August 2011

Q+LA Denis Leary

As his lauded Rescue Me bows, the writer-actor talks four-legged friends, duct-tape discipline and balancing fear with humor by ROBIN SAYERS

Denis LearyPHOTO: HENRY LEUTWYLER

The most cursory web dive into Denis Leary reveals the Worcester, Massachusetts, native is a dog guy to the core. His wife, Ann, writes the popular blog Wicked Good Life, showcasing the family’s canine housemates, which range from lap-size to pony-esque.

It’s this knowledge that inspires me to bring Cappy, my fruit bat–resembling Chihuahua, to meet Leary at the photo shoot for this story. Immediately following their man-beast hellos, my five-pound gremlin stares at the six-two thespian, then dramatically arches his back and defecates.

This in front of a man who recently donated iconic artifacts from his critically acclaimed FX show, Rescue Me—which ends its seven-season run next month—to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s entertainment collection for a tribute to the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Despite, or perhaps because, his recent work is so immersed in life’s heavier issues, the act elicits a booming “That’s fantastic!” from the 53-year-old, his face seemingly cracked in half by the enormity of his gap-tooth grin. While my dog’s faux pas inside a fancy interior would strike most as grotesque, perhaps it’s the sheer defiance that tickles Leary.

After all, this is the man who recorded the comedy album Merry F#%$in’ Christmas and wrote the book Why We Suck, so he recognizes a kindred spirit when he meets one—fur clad or otherwise.

I saw a photo of you hugging the largest dog I’ve ever seen. It made you look tiny.
Yes! We had two Irish wolfhounds, Duffy and Clancy. They’re sight hounds—they kill deer. Duffy died from eating 28 pounds of deer meat when he was two.

Did he not understand that he should stop eating?
I loved him, but he was an idiot. His brother, Clancy, was very smart. Now we have a Leonberger. They’re large German guard dogs that look like lions. They’re the sweetest. They’re all over YouTube because people think they hear them saying stuff. He’s literally the smartest dog I’ve ever had—not so smart that he runs my life, but somehow he always just knows. If my alarm is set for 8, he gets me up at 10 till. If he senses anything suspicious, he’ll start making [imitates concerned howl]. He’s also like Lassie—he points his head toward trouble. It’s crazy!

I saw one of your tweets about the Casey Anthony verdict: “If my mom knew she coulda duct-taped us to death and only done four years, I wouldn’t be tweeting this right now.”
Oh, yeah. My brother and I tortured my mother growing up. My dad was a handy guy, and so there was always duct tape around. If she had known about that option back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, I would probably not be talking to you.

You have three siblings?
Yes, but there were 17 of us American cousins in that neighborhood. We were like an army—out of control.

Is it true your dad used to curse in Gaelic—and if so, what was your favorite cuss word?
Amadán. You can spell it about nine different ways, but it means “jackass.” The most famous one is póg mo thóin, “kiss my ass” in Gaelic. It sounds cool, and it’s fun to say.

I read that you raised your kids to think Jesus was a cool guy but outside a set denomination.
Having had 12 years experience with the Catholic prison system, as I call it, I’m glad I was raised Catholic and went to the same school for 12 years, because there were great priests and nuns. But the system was flawed. In retrospect, it was a morally bankrupt organization, even more so than the Mafia, because the Mafia goes out of its way not to harm children, and the Church covered up the damage being done to them.

Rescue Me’s fire scenes were always amazing. Did you approach them in a specific way?
We were hell-bent on not doing what Backdraft did most famously—make sure you could see everybody in the fire and hear them talk. That’s a Hollywood convention. We thought it was scarier, in a way we hadn’t seen, that the majority are very dark and smoky, and you can’t see more than a couple feet in front of you. In the sound mix, you hear glass cracking from the heat and creaking, which means you don’t know if the floor below or above you is about to give way.

Each episode is almost a one-to-one ratio of humor to drama. Was that a conscious choice?
It was very organic to the two firehouses I was most familiar with—my cousin Jerry [Lucey]’s up in Worcester and [technical adviser] Terry [Quinn]’s on the Upper West Side. They tend to have a very distinct mix of heavy emotion about the darker things they see but also a cutting-edge sense of black humor. That’s how they deal. Because if they dwell too much on the emotions, it becomes impossible to jump on the truck again.

The show’s tone is so unified. Is there one writers’ room, or—
There’s no writers’ room! It’s only three guys—myself, [cocreator] Peter [Tolan] and Evan Reilly, who started as our assistant. Sometimes we had John Scurti [who plays Lt. Kenny Shea] write a script. But the “writers’ room” was my dressing room.

Isn’t that an insane amount of work for such a small group?
Yes. It drove us crazy, but that’s what we wanted to do, and we got to do it for seven years. It was a dream—to have a talented ensemble cast we loved, who made our writing look better than sometimes it was, with a crew we loved, who shot anything we wrote. Who cares about working 90 hours a week?

You’re very active on social media. Is the occasional hater on Facebook or Twitter just an updated version of the heckler in the back of the comedy club?
I don’t really think about it. I learned a long time ago, if you want to keep your friends in show business, don’t get famous. Because as soon as you get famous, a lot of the people you used to know who didn’t become incredibly bitter and jealous. It’s part of the territory.

I mean more like random folks who are emboldened by the anonymity of the Internet.
If you live a public life, you have to get used to [criticism] pretty fast. I’ll never forget working with Dustin Hoffman on Wag the Dog. He’s in the hall of fame among maybe the top five actors of all time. He told me, “I still remember a review I got from a play I did right before I did The Graduate.” And he recited this horrible review by memory! But human nature is that it enters your subconscious, and occasionally you never forget it.

When was the first time you came to Los Angeles?
It was 1986. I won the Boston Comedy Riot. As the winner, I was entered into the Improv’s national comedy competition. The prize was a contract with Rhino Records. I flew out with my girlfriend, who’s now my wife. We were such idiots—we thought you could take the bus and walk around, which of course nobody does. They put us at the Roosevelt Hotel, way back before it was a big deal. There were stains on the carpeting and sheets, but we didn’t care. It was all paid for! And I won that comedy competition, so that kind of kickstarted my career. I’ve often been in L.A. for long stretches for work. I love Santa Monica and Venice because I like the beach. I have a lot of friends in that area.

Who renders you starstruck?
The first movie I saw where it convinced me I could be an actor was Mean Streets, so whenever I see Robert De Niro and he says, “Hi, Denis,” it’s still a really big deal. Same thing with Clint Eastwood. I did a movie with him [True Crime], and now when I see him at awards shows, it never ceases to lift me out of my shoes.