Byline: Roger Moore
The easiest way to tell whether Denis Leary has mellowed is to ask him a simple question.
When was the last time you hit somebody?
In days past, the famously volcanic Leary, a living, breathing, swearing 'Irish temper' cliche, might have snapped, 'This morning. Desk clerk wanted to toss us outta our rooms a coupla days early, and I kinda went over the counter, grabbing at him.'
But that was 1998, in Chicago. He'd had a little problem at the Drake Hotel.
He was 40 then. Today, at 47, things are different for the star of FX network's 'Rescue Me.' Sort of.
'I hit Brendan Shanahan, full speed, in my charity hockey game a couple of weeks ago,' Leary says, a little grin sneaking into his voice. 'He's still playing pro hockey, but they're in a lock-out right now.
'I thought, `So what if he plays for the Red Wings?' Thought I'd surprise him. He saw me at the last second, coming up on him, saw that look in his eyes, and POW. Full speed.'
'Man, that's a wake-up call, because he's a big boy! He got up and was fine, but it took me like five minutes to recover. Man, that'll let you know you're alive.'
The once up-and-coming comic and character actor likes such little reminders. He finally has a TV series with both critical acclaim and staying power. 'Rescue Me' just finished its first season.
But it has been a long hike to get there, through a stand-up career that started during a long stay in Britain in the early `90s and morphed into some memorable MTV rants _ 'I think you hear me knockin'. I think I'm comin' in!'
Movies such as 'The Ref' (1994) and 'Wag the Dog' (1997) followed, and the stand-up went away.
Until this week. The suddenly-hot Leary has released his two TV specials from the '90s _ 1992's aggressive' No Cure For Cancer' and 1997's 'Lock and Load' _ on DVD together ($19.98). They're living reminders of the testy, edgy dude he was and hopes he still is.
The late Ted Demme ('Blow') directed the videos, which, thanks to Leary's acting background (it's what he studied at Emerson College), are more like performance pieces _ Leary, in a black leather sport coat, chain smoking, swilling Budweisers, singing a famously naughty ditty and ranting.
'Ted Kennedy? A good senator. A bad date.'
Timeless, politically incorrect rants that work in any era.
'You're not supposed to be a macho guy anymore. ... All the presidential candidates want to be macho. We haven't had a macho president since FDR!
'There was a guy in a wheelchair from polio, smoked three packs a day _ in public. `We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' Right? Well, and staircases.'
Leary barely remembers that stuff.
'When you do a one-man show like that, and film it for HBO and an album, it pretty much leaves your head,' he says. 'That material is done. It's like a play or a movie, not like a stand-up act. I can look at these things now and be surprised, because I really can't remember what I said.'
The jokes about flavored coffee and smoking and drugs and R.E.M. and Michael Flatley may not be as topical as they were then.
But the mock rage that produced them is still there.
'I hope I'm like George Carlin, who's doing some of the best stuff of his career, and he's, like, 65 years old. You can do that job until they turn off the electricity, or until you drop dead. If you're driven by angst and anger and the desire to tell people what's wrong with the world, you can do that forever.'
Not that he's like that offstage. He'd be four strokes down the path to an early grave if he were. But having that persona has worked for him, lo these many years.
'Denis has baggage and a reputation, sure. But this show is the perfect fit for that,' says longtime friend Jim Serpico, executive producer of 'Rescue Me.' In the series, Leary plays an alcoholic hothead, a New York firefighter with private demons and a personal life that includes the odd moment of violence, promiscuity and seeing the ghosts of people he used to serve with or victims he failed to save in fires.
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The movies where he comes off best play with the idea that he has a temper. Take 'The Secret Lives of Dentists' (2002). Leary plays the angry jerk patient of a put-upon dentist, a dentist whose mind isn't on his work because his wife is cheating on him. The dentist (Campbell Scott) starts to fantasize confrontations where the tough guy gives him advice.
'Denis, because of who he is and what we know about him, is the perfect alter ego for a guy who's afraid to stand up for himself,' says Scott. 'Denis never seems to have that problem.'
Christopher Walken, a friend who co-starred with Leary in 1998's 'Suicide Kings,' says, 'Sure, he has this reputation as a tough guy. But what he really is, is funny. He makes the temper thing funny.'
And the temper thing is finally paying off. Leary had an earlier critically acclaimed series about cops, 'The Job' (2001). But ABC gave up on it finding an audience.
'We're at a network where they really believe in the show we're doing now,' Leary says. 'And that's not like being at one of the broadcast networks, where they're just running for their lives, hoping they don't get fired.
'Thank god ABC canceled `The Job,' otherwise I wouldn't have time to do this.'
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Leary's a guy who has always parlayed fame into charity work, something that fills his November this year. 'Comics Come Home' is a charity event taped every year for Comedy Central. And there's The Leary Firefighters Foundation, which predated 'Rescue Me.' He lost a cousin in a fire in his hometown of Worcester, Mass., which inspired him to found the charity, which recently bought a communications truck for the New York Fire Department.
'Fortunately, or unfortunately, these firefighters I've known or been related to have filled my head with stories about the work, the way they walk and the way they talk,' he says. 'So, when it came time to do the series. ... I had a life's worth of ideas and little touches to do the show.
'Some of my closest friends in New York are firefighters, so it's a responsibility, too. For better or worse, you feel an obligation to present these guys fairly. Some of the older guys wish we weren't telling these stories to the public.'
But he makes it up to the older guys with the charity events. And what he gets from those is the chance to do a little stand-up. Just a little taste of how he used to make a living.
'It's a calling. You can't teach it. It's innate, like hitting a baseball or skating and pushing a puck.
'It's a great part of show business, because you can always do it. It only involves you and them. There's no director, producer. Just you and a mike and folks in a room. It's no wonder that so many guys like Seinfeld go back to it after they've made it. There's no thrill like it. It's really electric.
'But the bad thing is, you go back, get a little taste of it. Feel that electricity. And then it's back to the real job, the movie or the TV show or whatever. You get the urge to do it, and it's another year before you can again.'
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