QUEENS, N.Y. — Sitting across from him, one of his perpetually burning Marlboros irritating the edges of my nose, I realized: It's easy to underestimate Denis Leary. • Not as a man, of course. A 30-year career perfecting his image in stand-up comedy, TV and film as the ultimate macho wiseacre takes care of that. This is the guy who named a chapter in his new book "Autism, Shmautism." He's the show biz equivalent of a guy begging for challengers in a barroom arm wrestling contest. . • Last May I wedged myself into the cramped dining booth of his bustling trailer on the set of his firefighter dramedy, Rescue Me. He kicked back in a tangerine T-shirt, flyaway blond hair lending a bit of celebrity glamor. He looked every bit the cynical working man he plays on TV, and years younger than his actual age, 51. • Watching him talk up his new book of populist wisecracks, Why We Suck, it was easy to forget this was also a guy nominated four times for an Emmy and twice for a Golden Globe. • The facade may fall this year, as FX prepares to air 22 straight episodes of Leary's in-your-face show at a time when it has never been stronger, or more serious.
Liver cancer, 9/11 conspiracy theories, survivor's guilt and the world's anger at America's wars serve as bitter centerpieces for a powerhouse fifth season delayed nearly 18 months by last year's Hollywood writers strike.
To grab the public's attention, Leary will embark on his first stand-up comedy tour in a decade. It's a Rescue Me-themed outing, complete with clips from the new season, routines from fellow comics-turned-co-stars Adam Ferrara and Lenny Clarke, and a live band. The show hits Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on April 21.
The postponement also means Leary and I will have spoken three times in three different cities about the new season — including the May 2008 visit to Rescue Me's production in a well-manicured Queens neighborhood.
"Love, life, sex and death . . . those are the four things that the show is about," Leary said, "especially the two things that are really in the midst of that — love and death." The show started with 9/11, he said, but it's really about continuing forward. "These firefighters are always trying to have the one thing (love) to stave off the other thing (death)."
That's when you realize: Somewhere along the line, while peddling jokes about chain smoking and sleeping around, Leary turned into a serious artist. Just don't tell his fans.
Centered on Leary's Tommy Gavin, a ferociously addicted firefighter who has regular visions of the cousin killed in the World Trade Center collapse, Rescue Me has always moved in the shadow of 9/11. Look closely, and you'll see how Leary and co-creator/partner Peter Tolan use the attacks as an unspoken motivation for damaged characters flailing through spasms of sex, lust and intoxication.
But this year, the ante rises: One firefighter copes with a cancer diagnosis he can't reveal, despite likely getting it from 9/11 cleanup. The L Word's Karina Lombard plays a French journalist assembling a 9/11 documentary who reveals Gavin's cousin died differently than the world believed.
Gavin himself confronts increasingly powerful visions of dead relatives and his ex-wife's surprise relationship with a wheelchair-using, pill-popping alpha male (Michael J. Fox).
And though it's not unusual for Leary to crib plot lines from his gonzo firefighter buddies, this season features a twist with origins closer to home: cast member Daniel Sunjata's passionate belief that the World Trade Center collapse was a government-led conspiracy.
"I think there's a criminal faction, within probably some mixture of the intelligence/government community, that carried out the attack," said Sunjata after a January press conference in Los Angeles, citing experts who think explosives destroyed the towers instead of the airplane collisions.
On the show, similar opinions expressed by Sunjata's character Franco Rivera start a brawl in the firehouse.
Clearly, anything can spark a story on Rescue Me — including Fox's willingness to play a man paralyzed from the waist down at a time when Parkinson's disease often turns his body into a mass of uncontrolled movements.
"He just sort of times his medications so that he's fairly still," said Leary, who has seen Fox use a similar strategy when they appear together at charity events. "It's got to be difficult, but he doesn't make a big thing out of it at all. He picked out his own wardrobe and had worked with a wheelchair. . . . He came loaded for bear to play this character."
This season, Fox will join ER alum Maura Tierney and Oscar nominee Charles Durning among Rescue Me's heavyweight guest stars, drawn in by the steady excellence of a show that hides its quality in fart jokes and sex talk — just like the firefighters it portrays.
"The overriding story of this series is men of action dealing with probably the most grievous moment of their lives and having to carry on," said Leary. "They don't want to admit what might be just below the surface. (Which) always makes me think, 'That's something we really ought to cover.' "
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521, firstname.lastname@example.org or at blogs.tampabay.com/media.