"You're from Canada?" Denis Leary asks.
"You just want to talk about Mike Fox and Andrea Roth, right? We're like the Canadian actors travelling company."
Leary is being interviewed in New York on the set of his edgy, acclaimed drama "Rescue Me," which returns to Showcase on Sunday night for a fifth season.
The stand-up comedian-turned-actor-turned-author plays bad boy New York firefighter Tommy Gavin, still damaged from the trauma of 9-11. Roth, from Woodstock, Ont., plays Gavin's long-suffering ex-wife Janet. Leary's pal Michael J. Fox guests for five episodes (starting with Sunday's opener) as Janet's new boyfriend, a couch-bound paraplegic who is even crankier than Gavin.
The writers strike bumped new episodes of the series off the air for a year-and-a-half, but this fifth season is coming back with a vengeance, with a larger than usual 22 episode run.
Leary is from Boston, part of a proud Irish-American family. In fact, don't get him started on the Irish.
"Our president is part Irish," he says of Barack Obama. "Robert De Niro is really Irish and so is Marlon Brando. Muhammad Ali has Irish blood - I can prove all this stuff."
Leary is also a big Boston Bruins fan, and plays hockey with various members of the cast and crew every Thursday morning at a nearby rink in Queens, N.Y. NHL legend Phil Esposito, as well as Leary's friend and ex-Bruin Cam Neely, have both been featured on the series.
Two weeks ago, on the last shooting day of the season, Leary walked into the interview sporting a vintage Winnipeg Jets hoodie, part of a collection of NHL gear his character frequently wears on the series. He tosses his pack of Marlboro Lights onto the coffee table and talks about how Fox came to be part of the "Rescue Me" mix.
"I have old photos - I blackmailed him," kids Leary.
Actually, it was Leary's producing and writing partner, Peter Tolan, who suggested Fox for the part. Both Leary and Tolan had been hoping to work the Canadian-born actor, now busy with his Parkinson's Foundation, into the drama.
"He's an incredibly wealthy man because of "Spin City" and his giant film career and his bestselling book - he's got another one coming out - so he doesn't need any of this," says Leary.
"But I knew Michael well enough that if it was something interesting, he'd consider it."
Playing an even bigger jerk than Gavin seemed to appeal to Fox
"He's terrific, he's really good," says Leary.
Another major storyline this season returns the show to its 9-11 roots. An attractive French journalist stops by the firehouse to interview Gavin and his compatriots for an upcoming, 10th anniversary coffee table book about the World Trade Center attacks. This sparks strong feelings of outrage and remorse among the combative crew, as it does in real firehouses throughout the city, says Leary.
One of the "Rescue Me" firefighters - resident stud Franco, played by Daniel Sunjata - raises hackles when he declares his belief that 9-11 was an inside job. The idea came from Sunjata's own convictions. (Leary says he and the other writers on the series follow the actor's leads as often as they can.)
"Daniel actually believes in it so it's kind of a perfect storm for us to give his character that element," he says.
Franco's position leads to confrontation in the firehouse, just as it did among real firefighters who work as consultants on the set.
"There were a lot of people who were there who took offence," says Leary, who has based his show on a real New York fire crew that was involved in the World Trade Center rescue efforts.
"They lived through it and so when they hear an actor on the set spouting off it's not like they're going to punch Danny Sunjata in the face but they walked over and said, 'Dude, I was there, what you're talking about is ridiculous."'
It all makes for good drama, which Leary lives for on the show. The anger and the confrontation "just makes me want to write about it," he says.
Leary, 51, who acts, produces and writes on the series, says the push to complete 22 episodes left him with little time to work on other projects.
He did manage to release a bestselling book late last year: "Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid."
He can also be heard reprising his role as Diego in the upcoming animated feature "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs." And he's already received an order from the U.S. cable channel FX for a sixth season of "Rescue Me."
Leary sees Tommy's life, long marred by cheating and boozing, spiralling toward some sort of resolution at that point.
"He can't let go and he can't commit," says Leary. "It is one of the quandaries of the character."
As for how it all ends, he's leaving that up to the two real firefighters who inspired the character. A lot of the plot lines happening at the end of this season and the beginning of the next come from the real lives of these two men.
"They both know it now," says Leary. "One knew it the whole time and one didn't used to know it. So they know now that when they tell me something from their personal life, I have to use it on the show.
"'Don't do that - my girlfriend's going to kill me!"' he says, imitating the firefighter.
"'So don't tell me!"' he answers back. "You can't make stuff up as good as the stuff you find out."
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.
While in New York, he was a guest of Showcase.
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