On location somewhere in Queens, Denis Leary takes a break from shooting his post-9/11 black-comedy hit about firemen, Rescue Me, in which almost everybody seems to need rescuing but none more than Leary’s character, Tommy Gavin, who is a raw, angry, boozing, sex-crazed, love-fucked kind of guy, and sits down inside his trailer, where he silently steeps himself in his own little world. He fiddles with his cell phone. He lights a cigarette. He smacks his lips in anticipation of some chow. He stubs out his cigarette. He keeps a close eye on CNN’s coverage of a space-shuttle landing. And then, almost without warning, he opens his mouth and words start flying everywhere.
“The space shuttle’s landing,” he says, “which means my cell-phone service should be better, because they fixed the towers up there. Right? But — —unbelievable! and we pay for this! — I still can’t get service by the Chinese embassy. Don’t tell me there’s not a connection! Twenty-four toys have been banned this year, because they choked, killed or poisoned kids. All made in China! You know, I’d like to fly that space shuttle once. Actually, I take that back. I would pay money for Leo DiCaprio to be forced to fly that thing, like when he was playing Howard Hughes. We kidnap him at an Al Gore party, transport him to the shuttle and say, ‘You have to fly it up and back — to prove you’re a real man.’ He’d do terrible. Based on The Aviator — terrible! I wonder what the carbon footprint is on that thing. It’s big!”
A bowl of salsa sits on the table in front of him. Lighting up a Marlboro 100, he says, “Tomatoes. I could rub tomatoes on my face and then eat them, that’s how much I love tomatoes.”
And so, pretty much, that’s the way it is with Leary. If it’s not one thing, it’s tomatoes, with smokes on the side. I n the past few days, it’s also been almost everything else under the sun, plus some — Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, of course, as well as Dick Cheney, George Bush and that gang of criminal addlepates, as well as Mel Gibson, a fave Leary target ever since Gibson proved himself an anti-Semite, as well as Heather Mills McCartney, Jimmy Buffett and Adam Sandler. With all, Leary’s dominant stance is outrage. Everything outrages him, and to maintain sanity he must express his outrage.
Today, he’s wearing jeans, scuffed Buttero work boots (black, $375, Barneys) and a T-shirt. He’s gangly, has that fantastic swirl of blond hair and tanned, veined biceps that make him look like a real scrapper. He’s smoking a lot, though only an inch worth or so. He wants to quit. He’s not there yet.
He pulls out another cigarette. And then the conversation turns to kids these days, and kids these days tick him off pretty good. And so off he goes again, swollen with outrage once more — a method of expression that has gotten him far, starting with his first one-man stand-up comedy show, No Cure for Cancer, in 1990, and on through that definite moment when he became the king of counterculture comics, this tall blond nut job stewing and seething in a black leather jacket, swigging a beer and jabbing at the world with his beloved cancer sticks. He’s done movies, too, some forty in all, the only truly great one (The Ref) seen way too little. And then came TV, first with The Job, which ABC axed well before its time, and now Rescue Me, which has brought him Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and all the wonderful glorious like. And throughout, no matter what, there’s always been his outrage, by his side.
But really, after a while, listening to Leary’s various rants can get a little tedious. They start to blur together, and you start to lose sight of the person behind them, until, just like that, that person is gone, disappeared, and the rants are all that’s left. It’s a little freaky when this happens, because you know Leary is still there, behind the scenes, overseeing the entire pissfest. It’s just that you can’t see him and, consequently, you can’t connect with him. Maybe that’s one point of the rants. But if so, and you want to get to know Leary, the rants are something to get beyond. In fact, the rants have to go.
Over the years, Denis Leary has come to stand for many things. On the side of the angels, he’s best known for his no-PR-put-on philanthropic work raising money for firefighters; he started the Leary Firefighters Foundation in 2000, after the death of a firefighter cousin and several firefighter friends in a Massachusetts warehouse fire, and intensified his efforts following 9/11. Elsewhere, he’s known for his guy’s-guy insanely rabid love of sports, especially hockey (the Boston Bruins) and baseball (the Red Sox). In addition to his cigarettes, he’s also known for his relentless use of the word “fuck,” both as a cuss word and as a reference to the fun activity (“If I had the choice, I’d want to die either laughing or fucking. Both at the same time would be excellent!”). To fans of Rescue Me, he’s known not only as the show’s star but also as its co-creator, co-writer and co-producer. He’s also known for his ridiculously bad temper (“a black-rage Irish temper,” he calls it). And for a while there, he was known as “the angry young man of comedy.” But that was a long time ago, when he was in his twenties.
He’s older now, fifty. He’s been married to the same woman, Ann Lembeck Leary, a writer and stay-at-home mom, for twenty-five years. She’s stunning — slim and sweet-looking but with a mouth so disturbingly erotic that you know instantly why Leary says his knees buckled the first time he saw her. They have two kids, Jack, 17, and Devin, 15, and live on a leafy estate in the richy-rich rolling hills of western Connecticut, with their three dogs. It’s got a swimming pool and a backyard hockey rink and is done up tastefully, right out of House & Garden.