'Rescue Me': A Final (Quite Funny) Conversation
Humor in 9/11? The FX series, reaching its end on Sept. 7, achieved it -- and so much more -- as show creators Denis Leary and Peter Tolan reveal an enviable rapport, share their future projects and talk candidly (as always) out of school.
As the FX series born from 9/11 reaches its conclusion after seven seasons, series co-creators Peter Tolan and star Denis Leary have much to reflect on: seven years, seven Emmy nominations (with one win for Michael J. Fox's guest turn) and 93 episodes mixed with high comedy and heavy drama. A conversation intended to be Tolan interviewing Leary revealed how Rescue Me was almost a Toronto-filmed comedy on HBO, their hopes (and fears) for the legacy of the show and what's in store for the bickering pair.
Leary: In the past couple of days, as I get ready for the finale premiere in New York to raise money for my Firefighters Foundation, I've come across some of the guys from the past, including the two guys I based Tommy Gavin on. I basically stole elements of their life, and all of a sudden it struck me that these guys are finally happy and they finally sort of gave in to the present instead of living in the past. They're happier than I have ever known them, and I knew them long before 9/11. I realized just how much like Tommy Gavin these guys were 10 years later.
Tolan: Well, that would be really interesting if either of these guys had a subscription to The Hollywood Reporter. But I think for the rest of the readership, we've started off on a tremendously long, boring note.
Leary: You know, if you're going to get bitchy with me this early in the interview, we're not going to have many places to go except to more bitchiness.
Tolan: Why can't it just evolve into mudslinging?
Leary: That can happen at any moment.
Tolan: After 10 years, it just goes to shit in the pages of The Hollywood Reporter.
Leary: Well, if we're going to do that, Peter, then we should do it for charity and it should be an underwear mud-wrestling event. … I'm just telling you a true fact about two guys who you happen to know who surprisingly are extremely happy now.
Tolan: OK, I was not aware what their personal situation was, but that's very interesting. Now I have a question for you, Denis Leary …
Leary: Is this about Spider-Man? [Leary is in Sony's 2012 superhero movie.]
Tolan: No, it's not about your career outside of Rescue Me. I know that's shocking to you. Many people say, "Where did the idea for this come from?" I always say, we were shooting [short-lived ABC series] The Job on 9/11. I was directing an episode in Jersey that day, and you were in lower Manhattan. And after all these years, I'm actually starting to question my memory. I'd like to think that I actually said to you, "This is the show that we should be doing." I never said anything beyond that, and then you were considering making it a movie, right?
Leary: Here's what I remember. No. 1, that I must have hated you from the beginning; No. 2, how I then loved you and it was a love-hate thing; and then No. 3, yeah, you're right about the movie. It was after my cousin [a firefighter] was killed in '99 and I had thought about making a movie about a firefighter who dies in the line of duty. But it was way too close to his death and I didn't want to write it in my hometown. So you and I started talking about doing Rescue Me the movie, and then you said, "Hey, this would be really interesting week to week."
Tolan: Here's the thing that I really don't remember: Was FX the first place that we went to? Did we go to HBO?
Leary: What ended up happening was that HBO came back and said they had notes and they preferred it as a half-hour comedy. Plus, they wanted to do it immediately, 13 episodes, but they wanted us to do half in New York and half in Toronto, which makes it hard to do because we knew that New York was a character. FX was a dark horse, but when we went in, they were incredibly smart with their notes and they introduced us to their marketing people in the first meeting. In everything I've done, I have never had a marketing person in the first meeting say, "This is how much money we spend on marketing, and this is how we go about selling the show."
Tolan: We were very impressed. Another thing that people can't believe is that three of us [Tolan, Leary and Evan T. Reilly] wrote 93 episodes of this show. It seems kind of audacious when you look back at it to think you could actually do a show with humor -- which is obviously the thing that saved it -- that had 9/11 as an inciting incident. It just seems audacious.
Leary: You used the word "audacious" twice during that last paragraph. It's really not impressing anybody. The king of Scrabble had to throw in "audacious" twice.
Tolan: Let me do a variation for you, "au-douche-ous." Now I have another question for you. It seemed like every other scene we'd shoot we would look at each other and say, "Only on Rescue Me." And we'd say to the actors, "Enjoy this, because you'll never do a mix of comedy and drama like this again." And now we're moving on to other projects. For example, I'm coming up with an hour [in development at ABC] that has a dramatic element to it, and I realized after doing a show that uses 9/11 as an inciting incident that there's no other inciting incident as rich or as big or as all encompassing as that. Sometimes I feel like, "How am I going to wring drama out of this?"
Leary: Quite frankly, you can put the realities of 9/11 aside and just talk about dealing with firefighters. The thing I miss the most about the show, besides the camaraderie of that cast, is that on Monday, you would shoot hilarious comedy scenes. Tuesdays were heavy emotional dramatic scenes that really sort of stayed with you all day. Wednesday, you're shooting action sequences where you're running into fake fires. And then on Friday, you might get to do all three. I mean that just doesn't happen in movies or TV on a regular basis. I did Spider-Man for eight months or whatever the hell it was, and most of the time you're just running around doing action sequences.
Tolan: Thankfully, you brought up Spider-Man again in case people forgot the first mention.
Leary: And in Ice Age 4 [in which he again voices the tiger Diego], it's mostly singing and comedy. I wanted to bring this up, too: They both come out July 4 weekend next year. I own that weekend. The thing I'm finding is that I'm working and writing for the first time in a while without you.
Tolan: The quality is suffering?
Leary: The quality is really suffering. [Laughs.] I'm realizing how I need to be part of that team again because I look at what I write and I go, "Wow, there are a lot of words there, but they're not really that funny. What's wrong with my computer? It's missing the comedy chip."
Tolan: We are working on a half-hour comedy together, but it's going slowly because of our other obligations. But obviously it's a good, fertile partnership. No children have come out of it, but I would be an idiot if I ever said I wasn't going to work with Denis again. Everything we've done has been interesting. The two shows that we've done together? They were never boring.
Leary: We're not going to say what the idea is, but the idea is really juicy for the two of us.
Tolan: Very different for you.
Leary: Yeah. I hope it's as funny as we think it is, but the fact that Peter's involved means it's going to at least be partially funny.
Tolan: I think it would be an interesting part for Denis if we are unable to get [look-alike actor] Willem Dafoe. Really, I think Denis would be a very strong second for the role.
Leary: And you know the way Hollywood works, by the time we write it and actually get it to screen, it'll probably be Ashton Kutcher and not me. I'll be the third writer at that point.
Tolan: No, at that point, it'll be Ashton Kutcher's son.
Leary: Go to Ashton Kutcher's huge trailer and tell him we need his son to do a scene.
Tolan: I wouldn't be able to find him in that trailer. I'd get lost.
Leary: By the way, on Rescue Me and The Job, my trailer became the writers' trailer, so it was always me, Evan, Peter and then some writers' assistants. Six guys in one regular-sized trailer. When we go into production on the half-hour, I'm getting that Ashton Kutcher trailer and it's going to be Peter and me each with our own floors. Evan is going to get a little bedroom down on the first floor and that's it.
Tolan: I knew that it was finally time to end the series because I had spent so much time in Denis' trailer with a lot of the guys, I think I was diagnosed with Stage III lung cancer.
Leary: I thought it was time to wrap it up when Peter started eating his way through the food supply -- peanuts, potato chips -- that were meant for five people in my trailer.
Tolan: True. We did normal seasons for the first four seasons and then, because of the writers' strike, we ended up doing a 22-episode fifth season. I think around that time, even though I felt we did very good work, we were hitting story points over and over. That was the indicator, late in the fifth season, that maybe we could do a few more and get out with our skin.
Leary: I'll tell you this, I don't regret our steadfastness in not turning Tommy Gavin into a television or movie creation. The instinct would be to have him easily give up drinking and recover and get his wife back. But having dealt with a lot of real firefighters, I know there are a lot of guys who, for lack of a better term, become addicted to the grief because it has kept them connected to these guys that they felt responsible for having lost.
Tolan: The other thing I wanted to mention is that Spider-Man comes out next year, and I realize that you have a three-mention minimum but perhaps you didn't want to bring it up yourself, so I'm doing it for you to save you the embarrassment.
Leary: It's Spider-Man 4 and Ice Age 4. Spider-Man is actually a reboot, so it's called The Amazing Spider-Man.
Tolan: Shouldn't it just be One Big Movie No. 8?
Leary: Well, I think we're going to carry the Ice Ages up to Ice Age 15, which means basically they'll be in the present decade. We'll go through World War I and World War II and then by the last one, one of them is playing for the Yankees with [Derek] Jeter. It should be interesting.
Tolan: With Rescue Me, I really think the true legacy is that it's going to take many, many years -- and I say this without patting ourselves on the back too much -- for someone to watch something on television and say, "Wow, this is just like Rescue Me."
Leary: I think a lot of times this stuff is out of your hands. If you do good work, it tends to stick around. People still come up to me and say, "The Ref is my favorite Christmas movie." But at the same time, people come up and say, "Why the f-- did you do Operation Dumbo Drop?"
Tolan: Yeah, I think that's mostly me. The only thing I hope is that years from now, people won't watch Rescue Me and go, "Leary and Tolan, what ever happened to them?"
Leary: "Yeah, Where are those guys? I think they're working on Ice Age 15 with Minka Kelly."
Tolan: Yeah, it's shooting in Santa Monica: Diego Runs a Club.
RESCUE ME 101
- $10 million+: Funds raised by Denis Leary's Leary Firefighters Foundation since it was founded in 2000
- 3.4 million: Weekly viewership for the series on a live-plus-seven basis during the show's seventh
- and final season
- 182: Guest stars on the show, including Marisa Tomei, Susan Sarandon and Michael J. Fox