ATX Television Festival: Denis Leary

Rescue Me, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, and blue collar blues

If anyone’s surprised that Denis Leary is getting a retrospective at this week’s ATX Television Festival, it’s probably … Denis Leary. He said, “Unless there’s a funny story to be told, or something to be used as a writer or an actor, I don’t normally dwell on the past. Do you know what I mean? I’m like a shark, I just keep swimming forward.”

"I’m like a shark, I just keep swimming forward.” Denis Leary takes a rare look back at his career for the ATX Television Festival this weekend.

In fact, it’s a dual celebration of his work in TV. Saturday sees a cast and crew panel of his latest show for FX as writer/producer/star, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, while Friday sees a retrospective of his landmark post-9/11 drama Rescue Me. It's a brutally honest depiction of the physical and mental scars carried by the New York Fire Department crews that survived the day, focused through the often fractured lens of hard-drinking and deeply flawed firefighter Tommy Gavin (played by Leary).

When the ATX team contacted him and Rescue Me co-creator Peter Tolan, Leary said, “I was like, 'Jesus, how long has it been since we went off the air?' It kind of scared me a little bit, but the truth is that we’re all so busy.” Rescue Me was a launching pad for much of the cast, including Callie Thorne (The Wire, The Mysteries of Laura), Daniel Sunjata (Graceland) and Steven Pasquale (The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story). “So we don’t get to see each other. So I greedily looked at it, because at the very least it’s a chance for the main cast members to get together and have dinner in Austin, Texas, for a couple of nights.”

Friendship is an underlying theme of Leary's career. After all, the New York Fire Department technical advisers on Rescue Me weren’t just experts on loan. They were and are Leary’s friends, guys he got to know through his buddy Terry Quinn who joined the department while Leary was first cutting his teeth as a lacerating stand-up. “So when we decided to do the series,” Leary said, “these characters on Rescue Me were slightly smudged versions of all these guys.”

When the team started writing an episode, they’d call Quinn and his colleagues, and get their input. Sometimes the advice was a little more immediate than he expected. “We were probably in season 5, and I said, ‘Terry, we need to come up with the circumstances for a bus fire,’ and I knew he was at work. He said, ‘I’m on my way to one right now, let me call you back in a few hours.’ He called me back about six hours later and goes, ‘Dude, we just had a fucking bus tip over in Harlem and catch on fire. I just got back. So here’s what we’re going to do.’”

But beyond the technical details, it was important to talk about what it really meant to have been at Ground Zero. Leary said, "I remember Terry saying, 'It’s one of those things, you realize it’s not a wound with a scar over it. It’s just a scab. It’s so right under the surface that there’s never really any way to get away from it.'" Leary saw two coping mechanisms: "One was with a drink in one hand and a girl in the other, trying to drink or fuck their way through mortality. Sometimes it was like a sacrificial offering, like they shouldn’t be alive."

"A real hard ass, still smoking, and still screaming." Denis Leary on Rescue Me's heroic anti-hero Tommy Gavin.

AC: During season 7 of Rescue Me, everyone thought, "Tommy’s not making it out of here alive." There was a real feel that the arc was going to be dark, and when you get to the end of the season, and you have that throwback to him being back at the academy, it’s Tommy finally coming out of that tunnel, and finally being, for him, in a really healthy place. Was there ever a point where Tommy wasn’t going to make it, or was the story always going to be this anti-Sopranos?

DL: Here’s what happened. As we went along, we knew enough guys from New York and enough guys from my hometown of Worcester, Mass., so I’d seen almost every iteration of behavior. But as we were doing the show, a lot of the guys I knew in the FDNY, they were struggling with their own demons that had to do with that day. Meanwhile we were doing this television show, and it was great because we were able to channel enough of the factual and emotional fire department stuff into it. But Peter [Tolan] and I could see, in a lot of the guys that we knew, that some guys had sacrificed their marriages, some guys had thrown themselves into work, and in some case, like Tommy, they became better firefighters because they didn’t give a fuck anymore.

We were going to have Tommy be in a fire, and have a circumstance where he basically has to sacrifice himself to save a civilian, or one of the other members of the crew. We pitched it to John Landgraf, who was the head of FX, and this was probably in year five, and he said, "I really have to think about that one." We also told Terry Quinn about it, and Terry had five kids at the time, and his family was telling him to quit, and he refused to quit. His kids were begging him not to be a firefighter, and he said, "This is what I do for a living." He’s a great, great dangerous firefighter, the kind of guy that you’d want in any job. He was in this very dark place, and all of a sudden, in 2010, he started to come out of it. It’s hard to explain. He came out of it, and all of a sudden he had peace. It was not like he got over 9/11, but he accepted what happened, and he started to move on.

One of the guys, one of my oldest friends in the FDNY from Terry’s crew. He was a hard ass. He was one of the people I had fears about. He came out the other side, and he works at a place they call the Rock, which is the FDNY training academy. That’s where all the new probies and candidates who want to become firefighters have to go through their testing and physical training. He’s there as a drill sergeant, and whenever I go down to visit him, I always say "This is where Tommy Gavin would probably have ended up. A real hard ass, still smoking, and still screaming at these 19- and 20- and 21-year-old guys and girls who want to be firefighters, and they need that guy to scare the shit out of them."

"They were never household names. They were just working musicians." Denis Leary explains the inspirations behind Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll's almost man, Johnny Rock.

AC: You go from Rescue Me to Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, which is a real change of pace.

DL: I went to school at Emerson up in Boston, and there are a couple of great music schools up there. That was when New Wave and punk were first happening, and a lot of the guys that I knew that were terrific musicians had started to drop out of school and become members of bands. In some cases, very famous bands, like the Cars, and the Del Fuegos. Anyway, these guys, they became professional musicians. Some of them, like I said were in famous bands, like Ozzy Osbourne’s band and Raging Slab, various parts of rock & roll.

But they were never household names. They were just working musicians. So I was exposed so many times to the big gigs at arenas, and then the regular small gigs at clubs, over the last 30, 35 years, and I got to see that behavior. I got to see the bitterness and the resentment for not necessarily being famous, but still being able to make a living as a musician. So I thought, "Wouldn’t it be interesting, not to do a supposedly famous band, but to do a band that never made it?"

Denis Leary at ATX Television Festival

Fri., June 10
Rescue Me reunion, 11:30am, Paramount Theatre;
Shifting Landscapes: The Effect of 9/11 on Storytelling, 3:30pm, Stephen F. Austin Ballroom

Sat., June 11
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll panel, 5pm, Alamo Drafthouse Ritz

The ATX TV Festival runs until Sunday, June 12. See for more info, and follow our continuing coverage at

For more on the Leary Firefighters Foundation, Denis Leary's nonprofit for firefighters in Worcester, Mass., and New York, visit

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ATX Television Festival, ATX TV Fest 2016, Denis Leary, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, Rescue Me, FX

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