Due to Denis Leary’s decision to use vulgar language in this interview, the Star Tribune, which continues to care deeply about the moral sensibilities of each and every reader, has opted to replace a few choice words with more G-rated fare.
Denis Leary knows how to watch his words. He kept it clean as a reformed saber-tooth tiger in the animated hit “Ice Age,” shined in Disney’s “Operation Dumbo Drop” without dropping a single F-bomb and reportedly got through an entire Saturday afternoon in 2006 without using one curse word.
So would the veteran promote his latest series, “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” in family-friendly fashion?
No freakin’ way.
“There’s 1,700 shows on television, and now there’s 1,700 and *flipping one. OK?” said Leary, trapped in a hotel ballroom with journalists, separated from his beloved cigarettes. “Please, let’s not get into us talking about our characters and all that stupid *trivial matter every *good-intentioned actor talks about. Let’s try to steer away from that and just have a good time.”
No problem. Too many comics rely on obscenities the way amateur French chefs do butter, eventually smothering any sign of zest and freshness. But Leary takes such casual glee in talking like a longshoreman (albeit one who reads Dostoevski on his lunch break) that you can’t help but be amused, starting with his early ’90s no-holds-barred stand-up routine, “No Cure for Cancer,” and culminating in the FX dramedy “Rescue Me,” the woefully underrated series he co-created with Dudley Riggs veteran Peter Tolan. It ripped the bandage off the wound suffered by Americans on Sept. 11, viewing the tragedy’s aftermath through the eyes of jaded New York City firefighters too wrapped up in their own macho ways to confront their feelings honestly.
In “Sex & Drugs,” Leary takes another iconic profession — rock star — and explores what life is like after a taste of sold-out shows, groupies and lots of cocaine.
The drugs remain; the rest of it doesn’t.
Leary, who wrote much of the series as well as the Ramones-inspired songs, plays Johnny Rock, a washed-up artist living so deep in the short-lived success from his foggy past that he still sports a Ziggy Stardust haircut and dismisses anyone with half a chance to make the current cover of Rolling Stone.
“Every time I hear one of Radiohead’s songs, I feel like I’m failing the SATs all over again,” Rock says.
Rock is about to be let go by his manager when his long-lost daughter Gigi (former Nickelodeon actress Elizabeth Gillies) appears with $200,000, a killer voice and the desire to have Dad and his estranged songwriting partner, Flash, transform her into a pop star.
The story line runs about as deep as a Justin Bieber lyric (an episode in which his bandmates try to stage an intervention has less dramatic tension than “The Partridge Family”), but Leary nails the desperation of a somewhat talented musician who enjoyed a flicker of fame — and will do almost anything to start a bonfire, including manipulating his desperate daughter and faking his own death for the publicity.
Leary was inspired by friends he made while attending Boston’s Emerson College and living in New York, both hotbeds in the ’80s for flash-in-the-pan rockers.
“There were guys who I stayed friends with that kept the same New Wave haircuts because they were still working college gigs, blaming the world and not themselves for failing. I thought that was really interesting,” said Leary, 58, who had the idea for the series back when he was finishing “Rescue Me.”
He took a three-year hiatus from appearing on TV to do other projects, including the “Spider-Man” franchise.
“Then there was this idea of a band being a family, right? The parents are usually the lead singer and the lead guitar player because they usually write the songs. If they break up, what happens to the *unfortunate rest of them? Who is going to see the *absolutely tremendous Stones without Mick and Keith, right? So I thought that was an interesting dynamic.”
The series, which features cameos from Dave Grohl and Joan Jett, may not resonate with younger viewers (they are somewhat represented by 25-year-old Gigi, who knows Paul Newman more from his spaghetti sauce than from his movie “The Hustler”), but anyone who has missed Leary’s very grown-up, very acerbic sense of humor will be drawn to this gig.
“I don’t know if I would have said yes to this if I hadn’t met Denis, because the guy you think you know is not the cigarette-smoking, abrasive guy who doesn’t stop talking,” said “Sex and the City” heartthrob John Corbett, who plays Flash. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to hang out with him 15 hours a day.
“But the guy I’ve gotten to know is very quiet. He’s sweet. He’s humble. He listens.”
Except when he’s talking about his new character’s unbridled ego, one that has more than a passing resemblance to his cocky public persona.
“Everybody thinks that when you write a song, it’s the greatest *enormously satisfying thing in the world,” Leary said. “But a lot of times, you come up with a bad song idea and think it’s the biggest piece of *watermelon that’s ever been done. So we can get into that. I hope we pull it off.”