Leary Takes Firefighting To The Edge in 'Rescue Me'

Denis Leary has laid down the hook-and-ladder law.

"Rescue Me," says the outspoken and funny man who cocreated the sizzling New York City firehouse saga for FX, is the real smoky deal. In other words, a strictly enforced No Hollywood Firefighter Hokum Zone.

"I don't think firemen have ever been portrayed the way they really are," says Leary, who plays sarcastic, tormented Tommy Gavin on the raw, darkly comic series, airing at 10 tonight on FX as it rolls toward an explosive Oct. 13 first season finale.

What's more, adds Leary, "I don't think fires have ever been portrayed the way they really are, whether you're talking 'Third Watch' or 'Backdraft.' Fires are very dark, smoky, scary, confusing, controlled chaos, basically. The Hollywood tendency is to light everything up so you can see everybody's faces and make sure which character is which. ...We wanted to make sure that everything looked the way it really looks, because it's scarier."

Some people might prefer the overwrought melodrama and macho brotherhood sentimentality of "Backdraft" or the new Hollywood firehouse special effects extravaganza, "Ladder 49," starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix.

But Leary and Peter Tolan, the gifted writer who is Leary's "Rescue Me" production partner, have a feel for the bitter and bitterly amusing edges of truth, says Terry Quinn, the New York City firefighter who serves as the show's technical advisor.

"Some guys" in the firehouse "are going to say, 'Oh, you're giving away all our secrets!' " notes Quinn, who along with Leary and Tolan spoke with TV critics in Los Angeles this summer.

The FDNY brass -- whose co-operation was needed to use the FDNY logo and trucks for the show's on-location filming in New York -- gave the series a thumbs up after reading the script and screening a completed episode.

"I'm surprised because they usually want firemen portrayed as Boy Scouts," says Quinn.

Those who have found themselves answering the raucous siren call of "Rescue Me" and its bodacious witty, emotionally volatile portrayal of New York firefighters, have yet to witness any Boy Scout behavior.

Leary's Tommy is the toxic joker at the smoldering heart of "Rescue Me," which details life among the crewmembers of 62 Truck, a firehouse in upper Manhattan.

His marriage is on the rocks. He has a booze problem and he's taking insanely risky chances on the job, endangering himself and his comrades. Just to take it one irresponsible step further, Tommy's been having a hot affair with sexy Sheila Keefe (Callie Thorne), the widow of his cousin and best friend, Jimmy (James McCaffery), a fellow firefighter who died on 9/11 at the World Trade Center.

Jimmy's ghost has been Tommy's spooky conversational companion, an unsettling, survivor's guilt reminder of that tragic moment in time. But Tommy also sees other ghosts, fallen firefighters, little children and other fire victims he failed to save.

"The ghosts become a projection of yourself, then you can have a conversation with yourself in a sense," says Tolan. And then he says, you can say things that you've never said to anybody else.

It opens a window into the soul of firefighters - who often can't easily share their feelings, say Leary and Tolan.

That's because firefighters have a job that includes way more stress, anxiety, danger and heartache than most occupations.

"There's a lot of humor, and a lot of the humor deflects some of the things they see on the job," says Leary. "In this circumstance, because it's the FDNY and it's after 9/11, we're all aware of where these guys might be at and what they have to deal with in order to go into a building and save somebody.

"We thought that was really interesting territory because the heavier stuff is, the richer the laughs are going to be."

"Rescue Me" has already been renewed for a second season and now gives FX an impressive trio of edgy, distinctive drama series that includes "Nip/Tuck" and "The Shield."

The inspiration for an in-your-face, comedy-laced series about firefighters has several roots. Tolan and Leary had previously teamed up on "The Job," an acclaimed, short-lived ABC workplace comedy about New York cops that shared a similar, extremely irreverent sensibility with "Rescue Me."

Then there was the anguish of 9/11. And beyond that, Leary's heartbreaking personal experience. His own cousin, Jerry Lucey, and a close childhood friend, Lt. Tommy Spencer, died in a 1999 warehouse fire in Worcester, Mass., where Leary grew up.

Leary has found that writing "Rescue Me," as well as playing Tommy Gavin, is a rich, rewarding storytelling experience.

"These are real men doing a real man's job, which doesn't really involve emotions, even if their emotions may be dragged into it," says Leary.

"It's much more interesting to watch people who are screwed-up and don't know how to deal with their emotions," says Leary. "Especially when it comes to a fireman -- who could do the most heroic thing at 4 o'clock in the afternoon or 12 o'clock at night on the job -- and then have to go home to talk to his ex-wife or his current girlfriend who's not happy and doesn't give a damn that he saved two kids.She just wants to find out when he's going to fix the sink.

"These are real-life problems. And tipping that balance is where a lot of the comedy and drama comes from, especially with these guys having to deal with the women in their lives, it's erratic."

Fortunately, there's been nothing erratic about "Rescue Me." It's been on fire with consistently excellent, four-alarm television right from the start, blazing away in its very own No Hollywood Firefighter Hokum Zone.