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Here's the thing, and it’s impossible to get around: Some people may not like Denis Leary—his ranting comedy, his profane delivery, his gruff exterior—but the simple truth is Denis Leary is better than most of us.
I don’t mean he’s more successful (though he is). I don’t mean his character is flawless (it isn’t). I mean Denis Leary is about as authentic a person as you’ll meet, and that authenticity carries over to everything he’s created. Being truthful means a lot to Denis Leary, maybe more than it does to some of us, and that’s what makes him better. That trait doesn’t just drive his career success. It makes him a loyal friend, a dedicated dad and a happily married man. It’s also driven his philanthropy.
“The best stuff is always rooted in the truth,” says Leary, 55. “And that’s always gonna piss someone off.”
When he says “best stuff,” he’s literally talking about writing, both comedy and drama. But figuratively, he means the best stuff in life. Think about it: The best stories you have about family and friends, the stuff that always gets retold even though it’s embarrassing, are about a truth. The best relationships you have in business and in life are authentic. And, as Leary suggests, when you run into someone who can’t handle the truth, who is inauthentic, who can’t hold up to scrutiny… they get mad, don’t they? The truth doesn’t set them free. It puts them away.
Denis Leary is a man who titled his third book Why We Suck, which may very well make you bristle. But get to know him a little better and he’ll make you smile. He’ll fire you up. And he’ll show how you can be more successful, more charitable and better in all areas of your life if you’re willing to shake off the fake and meaningless—and get to the “best stuff.”
You are where you come from,” says Leary, who was born with a blue collar in Worcester, Mass., near Boston. His parents were off-the-boat Irish Catholic immigrants who were “married forever,” he says. “They were always on top of what we were doing, especially when we were in trouble. If we did something stupid, which my older brother and I did a lot, we lived in a neighborhood where by the time we got home our mother knew everything that had happened.
“When I was 13, a nun put me in a play and I told my mother, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool. I’d like to quit school and just do this.’ And she just says [his voice gets gruff, even for Leary], ‘Yer not doing that.’ ” He laughs at the memory. “That’s the difference between having a strong parental hand at home and not.”
It must have rubbed off, as Leary has been married to the same woman—Ann Lembeck Leary—for 23 years. “The secret is I married a really smart, loyal, dedicated woman who steers me back on the right track after I jump off, which I am prone to do.” He also has a son and daughter, both grown.
As much as Leary enjoyed performing at 13, the real bug bit while he was at Emerson College in Boston during the ’70s. He had started in stand-up comedy, but joining an improvisational theater group changed everything. “A lot of talented people were at that school at that time,” he says, “and we wrote our first show. You never forget that first performance in front of a live audience because it was all things we had created out of improvisation and just sitting down and writing. I still remember that because that was a clarification for all of us, like, OK, this will work.”
Leary credits people he met at Emerson for deepening his education. “I was an idiot. But fortunately the message got through. A lot of that has to do with the people I met along the way. One of those people at Emerson was a guy named Doug Herzog, who was very business-minded even when we were in school. Doug was one of the founders of MTV and later Comedy Central, and is now one of the higher-ups at Viacom. Doug just kept dragging people along with him. He took [the late director] Ted Demme and me into MTV and we dragged in Colin Quinn and Kenny Ober and Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler. We were all on Remote Control together back in the late ’80s.”
Some folks don’t like to admit that “who you know” is a very big contributor to most careers and businesses, but continuing great relationships even as people split up and move on is crucial, as Leary found out. “At the time, even in spite of myself, I was getting a lesson in business and how it all worked. I kept my eyes and ears open and forced a lot of good information into this thick Irish brain and eventually some of it worked. But it all started at Emerson. If I hadn’t taken writing and acting at Emerson, I wouldn’t have known how to self-generate material.”
Leary’s rant-based stand-up and MTV videos established him and led to that magical moment onstage when he realized he could do this for a living. “I was a couple years into doing stand-up and onstage and did my first joke about smoking and going off on a rant about that, and it really went over well. So I was like, OK, I’m starting to discover something here. Stand-up comedy is one of the purest and most democratic forms of entertainment. There’s supposed to be an audible response. It doesn’t matter how great you think a joke is, or how great you want it to be, if it’s not getting the audience response, it’s not working. I’m at the point now where I’m trying new material in front of 6,000 or 8,000 people.” He let out a resigned laugh. “Silence from that many people is deafening.”
Being funny, in a lot of ways, was just the beginning for Leary. His recent career would be shaped by several life-altering events. The first was the sudden death of director Ted Demme, nephew of The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme, and one of Leary’s best friends. Ted had made a name for himself with several well-regarded films, including The Ref, which helped establish Leary as a leading man. In 2002, Demme collapsed and died of a heart attack while playing basketball.
Leary told Men’s Health about the funeral several years ago, and his story tells you a lot about how he values friendship. “At Ted Demme’s funeral, we had the ‘Jameson speeches’—you had to do a shot and tell a funny story about him. Two guys, close friends, said they couldn’t do it. You know what? I called their names anyway, and they told a story that was hilarious. Afterward they both said, ‘Thanks, man, for forcing me to do this.’ Bottom line: It doesn’t help anyone if you hide. Crisis doesn’t create character; it reveals it. You see who’s who among friends.”
Another life-changer occurred in December 1999. A massive warehouse fire in Leary’s hometown claimed six firefighters, including Leary’s cousin and one of his childhood friends. I talked to him about it a few years ago and he told me an interesting thing about firefighters: A firefighter will carve a personal marking into his gear, like a shamrock on his axe handle, for example. When he goes into a situation that he knows will be hairy, he puts his badge deep inside his clothing near his heart. If he knows he won’t make it out, he jams the axe into a post or wall next to him so that the carving—and the badge near his heart—will make it easy to identify the corpse. The firefighters who died that day did just that.
The Worcester fire led directly to two of Leary’s defining achievements: The Leary Firefighters Foundation, which provides millions of dollars of training and equipment to fire departments, and the FX show Rescue Me.
Stand-up comedy and 40 films may have made Leary a hardened showbiz vet, but Rescue Me made a man out of him. The show, a dark comedy about New York City firefighters, ran for seven seasons until 2011. Leary didn’t just star in it. He created, wrote and produced it. In sum: “Anytime there was a problem, it’s my phone call.”
This made for seven years of 90-hour workweeks, but it cemented his rep for authenticity and truth-telling. “Stand-up and the best stories are always based on something that’s true. In Rescue Me, the best and funniest stories were based on stories from real firehouses. One of the big reasons they’re funny is because they’re true. Those types of things can get certain people really angry. But that’s OK with me, because the things I’ve always liked have been things that have that truth and passion behind them. I’d rather be in a position where people react with love and passion and other people hate it because I’d hate to have everyone in the middle somewhere. If they love it or hate it, that means you’re really hitting a nerve.”
The Firefighters Foundation, which was also influenced mightily by 9/11, was designed to function much like a first-responder unit: When the money comes in, get it out the door helping people. “We’re proud of being a charity that literally spends its money,” he says. “We don’t hang on to it. We get the money and turn it into something physical. We buy equipment, we build training facilities; the money is already earmarked as we’re getting it in.” Case in point: The foundation funded and built a high-rise simulator to train New York City firefighters. “We had it up and running within two years of having building plans in front of us.”
The Great Recession put a crimp in charitable giving, just as it has with fire department budgets, so every dollar Leary raises truly counts. Recently he helped produce a documentary called Burn about the Detroit fire department. All proceeds will help that department. “I’m really greedy when it comes to charity,” he says. “Firefighters in Detroit have a great faith in their city and country that this thing will turn around. It might seem like an impossible task, but it’ll happen because every little bit helps. Every truck that you give to the Worcester fire department or Boston or New York or Detroit goes right to work. If you ask a firefighter, every tool, every truck, every thing you can do for them is going to save a life. That’s the way they look at it.”
The ending of Rescue Me has brought a transition to Leary’s life. He’ll continue to develop new projects, but right now he’s finding that the life of a non-hyphenated actor (as opposed to an actor-writer-producer) is pretty cushy. This summer he’ll appear in The Amazing Spider-Man and return, vocally, as the saber-toothed tiger Diego in the next Ice Age film.
The transition? “Unbelievably easy. I went from working a 90-hour week, literally writing, producing, rewriting, on Rescue Me to Spider-Man, where if there was a problem, I’d go, ‘I’ll be in my trailer watching SportsCenter.’ Man, I had a big trailer. I took a lot of naps in between lighting setups. And the best part, there’s no pressure for me because if it’s great, then I take full credit for my part in it. If it’s not, I just go, ‘That wasn’t me—that was Willem Dafoe.’ ”
What’s even more hilarious? Spider-Man will bring Leary his first official action figure. He flat-out giggles at this. “It’s weird. And funny. And wrong, by the way, very, very wrong. I don’t think they invented action figures so some kid could pretend he was me.”
Leary is rolling now, and we segue right into the current benefits of Ice Age. “Ice Age is quite possibly, for an actor, the easiest way to make money—particularly in this one. Jennifer Lopez is playing my girlfriend. I’m like, ‘OK, I should be paying you guys at this point.’ That’s the point we’ve reached with Ice Age. I’m actually singing a song in the movie with Jennifer Lopez. So that was REALLY a ridiculous day.”
This is Denis Leary. It’s very easy to label him “angry” or “cynical,” and he’ll agree with you. But as you see, he has other things working inside, and words like “truthful” and “authentic” are far more accurate. Anger, in a way, is more a means than an end.
“I used to watch George Carlin as he got older,” he says. “His material stayed fresh and made me realize that anger and an angry worldview, if it is yours, is comedy gold. The well never runs dry because there’s always something to be angry about, whether it’s an election or people on cellphones riding their bikes in Manhattan without helmets in traffic. It happens to me every day, and thank God, because I literally have a paid public form of therapy.”
The risk is going too far. And when I ask him how far is too far? “You don’t know,” he says. “That’s personal. I’ll give you a current example: I don’t find anything funny about Whitney Houston’s death because I liked her and found the whole thing tragic. Now that’s just me. That’s personal. If you’re gonna make jokes about Whitney Houston, and I imagine there are a couple of stand-ups doing them… well, you know what? They’re finding that public line. I’ll give you a better example: John Lennon, who I love. He was shot, which I still remember, in December of 1980. I was making a Yoko Ono joke about a year later and I remember there were still people pissed off about that in comedy clubs at the time. But the joke was true to me because I was so angry about him dying, and I was expressing my truth. But a live audience will tell you with very loud sounds how they feel about it, pro or con.”
Of course, Leary has no plans to curtail his approach. He’s adopted a true “life’s too short” approach that grew out of the Worcester warehouse fire and Ted Demme’s death. His next long-term project, whatever it may be, will have certain conditions attached—most of all: creative control. He fought for it with Rescue Me, and he’ll demand it going forward.
“We were allowed to tell the story we wanted to tell,” he says. “The budget was in our hands, and we went where we wanted to go. That’s the conversation I have now every time I walk in a room as a producer. Not only do we want to have the money in our hands and produce it out of my company, but creatively we want the freedom to create what we want. Otherwise, it’s too much of a battle. I’d much rather look in the mirror and say, ‘You know what? We screwed it up.’ ”
Leary has learned a lot in the past 30 years, but he admits to having one remaining personal obstacle. And he’s working on it. “My Irish temper,” he says. “It makes me a living as a stand-up comedian and always has. It’s my DNA. And what I’m learning,” he starts laughing here, a chuckle that builds, “finally, at age 50-whatever? If you wait a couple of beats and let the other person talk, you might get some supplemental information that will help you solve the problem, rather than punching a hole in the wall.” Now he totally cracks up. “That’s not bad for five decades, right?”