Saturday, July 03, 2010

A TV Series Winds Down, Portraying Characters Who Will Never Forget

The New York Times
July 2, 2010

“Rescue Me,” the dark, comic firefighter drama that is broadcast Tuesdays on FX, returned this week for the beginning of the end. The show will wrap up next year, shortly before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, an event that inspired the series and has been revisited repeatedly.

“We always felt that if we made it that far, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 would be a stopping point,” said Denis Leary, the show’s star and co-creator, with Peter Tolan.

Mr. Leary portrays Tommy Gavin, the caustic, alcoholic firefighter at the center of “Rescue Me” who is the “most frantic and emotionally undone member of the crew of 62 Truck,” according to Ginia Bellafante, a television critic for The New York Times. The character’s reckless bravado frequently scuttles his personal life, even as it makes him an exceptional firefighter.

In a recent interview at his production office in SoHo, Mr. Leary talked with Jeremy Egner about the final season, his character and the twisted firehouse anecdotes that inspire the show’s scripts. The following are excerpts from the conversation.

Q. How will the show handle the anniversary of 9/11?

A. The final episodes will lead up to the anniversary. During the last three episodes the characters are going to these meetings to plan the parades and memorial services.

Q. So you’ve shot the final shows already?

A. Yes, we’re done shooting. It was interesting because we were doing it a year in advance and we have a lot of firefighters on the set, so we got to watch their response. There’s a thing in the final scene, where down on the waterfront there’s a new boat called the 343, which was just commissioned. The name on the hull of the boat is done in steel from the World Trade Center. It’s a $27 million boat, and the only reason they have them is because they realized on 9/11 that they need that service from the water, right down by where the buildings went down. Watching the boat, which the department was kind enough to give us that day, roll in was pretty emotional for a lot of the real firefighters. So for better or worse, I think we did the right thing.

Q. Why has 9/11 remained such a central theme on your show?

A. Because it’s firefighters. The show has been the story of the male ego, the heroic male ego. The idea of dealing with life and death every day, and that struggle to fit into real life when you work a job that has no real connection to real life, except in the sense that you may die five minutes from now. Or you may save a life. This event was so catastrophic for these guys. It’s still below the surface, but they can’t think about it every day because they have to jump on a rig and go back to work and jump into the building. But it’s like Vietnam or World War II for them — it’s something that will never go away.

Q. How did you develop the Tommy Gavin character?

A. He was based on two specific guys. The crew that we created was a smudged version of a real crew that I was very close to; I loved the unit and how everyone related to each other. The guys on the show even tended to look like the real guys — the good-looking dumb guy, the good-looking smart guy, the lieutenant who knows everything and has a lot of experience but likes to eat. They’re great, rich characters. My guy was a combination of two guys, one who had massive personal problems in terms of his marriage and personal life and one who was a great firefighter who had a different set of problems.

Q. Have the real firefighters continued to inform the characters on the show?

A. Almost every comic conversation that went on in “Rescue Me” in the firehouse came from things we heard from real firefighters who work on the show. It was either from them giving us a general idea of something that happened or from telling us a specific story like, “Last night we had a penis measuring contest at the firehouse.” And we would go, “You have got to be kidding me!” We’re not brilliant enough to come up with all this stuff ourselves. A lot of it was just reporting.

Q. Have the men who inspired your character ever complained about the portrayal?

A. One guy’s the main technical adviser on the show, Terry Quinn. His marriage fell apart, but his ex-wife is on the show — Patti D’Arbanville, she played Teddy’s wife. So that was pretty blatant. They were both aware that we were stealing not only elements from the firehouse but also from their personal lives and portraying it on screen. I don’t think the other guy was really aware all the time that I was using him. They were much more concerned with the reality of the portrayal of firefighters coming through — the technical reality of the fires and the general emotional reality of the thing.

Q. Tommy is haunted literally and figuratively by the people he couldn’t save. Is that meant to reflect the psyche of the firefighter, or is there something deeper you’re trying to get at?

A. No that’s really it: It’s survivor’s guilt in its truest form.

Q. With the end in sight, is the show beginning to wrap up the characters’ stories?

A. The story of the last two seasons is: Do they have enough to keep at it? Especially in Tommy’s case — he’s old enough that he can take the money and run, and the 10th anniversary becomes that opportunity. You’ve done it, you’re still alive. Take the pension, go home and spend the rest of your life with your family. There’s no shame in it. It’s just that you’re letting go of the life, and it’s almost like being a gangster or a retired ballplayer. You’re going to be seeing it on the news, but it will be from a distance. You lose the clubhouse atmosphere and you lose the adrenaline.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. I love doing television and have loved doing this series — I would not hesitate, if I had the right idea, to do it again. Actually, I’m praying for “Ice Age” 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. Because I really think we can run those characters into the ’60s, and I’m talking the 1960s, you know? The civil rights movement. That’s what I’m praying for, because then I wouldn’t have to do anything else.


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