Rescue Me: The Small Screen Examines a Post-9/11 FDNY

Elizabeth Friszell reports on "Rescue Me," the new one-hour TV drama from FX, and interviews Jack McGee, who plays "The Good Chief" Jerry Riley on the show. It has been nearly three years since the day the fire service lost 343 brave souls. The dust has settled, but where did it leave the hundreds of firefighters who spent days and weeks at the site digging for the remains of loved ones and comrades? They pulled their friends and family from the rubble, working tirelessly to send them home. How are they coping?

Photo courtesy of FX
Jack McGee, a former FDNY firefighter, portrays Chief Jerry Riley in the new TV series “Rescue Me.” McGee has appeared in numerous films and TV shows.

“Rescue Me,” a new one-hour, 13-part TV drama from FX, presents a fictional look at the firefighters in a New York City firehouse after 9/11. The show debuts July 21. Though not based on real-life individuals, the issues the show portrays are real problems of the post-attack FDNY. The trailer sums it up: “They aren’t heroes … just people who risk it all to save lives … but who saves them?”

“They are just guys. They ARE heroes, but underneath that, they are guys,” says Jack McGee, who plays Chief Jerry Riley, nicknamed “The Good Chief.” McGee knows firsthand. Born in the South Bronx, he was an FDNY firefighter from 1977 to 1987, when he left to pursue acting.

Being a firefighter was the best job in the world for McGee, but he started to realize how unappreciated the fire service is. “I always enjoyed acting and I’ve been fortunate enough to change careers and do what I love,” McGee says.

From the short-lived media spotlight on firefighters to coming to terms with their scarred lives, “Rescue Me” looks at the emotional turmoil experienced by New York’s Bravest in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. The main character, Tommy Gavin (played by Denis Leary), has endured events that haunt him and he doesn’t know how to deal with them. We can’t give too much away, but here’s one example: Gavin’s marriage has just broken up due to his being “emotionally unavailable.” Gavin, Riley and other characters act out from the hurt and pain they feel. They don’t admit to the pain and behave destructively as a way of coping.

“Guys talk about stupid stuff. They don’t talk about how they feel,” McGee says. “And that goes for firefighters in particular. Doctors and nurses are taught how to deal with patients on both an educational and an emotional level. But we are the ones who are bringing the patients to them and we aren’t taught these things. Firefighters aren’t given the tools to handle their emotions when they are scooping someone up after a 30-story drop or dragging a screaming child away from his grandparent when you know the grandparent isn’t going to live. Firefighters just aren’t given the tools to reach out and say, ‘I need help.’ They will ask each other; they will go to other firefighters. But they can’t help them. They don’t go to someone on the outside to talk and get things off their chests.

“It’s a blue-collar way of thinking, because if your arm is broken, you go to a doctor. But if your heart is broken, or your head is hurting, you just deal with it. They don’t go to someone.”

Growing up in a family of FDNY firefighters and being a member as well, McGee and company are guilty of the same crime. “My brother Dan (also a firefighter) once responded to a call of a person in a restaurant who had a heart attack. When he arrived, he realized it was my father. Dan has since passed away and we never talked about how he felt responding to a call and finding out it was his father. I don’t know how he felt about that. It must’ve been hard for him, but I don’t know. We all hold things inside.”

Two of his nephews, Larry and Stephen McGee, are FDNY firefighters who worked at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and for days after. Larry is the captain of the fire department hockey team and works with the Special Operations Command (SOC). Stephen is a firefighter with Engine 66, now on light duty because of respiratory problems he suffered working at the World Trade Center. Their uncle feels grateful to be involved with the project.

“Every once in a while, you catch a break,” he said. “This is a really important story and I’m glad to be a part of it. And I’m enjoying the heck out of taping in the city.”

McGee’s other TV credits include roles on “ER,” “The Practice,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The X Files,” “Seinfeld” and “NYPD Blue.” On the big screen, he has appeared in “Backdraft,” “Breakdown,” “Basic Instinct,” “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde” and “Thirteen Days,” among many others.