Lead actor, the un-usual suspects

Denis Leary has been intrigued by firefighters his whole life.

Playing Tommy Gavin of the New York Fire Dept. on FX’s “Rescue Me,” Leary pays his own warped homage to the men and women who risk their lives every day.

“The joke in the fire department is, ‘We’re not normal human beings,’ ” says Leary. “They look at everything through a different set of glasses. And there’s great freedom in walking through real life and not really caring about the B.S. of it.”

The fireman’s ability to tuck away the natural human fears that keep the rest of us out of burning buildings is useful on the job, but problematic for the rest of their lives. “There’s a heroic aspect to them that says, ‘I can go in, and I can do anything that’s required to be done.’ But that dedication often leads to personal trauma, because they repress their feelings and don’t talk about it.”

A favorite moment for the actor last season came when an expert attempts to educate the firemen out of their macho ways, only to be laughed out of the firehouse.

“I had this speech towards the end that I couldn’t get down. Every time I got up there to make the speech, everybody would start laughing as soon as I screwed up. I must have done 35 takes.”

Leary’s Gavin has seen has marriage fall apart, dealt with ghostly visitors (Jesus among them), battled alcoholism and dealt with the loss of a son at the end of last season. “This year he becomes aware of strength in himself that he didn’t know he had,” he says.

The combination of drama and comedy has been a challenge for the longtime standup, who recently provided a voice in “Ice Age: The Meltdown.”

“This is the first role where I’ve had the high comic part going as well as the high dramatic end, sometimes within five minutes of each other,” says the actor, who pens most of the shows with writing partner Peter Tolan. “They’ll tell me, ‘Yeah, tomorrow we’re doing the scene where Tommy has the breakdown.’ And you go, ‘Oh, that’s right — tomorrow’s gonna suck.’ The problem is, I can’t turn around and say to the writers, ‘Stop writing this stuff!’ Peter just says to me, ‘Yeah, well, who are we going to point the finger at, pal? Let’s go.’ “

SOUND BITES

Favorite scene of last season?

The “Sensitivity Training” scene because it was so much fun to shoot, and, because it was based on a real experience of a fire crew I knew, and it’s almost word for word what happened. 

Favorite shows?

“Sopranos” is my favorite drama. I’m a huge fan of Kiefer’s show (“24″), and I’m a huge “Simpsons” fan.  And my son has got me into “Family Guy,” which just makes me fall off the couch laughing.

Underrated actor?

James Gandolfini on “The Sopranos” is magnetic, and Edie Falco as well.  What they did with the first three episodes this year … I just went, “Forget all the awards, they’ve gone.”

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