In 1999 Denis Leary, creator and star of the hugely popular series Rescue Me, lost his first cousin and a high school classmate in a fire in an abandoned warehouse in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts. To work though his overwhelming loss he founded the Leary Firefighters Foundation a year later, an organization that intentionally cuts through red tape to provide fire departments with funding and up-to-date equipment and training. He talks to CAHIR O'DOHERTY about his work.
THE first thing you notice about Denis Leary is that his famous scowl hasn't changed, but his signature blond locks have been dyed a dark red for a new feature film role. It's a dramatic transformation, and on Tuesday evening of last week some of his firefighter buddies are giving him a hard time for it. But it's only gentle ribbing because the night also marked the seventh annual Leary Firefighters Foundation bash, held at Cipriani's on Wall Street. The firefighters are grateful for his efforts on their behalf.
"People are asking me, 'What's going on with your hair?'" Leary told the Irish Voice during an interview before the party got underway. "I think they're trying to tell me my hair's messed up."
If he's bothered he doesn't look it as the cameras erupt when he steps onto the red carpet. He's smiling and looking happy, and everything about the night seems to be going to plan, but there's only one small problem. After several nights of high profile engagements on behalf of the foundation Leary has almost lost his voice.
If he gets a little hoarse at times it's no wonder. As the creator and lead actor, writer, producer of Rescue Me - and in his new starring role alongside Kevin Spacey in the forthcoming film about the 2000 election called Recount - not to mention his national multi-million dollar philanthropy work, it's amazing Leary has time to draw a breath some days.
It looks as if Leary's hectic schedule of write, shoot, and repeat isn't about to stop any time soon, either. Rescue Me, which recently finished its fourth season on FX, has become a breakout hit for the network, which has announced that the show will double in size for its fifth season. That means that in 2008 FX will be producing 22 episodes instead of the usual 13.
And all of the series hardworking regulars will return, including Leary, Michael Lombardi, Tatum O'Neal, Steven Pasquale and Callie Thorne. So when you consider how much work is ahead of him, you can understand why Leary's personal assistant guards his time so jealously these days.
Still, laryngitis or not, Leary is not known to be shy about giving his opinion. Tonight he's reflecting on the work of the Leary Firefighters Foundation, the organization he founded in 2000 in response to a fire that broke out in an abandoned warehouse in Worcester, Massachusetts, his hometown, in December of 1999.
On that day 75 firefighters ran into a burning building and six of them never came back out. One who didn't return was Leary's first cousin, Jerry Lucey and another was Tommy Spencer, his childhood friend and high school classmate. It was, he freely admits, a devastating night.
His Firefighters Foundation was Leary's effort to find a positive way to deal with his overwhelming loss. But he's still angered that private philanthropy should have to supplement what is, after all, a glaringly public service.
"Unfortunately our job is to do what the politicians are supposed to do, which is to financially take care of the Fire Department," he says, making no attempt to disguise his anger. "But because they don't go on strike like every other group of city workers - they don't get the attention - only the squeaky wheel gets the oil, you know."
The fair-weather politicians who make fine speeches and promises, but who then offer no follow through, are particularly galling to Leary, who has seen at first hand how little those speeches count for when the crowd goes home.
"My opinion personally - as we've seen enough evidence of this by now - is that the politicians love to come down and have their pictures taken with the firefighters, the heroes, but when it comes time to actually ponying up the money for equipment and training they're not going to do it."
To counter governmental indifference, the Leary Firefighters Foundation has itself been the first responder to the needs of cash strapped fire departments in several national districts. In New Orleans, for example, six out of the city's 13 fire stations have been completely rebuilt with funding from the foundation and with the help of the New York Carpenters Union.
Thanks to Leary's foundation there is now a rescue boat in every precinct in New Orleans. And in New York this year the foundation broke ground on a high rise simulator in which firemen can experience what it's like to fight fires on a typical high rise Manhattan building.
The reason for the foundation's success, supporters claim, stems from Leary's insistence that the money donated goes right to the source. Every dime goes directly to the firemen. They request the equipment and the foundation supplies it. That's how Leary envisioned his foundation, and that's how it's operating.
"We're glad to raise the money and give it to the FDNY or the New Orleans Fire Department or the Boston Fire Department, but I really wish the foundation could go out of business because one politician could step in and say this is crazy, these guys are the first responders, we should make sure that these guys are outfitted the way they should be," he says.
On 9/11, as Leary likes to remind anyone who will listen, the first people to respond were the firefighters. On that day their radios didn't work, and there were plenty of other equipment complaints. Six years later, he says, those radios still don't work.
"I really believe that the federal government, the mayor, and certainly the ex-mayor of this city don't care about firefighters. I don't care what he says, if you walk about this room tonight and talk about Rudy Giuliani, every single firefighter in this room will tell you he did nothing for the Fire Department," Leary says.
"I'm tired of those guys taking credit for it. The only reason I'm glad to take credit is because I'm here and I'm raising money and I'm giving it to them. These empty promises that these guys get away with? They're not forgotten. They're not forgotten by the FDNY and they're certainly not forgotten by us."
Reflecting on the success of Rescue Me, and the 22 episode fifth season ahead of him, Leary, who plays New York City firefighter Tommy Gavin, injects a little reality into his response, with the kind of tell-it-to-you-straight talk that the gritty drama excels at.
"If you ask anyone on the street in this country, whether it's a man or a woman or a kid, who they most look up to in terms of what people do for a living - firefighters are always one of the first people mentioned. I think it's a very honorable profession that politicians take advantage of, and the show and this foundation are here to do the opposite."
Rescue Me's fifth season begins on Tuesday, January 1 on the FX network.