Denis Leary chatted with On the Air just as his FX dramedy “Rescue Me” was getting its final sendoff tonight (Sept. 7).
With the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as an impetus for what it was like to be a firefighter during the 10 years following that harrowing day, “Rescue Me” was sometimes riveting, other times infuriating, but most of the time compelling enough to keep coming back for all seven seasons.
Q: So, in a larger sense, what’s your assessment of the impact of “Rescue Me,” both to you and viewers?
DL: Yeah. It’s a big picture question. I don’t know. I think the most original aspect of it is was it ripped your heart out one second and then, hopefully, make you turn those tears into tears of laughter the next, which is kind of our trademark. And maybe, hopefully, put the job that those guys do for a living into a little bit of perspective.
Q: Do you feel like you gave justice to firefighters, showing what they do on a daily basis?
DL: Yeah. I definitely feel like we did. We set out with the action scenes to do that from the beginning. That’s thanks to our technical advisor, Terry Quinn, who’s an old friend of mine and a New York City firefighter, and Danny Aiello III, who was our stunt man and, unfortunately, passed away during the final season at a very young age. We gave them carte blanche with the action sequences. We would often only write “Exterior Manhattan” or “Harlem” or whatever neighborhood the fire took place. We would put in parentheses see ‘Terry Quinn and Danny Aiello’ and they would construct it based on what kind of fire it was supposed to be and what Terry and the firefighters knew what would have to happen.
Then we would get there in the morning with the actors and they would say, "You’re going to say this" and "This is going to be the radio transmission." We worked with real smoke and real flame so that we could try to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, having to lean in and wonder sometimes, "What’s going on? I can barely see," which is kind of how it is in a real fire. And also the threats, such as the floor collapses and/or the stairway collapses, that was something we definitely wanted to show the audience at home. I don’t think it had ever been portrayed that way in the movies, where it’s always fairly well lit up so you can everybody’s face. For that part of it, I felt we were in good hands with Terry and the guys.
Q: As a viewer, the fires always seemed very realistic.
DL: Yeah, it happened at least twice, sometimes three times a season when we’d be running a real fire, with our trucks pulling up on a block with flame and smoke shooting out of a building. While we were doing the exterior shots, the real fire department would show up because neighbors had called saying there was a fire. And inevitably the real firemen would pull up and see Terry and/or me and the other guys and go, “Ugh it’s another ‘Rescue Me’ fire’ and we’d go, “Yeah sorry guys.” So that always said to me that we we’re doing something right.
Q: Did you always use real locations? Did you ever shoot the fire scenes on a stage?
DL: Sometimes very specific pieces in a hallway or a room we would do on a stage, but otherwise, no. We would take over buildings that were abandoned or in the process of being rebuilt and we would set them on fire, then put them out. One time I was in a fire scene with one of our real firemen, Mills, and John Scurti (who plays Lt. Shea), and we were supposed to run into a room and grab this girl. The ceiling above us was going to collapse after they had rigged the ceiling.
We ran in, the ceiling collapsed a little early and we thought we probably looked pretty cool. We grabbed the girl, took her out and then I looked down at my and John’s bunker pants and boots, which were on fire. When they called cut, we looked at Mills and said, ‘Our pants and our boots are on fire,’ and he goes, ‘Yep, that happens,’ and he walked away.
Q: That’s funny.
DL: I know. It’s a classic fake fireman versus a real fireman situation.
Q: What was more rewarding and/or difficult between both writing and acting?
DL: It’s really hard for me to judge. The main actors, and quite often the guest stars as well, were so great that as writers we would bring stuff in that we thought was good or that we hoped was good and the actors would inevitably make it better. We would allow, especially in certain circumstances, the actors to improvise and play with the material a lot. So by the time we ended up shooting, it was a mixture of what we wrote and what the actors had brought into it. We could not have written what we wrote if we didn’t have a great cast and it couldn’t have looked so great on camera if those actors hadn’t taken our words and improved on them.
Q: Were you protective of the words?
DL: No. I guess we fall into the Woody Allen category, and we did this on “Wag the Dog” as well, where you come in and whatever is on the page is great, but we would literally say we need this line to set up that joke. Otherwise just run with it and see what you come up with. Good actors, especially when they know their character, will come in and either tell you in advance that they have an idea, or in the middle of the rehearsal or the scene they’ll let it loose and you go, “Ah that’s great.”
Q: The show really introduced some really good actors.
DL: Well, I mean, we were lucky to have them. Scurti I’ve known for years and he was in “The Ref.” Callie Thorne had auditioned for the job, and then she had gone off and worked like crazy. So there were certain people like Scurti and Callie that we knew we wanted, and then the other people it took us a long time to find. Daniel Sunjata and Steven Pasquale were both famous for drama and were both working on Broadway at the time that we were casting. A lot of people wanted them and we had to bring them in and see how they were together. They weren’t an easy sell to the network because they were known for drama as opposed to comedy and they needed to be able to do both. A lot of it’s luck and a lot of it is our job as producers, to spend time in casting and make sure we get the right people.
Q: Any specific challenges you encountered while writing the series?
DL: We didn’t want Tommy to be a show business alcoholic in the sense that we didn’t want him to be a guy that was easily cured. The truth is, especially for a guy in his occupation, firemen aren’t necessarily the most open people in terms of outside influences in solving their psychological problems. We were very interested in going as dark as we could. At the same time, he’s based on two real-life friends of mine who are firefighters, so my eyes and ears were constantly open to what was going on with those guys. They knew I was using stuff from them for Tommy.
They were two or three years ahead of what was happening in Tommy’s life. So I watched what was going on with them in terms of their marriage, their jobs at the firehouse and their personal problems. Like any good writer, I was stealing the elements I wanted. They’re a tough breed. They’re guys who do an extraordinary thing everyday for a living, so they don’t really have time nor do they necessarily want to examine themselves, which means it takes a long time of banging your head against the wall to maybe get the message. That’s what we were going for.
Q: How much thought did you give to how the show was going to end up?
DL: We didn’t really know exactly how it was going to end, based on not just the real-life people but where our story was going. We knew if we got the network behind us we would probably end right around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. That was our goal. We were planning originally to go a lot darker. Not that it’s a light ending, but we were going to go a lot darker and then the elements of those two guys and also (FX president) John Landgraf’s take on how we should end the series started to enter into it.
Q: What was the most fun overall?
DL: There’s no way around it, drama is very difficult to shoot. It’s very heavy and something that you carry with you for the course of the day. There’s no easy way to play those scenes. We were in the middle of a show where on Monday or Tuesday, you might be doing some very heavy and dramatic; on Wednesday you’d be doing a really fast, sharp, improvisational scene around the firehouse kitchen; and Thursday and Friday, you’re an action hero. You’re running into fake fires, saving people and jumping off of ladders. It was like a kid’s dream come true. The thing I’ll miss the most is the guys and the girls in the cast and then in one week you’d do an action scene, then comedy and drama. It was great.
Q: Did you always enjoy being in front of the camera?
DL: Well, I came from the theater first, that’s where I was trained. So when I got out of school, I went into stand-up because a couple guys I went to college with — Steven Wright and Mario Cantone — they went into stand-up comedy and I thought I want to try this. My experience as an actor was all based on the stage. It wasn’t until after I got famous as a standup comic that I started to get offered roles in films. I spent a long time working in the movies to figure out that kind of acting and also how to write and produce for the screen. I love the movies, but this is the closest you can get to a theater company. It’s like doing a different play, but it’s the same play every week. I really loved it.
Q: You could see on screen the companionship everyone had together.
DL: When the cameras weren’t rolling, everybody tended to be in character in the firehouse scenes. We all just sat around without realizing it. Maybe we did subconsciously, and we were busting each others’ balls. When they said the cameras were ready, we would go in and it would just come to life. Again, that’s the thing I miss the most.