. LEARY: Yes.

GROSS: …the drinking, the…

Mr. LEARY: Yes.

GROSS: …inability to have him, like, really enduring emotional relationships…

Mr. LEARY: Yes.

GROSS: By putting that in him, can you stand back and say, I see where the problem is?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEARY: Well, it has helped me definitely. It has helped me certainly in terms of grief. I lost so many people in such a short period of time, from the time my cousin was killed in that fire through 9/11. And then one of my best friends on the planet had - he dropped dead…

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. LEARY: …January of 2002, right after 9/11. It helps in that regard, it does. What's good is that the two guys I said that I based the character on are like my same age and we - I was talking to one of them this morning just about some very, very personal stuff and the two of us were comparing notes on stupid things that we've done in relationships and talking about our kids and raising our kids. And the good thing is that, at this age, we're starting to realize what idiots we have been and are potentially capable of being again. And I think that's a thing that I was never a part of my father's generation of men, like, you got - even me, I'm talking to this really tough, great New York City firefighter and he's telling me things - it's like I'm talking to my shrink. And he's telling me things that are ringing bells in my head and I'm going, yeah, yeah, you're - God, are you right. We do need to be more emotionally available for the women in our lives and for our daughters and for our sons. And then an alarm - I hear an alarm go off because he's at the fire house. He says, I'll call you back later and he's going out on the call. So, there's hope that we - as men, that we will actually - I can't believe I'm 50 and just learning a lot the stuff that I'm learning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEARY: I mean, I look back and I think what a moron I was. I mean, what did I think…

GROSS: Give me an example.

Mr. LEARY: …you know, what was…

GROSS: Give me an example -give me an example of what a moron you were.

Mr. LEARY: Well, I mean - I'll give you an example. A year ago, I got into a fight with a cab driver. It was just ridiculous, downtown, which ended up with nothing except him locking himself in the car and me trying to get in. And then me realizing that there are people with camera phones and that I've achieved nothing except…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEARY: …if I - if I wasn't in shape I'd probably have a heart attack and then I was late for work. So, I drove away going, now, what did I gain there? My face is red, my blood pressure is high, my heart's racing, I'm angry as hell and all I've got is a, you know, a bruise on my hand and nothing else.

GROSS: What was fight with the taxi cab driver about?

Mr. LEARY: All right, so now you want to get to the core of the male ego?


Mr. LEARY: I'm on my way to work. I'm driving. It's early, early in the morning. I'm driving to the set of "Rescue Me" and, you know - this is why they really don't allow me to drive myself to work anymore, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEARY: And I'm driving myself to work and there's nothing but green lights in front of us because there's no traffic. It's like, you know, it's 5:45 or something in the morning. And he's strolling along as like 10 miles an hour. He's looking to find a fare. And I beep the horn because we got four green lights in front us. And he short breaks me, he puts the break on and I just miss hitting his back end. Then he speeds up to the next, still a green light, the next block and I come up behind him and he short breaks me again. So, I squealed to stop and he goes a third time. Well, the third time, I'm not proud to say it, but it was -I think any jury of my peers would be on my side, you know, like 12 Denis Learys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEARY: I hit him. I tapped him from behind. And of course we both got out. And he started screaming in half English, half Pakistani because he's not an American citizen. I - actually that's where I started, I was like, get your license and registration. That's when he panicked because he didn't have one because he's not a citizen of this country.

So he locks himself in the cab and I'm ranting and raving, I'm ranting and raving and holding up my wallet and my license and registration, you know, wearing a 62 truck "Rescue Me" t-shirt, you know. Could I have more of an advertisement, like, I wonder who that is?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEARY: So - and it went on for like 15-20 minutes. It's stupid, it's stupid, it's so stupid. And by the way, thank God my kids weren't with me so they could see how - what an example their dad is, yelling and screaming at a guy who can't even understand English, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEARY: But I was in the right, so there's the male ego part. I was right because there were green lights and he was - it's stupid.

GROSS: Well, Denis…

Mr. LEARY: Stupid.

GROSS: …Denis Leary I wish you good luck in being mature, and…

Mr. LEARY: All right.

GROSS: …great to talk with you. Thanks a lot.

Mr. LEARY: Thanks, bye.

DAVIES: Denis Leary and Terry Gross recorded in 2007. The fifth season of Leary's series "Rescue Me" premiered on FX this week. Coming up David Edelstein on the new Seth Rogen film "Observe and Report." This is FRESH AIR.

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