During its seven-season run on FX, Rescue Me never shied away from provocative topics, shocking scenes and foul language, so it was no surprise to the firefighter drama’s beloved fans that the show’s reunion Friday at the ATX Festival offered up much of the same.
Led by the always colorful, and quotable, creators Denis Leary and Peter Tolan, the cast reflected on the drama five years after it went off the air and discussed whether the show would get the green light today.
“It wouldn’t be f—ing Chicago Fire, I’ll tell you that much,” Leary told the crowd to laughter. “I don’t even watch that show but people call me and go, ‘Dude.’ And I go, ‘I know.'”
In a rare moment of self-control, Leary held back from bashing too hard on the NBC firefighter drama, which premiered a year after Rescue Me’s 2011 series finale.
“I like Lady Gaga so I don’t want to say anything too negative because I’m still holding out to get invited to the wedding,” he explained before referencing her fiance, Taylor Kinney, who stars on the series.
Tolan offered a more serious answer as he reflected on the impact 9/11 had on the show. Rescue Me premiered just three years after the terrorist attack and centered on how New York firefighters each dealt with the tragedy in different ways.
“The degree of difficulty would not be there. It was so hard to do it then,” he said. “This was really about not forgetting the first responders who died that day and their families and anyone else who was touched by that tragedy.”
Now, in contrast, the country is “so far from removed from it,” Tolan said. “The fact that we did it right then when the wound was still fresh was important.”
Originally conceived by Leary as a possible movie idea, seeing a friend of his who served as a firefighter in New York deal with the aftermath was a huge influence on the development of the series.
“Some guys were drinking their way through it, some guys were f—ing their way through it,” Leary said, giving credit to Tolan for first thinking of it as a series. “He said, “This is f—ing interesting if we do these guys every week.'”
But it wasn’t just that aspect of the series that made Rescue Me famous for pushing the boundaries. There were also scenes like when Tommy (Leary) sexually assaulted his estranged wife Janet (Andrea Roth) in season three that drew outcry at the time.
“I think that it was a wonderfully written, very complex situation between two incredibly dysfunctional people who love-hated one another,” Roth recalled. “I did not understand everybody’s offense to it because we weren’t condoning the situation. We were just acting how these two characters would act.”
Leary revealed the scene was inspired by one of his own female friends who had been in a similarly toxic and complicated relationship. “She was like, ‘Wow, you really captured that, that’s really how it felt,'” Leary said.
Another obstacle Leary faced was with standards and practices, particularly after a scene in which Tommy’s girlfriend Sheila (Callie Thorne) calls his ex-wife a c— in a text, but spells it incorrectly so that it could be said on-air.
“This one woman in standards and practices was convinced that we said ‘c—,'” Leary recalled. “We showed her the script and she kept going. She sent memo after memo: ‘I know he said c—!’ … I have it framed in the office.”
Although many actors on the panel praised the show’s fearlessness, Tolan said not everyone shared that sentiment, particularly two actors who quit the show and had to be replaced.
One was an actress originally set to play Lou Scurti’s wife in season one. She left the show, Tolan said, because she was a devout Catholic and refused to portray a character who was having an affair.
“I mean what the f—? Have you seen Spotlight? Good luck with your career,” Leary said.
“Speaking of Spotlight,” Tolan said with a laugh, the other actor who exited was brought on to portray a priest but did not want to play a priest who was a pedophile. “Lesson learned: Don’t hire f—ing Catholics,” Leary joked.
Tolan said it’s an issue that continues to come up. “There’s a thing that I see more and more as I do other things. Actors going, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ and mostly it’s men. ‘I have to be the hero. I can’t be weak,’ and refuse to play anything,” he said. “We had a really good time making this show, and that’s so true you don’t appreciate that until you go off and do other shows.”
However, the cast onstage praised the writers for creating a safe environment for such daring scenes and storylines.
“I was terrified too, but you get to set [with] Denis and Peter and [executive producer] Evan Reilly, you just fall into their arms of security, love and you know the talent is so big that you can rise to that occasion,” said Tatum O’Neal, who played Tommy’s sister. “It was the best experience of my life working in film and TV.”
Thorne recalled being “terrified” going through particular scripts. “My upper lip would sweat and then the next moment would be me remembering that the set was such a place of safety and fun and play, it would calm me down so I could learn my lines,” she said.
The cast and writers seemed up for another reunion down the line. But Leary had one request for next time: “I want a Rescue Me jet.”