When I first went to work in series television — as a writer-producer-star of ABC’s one-camera sitcom “The Job” — I did not expect to enjoy the process as much as I did.
Not the process of working your brain to the bone only to have it first forgotten and then mismarketed and then abruptly canceled. No, I’m talking about the creative process and what I like to call the ever-expanding boundaries of television.
My only experience as a writer and actor had been on stage and in movies. In theater — whether it be a one-man show or a play — you go through the same arc every time you take the trip: the exciting, nerve-wracking first few weeks, followed by the boring and mind-numbing middle months, and then the once-again exciting and also somewhat sentimental last few weeks, as you realize that you won’t be working with this particular cast again.
On top of which, within the confines of the medium, you get to examine the characters only during the two- or three-hour span of the piece itself. Now that may include several years or several days, depending on the material. But you end up spending months hoping to improve upon or discover moments and messages, dance steps and vocal ranges that are a part of the presentation.
In film — both as a screenwriter and actor — you get two or three hours to do the same thing, albeit in even more detail and under a different microscope. But you find yourself once again — five weeks or six months later — having to let go of the characters and, hopefully, the terrific cast you just spent your blood, sweat and tears with.
This gets to be a fairly exhausting proposition because every play, every film is an absolute crapshoot. You may be having the time of your life but if the audience shows up and sits there dumbfounded all that good work and goodwill goes right out the window.
In television, however, I found a completely surprising set of circumstances. My producing and writing partner, Peter Tolan — an Emmy winner for “The Larry Sanders Show” and multiple nominee for several other shows — had told me how lucky you have to be to find a cast that really clicks together. He had also warned me how important it was to have a network that believed in you.
Well, having lucked out and found a terrific group of actors for “The Job” — people who genuinely enjoyed working together and being in each other’s company offscreen as well — I came to realize what a joy it was to write and play these characters.
For the first time in my life, I was able to discover unplumbed parts of the guy I was playing and, as a writer, all the other characters. There seemed to be limitless opportunities.
Until we got shut down, which ended up being just fine. I was in love with television.
Peter and I cursed our losses and hung our heads ever so briefly before signing with FX to do “Rescue Me.” Once again we were lucky to assemble a great cast and go back to working through the deepest darkest corners of these new characters –firemen dealing with the losses of their brethren from Sept. 11, all the while joking and having fun at each other’s expense. Being at a network that not only believes in the show but also has marketing savvy only increases the pleasure.
What I tell every film actor, director and writer who asks me about working in TV is that you’re going to love it. The freedom, the fact that people see the work every single week and the almost bottomless barrel of situations and problems you will be able to examine from episode to episode.
As a matter of fact, if someone called me tomorrow morning and asked me to do a movie and it meant giving up my work in television I’d have a very quick and simple answer: no way.
Unless, of course, the person on the other end of the phone was Scorsese. Or Spielberg. Or Tarentino. Maybe. OK, definitely. But that’s it.
All right, maybe if De Niro was directing again. But that’s definitely the end of the list. Wait … Woody Allen. That’s it. No, no … Ridley Scott. And maybe if Bruckheimer had a really interesting big-budget action thing with like, Robert Duvall or someone like that in it.
And, wait, there’s Clint Eastwood. So I’m still a little bit of a film whore. Then again, aren’t we all?
(Denis Leary is an actor, writer and exec producer on FX’s “Rescue Me.”)