'Rescue Me': Big buzz nets some big stars

Susan Sarandon and Marissa Tomei guest-star in the acidic and dead-on Denis Leary show, returning tonight.

Published May 30, 2006

He knows it makes him sound like some kind of wussy fan boy.

But when talk turns to the upcoming third season of his hit drama, Rescue Me, comic Denis Leary can't stop complimenting the two women who fill high-profile guest roles this year, Oscar winners Marissa Tomei and Susan Sarandon.

"I look at them on the set (and think), are they really on our show?" said Leary, speaking to reporters on a conference call last week. "You're writing scenes thinking 'This is going to be Susan Sarandon saying this stuff.' ''

Reached at her New York City apartment Thursday, Sarandon says she took a brief guest role on Leary's dramedy about dysfunctional firefighters for the oldest of Hollywood reasons: repaying a favor to the star, who helped her with a hockey-based charity benefit.

But it doesn't hurt that Sarandon also likes the show, which she sees as a saucy, raucous comedy filled with edgy truths about male/female relationships.

"I love things that are really funny and all of a sudden moving . . . and most of the women on the show seem to know so much more than all the guys," she said. "I just thought it was a riot."

But will fans of her earnest performances in message films such as Dead Man Walking accept her playing a boytoy-seeking art dealer who seduces Gavin's co-worker and friend, unrepentant womanizer Franco Rivera (Daniel Sunjata)?

She's also sharing scenes with Leary's Tommy Gavin, a bed-hopping reprobate firefighter who winds up sleeping with the 38-year-old teacher who is also bedding his ex-girlfriend's teenage son. (Tomei plays the ex-wife of Tommy's cop brother Johnny. )"I'm probably going to catch hell for saying this, but I find Tommy Gavin amusing," said Sarandon, whose resume also includes subversive comedies such as Bob Roberts and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "He recognizes that he's a jerk and somehow, that redeems him. If he was constantly trying to justify things, then you would really hate him."

There may be no better way to sum up the subversive spirit of Leary's hit FX show, a dramedy about New York firefighters centered on Gavin - a selfish, alcoholic, manipulative, drug addicted member of the FDNY who is awful at everything but his job.

"A lot of guys on the job, they'll tell you - 'We're not normal people,' " said Leary, whose longtime friendships with firefighters killed in a devastating 1999 fire in his hometown of Worcester, Mass., have become the stuff of showbiz legend. "They see them out in public or at events and they think they're these brave, heroic guys, and they don't realize they're looking at somebody who, just by the nature of what they do . . . may walk among us, but they're certainly nothing like us."

No character embodies that attitude better than Gavin, a senior firefighter who opens the show's third season trying to cope with the death of his only son Connor under his watch. At the close of last season, Gavin had cooked up a scheme with his Uncle Teddy (The Job's Lenny Clarke) to kill the drunken driver who killed Connor; a last-minute spasm of conscience from Leary's character came too late, and Teddy shot the guy to death in a train station.

This year, Gavin's ex-wife blames him for the death of their son, while his ex-girlfriend Sheila (Callie Thorne) - the wife of a firefighter cousin killed in the 9/11 attacks - can't accept that their relationship is over. At the fire house, his gregarious Lt. Kenny "Lou" Shea (Jack Scurti) is drinking himself into a stupor each night to cope with losing his life savings to a con artist porn star. Meanwhile, station Chief Jerry Reilly (Jack McGee) is begging his worst enemies for cash to keep his Alzheimer's-affected wife in a nursing home she loves.

Oh, and everybody in the fire house is trying to quit smoking on a bet.

Rescue Me rides a razor-thin line between pathos and comedy, exposing characters whose heroism comes not from rushing into burning buildings, but from crawling through the wreckage of everyday life.

Sarandon's favorite scene: a confrontation with Gavin in which she points out how much he resembles his ex-father-in-law - another lying, manipulative alcoholic. "I talk about how little girls marry guys like their fathers, because they are the first men they ever come to love," Sarandon said, speaking by phone from her apartment in New York City.

"Every film is political - people only notice the ones which challenge the status quo - and what I like about Rescue Me is that it mixes everything up with a range of characters and actors," she added. "I'm sure (the show) offends people, but you're never really doing something if you don't offend someone."

To spend time talking with Leary and co-creator Peter Tolan about the show, is to get a crash course on firefighters, their native Boston area (an operator who dares to mispronounce the comic's Worcester hometown - it's WOO-ster thank you very much - brings a deluge of acid laughter) and the delicate balance of comedy and drama which powers every episode.

That kind of subversive vision has become a hallmark of Leary and Tolan (The Larry Sanders Show, Murphy Brown). Their first collaboration, ABC's cop show The Job, mined similar extremes of decadence and comedy, only to get the hook from an indifferent network despite loads of critical acclaim.

For Rescue Me, the pair landed at FX, which had already made a name with edgy dramas such as The Shield and Nip/Tuck. Reinventing traditional TV formats the way HBO used to, FX turned Tolan and Leary loose with strict instructions to make the show they wanted - including the program's most difficult moment, the death of Connor.

"I took my kids to see U2 in concert and I was getting grabbed by these famous people saying 'I can't believe you killed the kid,' " Leary said. "They're looking at me like I'm Tommy Gavin . . .They didn't realize how viscerally involved with the show they were. It made me feel like we were on the right track."

Now Tolan and Leary are juggling a tangled mass of characters stuck to each other by habit and circumstance. There is the firefighter carrying on a secret affair with Gavin's crazy sister (played by another Oscar winner, Tatum O'Neal). And there is the beginning firefighter who can't quite figure out his sexuality.

"I come from a giant Irish family . . . I think the word dysfunctional was probably derived from Gaelic . . . where everybody went to the same Catholic school for 12 years," Leary said.

"It's like that old Irish saying: It's more fun to go to an Irish wake than an Irish wedding," he added. "And who do you meet at an Irish wake (but) the cousins, kids from high school and the girl from across the street? That's stuff that's really rich, both comedically and dramatically."

At a Glance: Rescue Me's third season debuts Tuesday night at 10 on FX.

Grade: A+.

Rating: TV-MA Mature Audiences.

Times Media Critic Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media.