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.
Today, a Sunday, it’s balmy and peaceful there. Jack isn’t around and Devin’s holed up in her room. Outside, Leary has been swimming. Rising from the pool, he towels off, then goes looking for his cigarettes. After that, he sits at a patio table, birds twittering in the background, opens his mouth and starts in. As usual, the rants are never far away and you have to be on your toes to keep them from taking over. Even if you manage that, though, the rant isn’t the only dodge in the Leary repertoire of deflective maneuvers. He’s also pretty good at retelling stories that he’s told thousands of comfortable times before, complete with an infinite number of long-winded digressions. There is, for instance, the well-known story about how his dad penned his D’s with a long stem so that when he wrote Denis’ name in notes to his high school, it looked like his son’s name was Penis, and then when this got out in college, Leary became known far and wide as Penisman. It’s humorous stuff but hardly illuminating. And another thing: At the end of the telling, just when you think he might stop and come up for air, he doesn’t. He keeps right on rolling. He says that his favorite TV characters are Columbo and Archie Bunker. He explains that his influences were filthy-mouthed comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor. He admits that he hates wearing ties. (“I hate fuckin’ ties.”) He claims to have never thought about suicide. (“I’ve never been able to understand it, because that’s how selfish I am, ha ha. I can’t imagine the world without me, ha ha.”) And certainly some of this is interesting stuff to know. But it’s only when he begins talking about what it was like for him as a kid, growing up an Irish-Catholic Leary in the working-class town of Worcester, Massachusetts, just south of Boston, that he really begins to hit on something. Because it is truly an odd story. In fact, it may be the oddest story of all time.
His father was mechanically minded jack-of-all-trades. His mom was a mom. They were Irish-Catholic, the first generation to step off the boat. He had one sister and one brother, and they all lived on the top floor of a triplex. There wasn’t a shy one among them. (“It was a house full of screamers, and if somebody was screaming at you, you’d scream right back at them.”) He went to a Catholic school, St. Peter-Marian High, for twelve years and never believed a word of what he was told about the faith. He had the hots for Sister Sharon. During the summer, he played street hockey and baseball. His father drove him into Boston to see the Red Sox even when Denis had scarlet fever and his ears dripped pus. He and his pals would steal Communion wafers and swill the holy wine. Sometimes he got spanked. Big deal, that’s the way it went in those days. In 1963, when the Irish-Catholic president was shot, Denis was sent home from school, where he watched the president’s assassin get assassinated on TV. He was six. Decades later, he would take this event, ball it up with a few other timely assassinations and trot it out as one explanation for why he is the way he is; he was, he likes to say, totally traumatized by the trauma of it all. When he was thirteen, Sister Rosemary Sullivan talked him into joining the school’s theater group. He loved it, especially the musicals, “because then the nun makes you put one hand on a girl’s ass and the other under her armpit, to lift her up, which means you get to touch them.” Soon he attended Emerson College’s acting program on a full scholarship.
And so, left to his own devices, that’s what Leary has to say for his childhood. Apparently nothing bad ever happened. He was never thrashed for sucking his thumb, and no priests ever molested him. He never saw his mother kissing some strange Santa. He never dropped the ball and lost the game. In fact, the one word he would use to describe his childhood is “fun.” And thus, with the utterance of that single word, does Denis Leary become the only comic in the long, sad, tortured history of comics — a history littered with dead bodies: Belushi, Kinison, Farley, the list goes on — to be able to say such a thing about his youth. But that’s his story — “fun” — and he’s sticking to it. It is curious, though, that he has so often referred to his psyche as “twisted.” Now, how could that have happened?
Another curious thing: how completely he has managed to avoid winding up a gossip-press regular. The reason is, more or less, he’s lived the straight and narrow as exemplified by his many-year marriage, despite a reputation that’s only gotten wilder and weirder over time.
“I don’t want to wreck his persona,” says Lenny Clarke, who plays Uncle Teddy on Rescue Me and has known Leary since his Boston years, “but he is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He cares about everyone.” Then again, Clarke also says, “Fucking wacky Denis Leary from Worcester, Mass., is now a fucking captain of industry and under an intense amount of fucking pressure from all fucking sides. So cross him or screw him over, you’re out, no second chances. He’s not a guy you want to be on his bad side.”
Tatum O’Neal, who plays Leary’s drug-troubled sister, Maggie, says, “You don’t get any kind of sleazy male-chauvinist-type attitude from him. He’s not that. He loves animals. He’s totally loyal. He’s just great.” Then again, O’Neal also says, “You got to be on your game with him, and you can’t take yourself too seriously. If you do, you’re fucked. And he’ll fuck you right in public. He’s like this weird papa figure, and yet there’s nothing paternal about him. I don’t know if I get him completely.”
So there you have it, a couple of different ways of looking at Leary. One more: On the Rescue Me set, Leary runs into Niels Jorgensen, who is a great big square-jawed New York City fireman and has a small part on the show. He’s the real-deal fireman, unlike Leary, who’s a pretender; but in certain ways how they express themselves about matters closest to their hearts is very much alike.
“Did you hear about that guy?” Jorgensen says to Leary.
“Yeah, yeah,” Leary says. The day before, a local firefighter had been killed on the job. “Did you know him?”
“No, I didn’t. It was a young kid. You know what it was? He was on that ladder carrying a saw that weighed forty pounds. When it swung out, it just yanked him off. He didn’t have a chance. What a waste. And it was two cents’ worth of fire.”
“When that weight shifted, he came down,” says Leary. “He did a cartwheel.”
“When that thing goes, you’re going.”
“I heard he hit the ground, his heart was still beating.”
“Twenty-three,” Leary says.
“Twenty-three,” Jorgensen says.
And then they go back to work.
Leary didn’t perform comedy onstage until after graduating from college. It was 1990. He spent his time playing in a faux punk band called Vomit and teaching a comedy-writing course at his alma mater. Nothing much was happening. But then he found stand-up. He went right at it, bombed, bombed and bombed again. He didn’t care, his skin was that thick, his defenses that solid. He took as the basis of his act something he’d read in Richard Pryor’s autobiography, about his onstage persona just being an exaggeration of his everyday self. In Leary’s case, this meant taking his old family screamfest and hitting the stage in an overblown, free-associative, potty-mouthed rage. After a while, he started to get noticed, but it didn’t amount to anything until after he and Ann, who was pregnant at the time, went to London in 1990, where her bag of waters broke and she gave birth to Jack three months prematurely. The child’s health was so delicate that the Learys were forced to stay in England for six months. During that time, Leary wrote No Cure for Cancer and debuted it at the annual Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. The response was so positive and full of sweet, outraged howls that when Leary returned to the States, he put the show on here too, with similar results.
“Actually, the thing with my son was life and death,” Leary says, in one of his rare contemplative moments. “But if that hadn’t happened — you know what I mean? After that, everything just sort of fell into place. It’s hard to look back without thinking that there was some kind of plan in place.”
He pauses for a moment and smokes.
“What do I get out of doing stand-up?” he goes on. “I’ve got all these things in my head, and when I get out there, they come out, and I start to make sense of my own personal views. People don’t realize how therapeutic it is. And then it’s the ranting that makes it comedy. You know what, though? Even when someone is just talking to me, I’m on.
Unless you’re my wife or an incredibly close friend of mine, it’s impossible that I’m going to be the person I normally am when I’m not on.”
Being on also seems to let Leary maintain control of any given conversation and its direction. Indeed, take a tack he’s not entirely comfortable with — about, say, the issue of Leary family secrets and how many there might be — and he’ll turn up the “on” until it almost begins to seem desperate. To his credit, though, once cornered, he doesn’t clam up. Instead, quite reasonably, he stakes out his boundaries and the reasons for them.
“Listen,” he says. “I’m sure there . . . there are tons of family secrets. But that’s private information, unless I make it public in a funny way through my work. What I want to tell is in my work, like my son’s precarious birth and my father’s death. That’s where you get the information I’m willing to give up.”
There’s something kind of great and noble about this, of course, but it’s also great that he has a wife like Ann, who at times seems willing to tell more about her husband than maybe he ever can.
The first revelation, though, is Leary’s. Sitting by the pool and moving the ashtray around on the table in front of him, he says that cigarettes and coffee are his only real vices these days. He no longer drinks. He has given it up. This is astounding news, given that booze has long been a regular part of his stage act and that he once said, “I have a great form of anger management. It’s called Jameson Irish Whiskey.” So, the news begs for some kind of amplification. But all Leary will say is that he stopped “a while ago” and “for various reasons.” That’s it.
Right around then, with this shock reverberating through the warm Connecticut air, Ann Leary comes out with some sandwiches (turkey for her husband). She seems relaxed, fun and easygoing, in such a way that you might soon wonder if she has any choice pet names for her notoriously prickly husband.
“No, no, we’re not an incredibly adorable couple in that way,” Ann says, glancing at Leary. “Do you think we are?”
“No,” he says stiffly. “We’ve never done the cute-nickname thing.”
“Actually, we barely speak to each other,” Ann trills gayly. “We have as little to do with each other as we can.” She then tells about taking the kids to the premiere of Rescue Me. “We didn’t know there was going to be all this sex in it, and my daughter was mortified. After that, we had a rule that the show couldn’t be on in the house if she was home. The sound of it made her crazy.”
Leary doesn’t say anything about this. The day is drawing on a little, and he’s beginning to look more his age, craggier and more bitten. The subject of his drinking returns, under the guise of what he was like when he did drink.
Ann turns toward her husband. “I don’t know how much you’ve said about your drinking.”
“I just said I don’t drink.”
Ann nods. “Very few people have seen Denis drunk, because he doesn’t get drunk in front of people, and even if he did, they wouldn’t know it. He’s a quiet drinker.” She glances at him. “I don’t know how much you want me to say.” He kind of grunts. She nods again. “Anyway, that’s all I’ll say about that,” she says.
Obviously, something is going on here, but in terms of Leary qua Leary in a historical sense, his drinking is not worth another moment’s thought. What’s more to the point, it turns out, is a stuffed, potato-size teddy bear named Tim.
Tim sits somewhere in the recesses of the Leary house. Tim belonged to Leary as a kid. Tim went through everything that Leary went through, the various assassinations and all else that remains unspoken. He was Leary’s companion, maybe even a kind of doppelganger. “Would you like to see him?” Ann says.
She goes into the house and returns with the thing in her hands. It’s fashioned out of plain beige cloth. It has two button eyes, both rusty, and a bit of thin red thread to indicate the mouth, which is shut. Its ears have been gnawed, perhaps anxiously. To Ann, Tim looks like a “germ” or a”weird paramecium.”
“I’d heard about this Tim that Denis loved,” she says, “and when I first saw him, I was profoundly disturbed. Look at its expression. Look at its eyes. Its eyes are like, ‘Oh, my God, no!’ “
Leary has pushed himself back in his seat and stretched out his legs, taking long drags on his cig. “You look at it horrified,” he says to Ann. “I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ “
“Look at its eyes,” Ann says again. “It’s like the closing shot on a psycho movie. I mean, doesn’t that explain everything?”
Leary doesn’t say anything about that. He’s too smart for that. That’d open him to further examination. Instead, a few moments later, he gets up from the table, ambles around and announces that he’s going inside to take a leak.
After he’s left, Ann says, “Did he tell the story about his Beatles guitar? No? Well, one summer he got sent to some inner-city boys-club camp, and he brought this Beatles guitar that he got for his birthday and loved more than anything. That guitar was going to change his life. Everything would be different. But when he got to the camp, some of the other kids snatched up the guitar and smashed the crap out of it and made fun of him. He cried and begged his parents to let him come home. His Beatles guitar. How much he loved it!”
Leary returns, catching the end of the tale. He proceeds to retell it his way, leaving out any business about how the guitar was supposed to change his life, because the way his childhood story goes, he wouldn’t change a thing. It’s like with Tim. Nothing wrong with Tim.
“I can still remember that guitar,” he says. “It was a white guitar with a black back and red frets, with pictures of all four Beatles on the front.” Lighting another smoke, he says, “Tears? Yes, I think there were tears involved,” as if there was some doubt.
He sits there then, looking uncomfortable, like maybe this is just the kind of stuff he doesn’t ever like to talk about, personal family stuff that should remain hidden and, if ever, only come up onstage, in his comedy, making its way to the surface through various layers of humorous rage and bile. That’s when he’s most comfortable. That’s when he can really be himself. Not now.
“There had to have been tears,” Ann says.
“There were,” Leary says to her. “It was my favorite thing. It was the Beatles.”