NEW YORK — Fire somehow befits Denis Leary.
He plays New York City firefighter Tommy Gavin on “Rescue Me,” of course, and the promotional photography for this FX drama depicts him, in character, brazenly engulfed in flames.
But Leary is combustible in pretty much everything he does.
As a standup comic he’s a truth-telling hothead. In films such as “The Ref,” “Wag the Dog” and “The Thomas Crown Affair,” along with the two animated “Ice Age” movies, he gives searing performances.
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Not that he gets the respect he deserves. Leary’s standup persona — enraged, rapid-fire, chain-smoking — remains lodged in the public mind, shortchanging him from credit due as an actor who continues to blaze new territory.
It also overshadows the fact that the written word is involved in what Leary does, despite audience assumptions that whatever comes out of his mouth was spontaneously channeled straight from his psyche. Writing is another part of Leary’s repertoire, and largely overlooked.
Deeply invested in ‘Rescue Me’
He writes nearly all the “Rescue Me” scripts with co-executive producer Peter Tolan (with whom he first teamed for the 2001-02 half-hour series “The Job,” a short-lived ABC comedy where Leary played a reckless NYPD detective).
With Tolan (who’s won Emmys for writing “Murphy Brown” and “The Larry Sanders Show”), Leary cooked up “Rescue Me” with its sometimes madcap, sometimes disturbing portrait of a man plagued by booze, bad relationships and rampant attitude. Tommy Gavin joins the other problem-beset men of 62 Truck to save people’s lives. Then, on their down time, they all wonder how to save themselves.
Leary has infused “Rescue Me” (10 p.m. ET Tuesdays) with his intimate knowledge of the world it inhabits: His cousin died while battling a 1999 Worcester, Mass., blaze (which led him to create the Leary Firefighters Foundation charity) and he lost friends in 9/11 rescue efforts.
But on “Rescue Me,” has he done his job too well? Have viewers conveniently superimposed their image of Leary on his hero-reprobate?
“Sometimes it’s hard for people, when they watch a character on television that they’re attached to, to understand the difference,” he says during a recent interview, slotted between an early morning hockey game and a shooting day that will go past midnight.
“I decided when I started playing this guy I wasn’t gonna dye my hair black, or grow a mustache, or do anything that was going to be physically altering,” says Leary, and, indeed, his dirty-blond hair as well as his rail-thin frame clad in jeans and sport shirt differs from Tommy’s off-duty appearance in just one way worth noting: Leary’s shades aren’t mirrored the way Tommy’s are. Someone talking to Leary can meet his eyes.
“I wasn’t trying to make people go, ‘Oh, he’s a dramatic actor this time,”’ Leary continues. “And I certainly don’t want to write the show as if I’m trying to prove something to the audience. I want to do what’s right for the character and for the show.”
To star in such an ambitious series and also play a major hand in writing it, along with being boss — that’s a huge undertaking.
Happily, Leary (who on Aug. 18 turns 49) has finally been recognized by the Emmys: He is nominated for best lead actor in a drama.
In its third year, “Rescue Me” has sizzled with a season of bravery, but also jealousy and revenge.
For instance, Tommy discovered that, behind his back, his cop brother (Dean Winters) was playing house with his estranged wife, Janet (Andrea Roth), and two daughters. The widow (Callie Thorne) of Tommy’s cousin, a firefighter who died on 9/11 (and who, played by James McCaffrey, pays spectral “visits” to Tommy) has now fallen in love with him. And she’s seething that Tommy hooked up with his brother’s ex-wife (Marisa Tomei).
“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had creatively,” Leary says.
Perhaps the season’s most memorable sequence, in the June 20 episode, found Tommy sexually forcing himself on Janet, then, alone in his pickup truck, flashing a wicked little grin before he screeched off into the night.
FX President John Landgraf says he knew, back when the scripts were being written, this scene might ruffle some feathers.
“We had a robust debate,” he says, “talking about what kind of flak we’re gonna get. But that’s what they wanted to write, and I thought it was valid.”
This sort of network support makes Leary glad to be on FX instead of, say, ABC, where “The Job” was never given a fair shake.
“It’s the difference between passion and prayer,” he sums up. “The broadcast networks, throwing 25 things at the wall and seeing what sticks, are just praying.”
Even so, the uproar caught him off-guard with its intensity.
“The idea that people wanted karmic justice for Tommy, on the spot, kind of shocked me,” admits Leary, whose advice to viewers is: Just wait.
On an episode next season, Tommy gets his full comeuppance.
“There’s a moment when the camera comes in on him and he has to think back about what he did,” Leary promises, clearly relishing the payback that scene will underscore. “Tommy and Janet should just stay away from each other. Things can only get worse, not better, which is why it’s so much fun to write and so much fun to play.
“And the plan she comes up with at the end of this season, which we’re shooting right now ...”
But that’s all he’s going to say as he flashes a wicked little grin, happy to be playing with fire.
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