In fact, according to Mr. Tolan, Mr. Leary is actually something of a sweetheart—an involved parent who looks out for his friends (when he isn’t busting their hump). Mr. Tolan recalled a recent phone call in which he and Mr. Leary chatted about a script Mr. Tolan was writing. When Mr. Tolan asked if there was anything else, Mr. Leary responded, “Well, I love you.”
“I asked him if he was high and he got offended,” Mr. Tolan said with a laugh. “I think that would surprise people.”
Absolutely, considering that Mr. Leary’s breakthrough was a caustic stand-up show (1992’s No Cure for Cancer) that included a song proclaiming, “I’m an asshole.” But get him talking about firefighters and this onetime choirboy gets absolutely gushy.
He created his own charity, the Leary Firefighters Foundation, after a massive 1999 fire in his hometown of Worcester, Mass., killed a cousin and a close friend who were battling it. The heroism of firefighters who died on 9/11 (where he also lost friends) led him to expand his efforts so that the foundation now serves as a national advocate for the public servants and a fund-raising source for firefighting equipment and training facilities. Mr. Leary has his own theories about what compels people to that dangerous calling.
“They don’t do it for the money—and they sure don’t do it for the pension, considering the risks,” Mr. Leary said. “The common ground I’ve found among the firefighters I know is that, first, it’s a job that makes a difference. Second, a certain percentage of them are action junkies. And third, they have an incredibly boundless amount of courage. It takes that to run into a burning building; until it happens, you just don’t know if you possess it.”
Prior to creating Rescue Me, Mr. Leary spent a couple of frustrating seasons writing, producing and starring in The Job for ABC—a show about New York cops with a similarly button-pushing comic sensibility that suffered from network indifference.
“They had so little interest in it at ABC,” Mr. Leary said. “Part of me was actually happy when it was canceled. Peter and I developed a working relationship unlike any other I’d ever had. I felt like I’d been to college on that show.”
“That show was like training wheels for Denis for this one,” said Mr. Tolan, who Mr. Leary initially approached to collaborate with because he liked Mr. Tolan’s work on The Larry Sanders Show. “He has a lot more tools now.”
Working on The Job, Mr. Leary said, taught him what it means when a major network tells you “yes.”
“Network guys, when they say ‘We love the idea,’ what they mean is ‘Let’s see what the focus groups think,’” Mr. Leary explained, one hand raking that lank blond hair—the best hair on TV—from his forehead. “These guys get in that job and their gut goes away. Like Presidential candidates.”
A graduate of Boston’s Emerson College, Mr. Leary used stand-up comedy as a springboard to a movie career. He has appeared in more than three dozen films, outings as diverse as Wag the Dog, The Thomas Crown Affair and Disney’s forgettable adventure-comedy, Operation Dumbo Drop. He regularly trolled the indie side of the street as well: Alan Rudolph’s The Secret Lives of Dentists, Campbell Scott’s Final. But since Rescue Me’s 2004 debut, he’s not anxious to go back to acting on the big screen.
“Most movie scripts suck and they’re all about the money,” Mr. Leary said. “And I don’t need the money. At this point, I’ve got the reputation: You can call him, but he ain’t gonna do it.
“Paul Newman is one of the only actors left I’d like to work with on a movie—and he just retired. But I have a secret evil plan to get him on Rescue Me. When he retired, he said he couldn’t memorize lines; great, we won’t give him many lines. And he doesn’t like to travel; fine, we shoot in New York. I know he could play an irascible uncle of mine. Maybe he’ll read this.”