Denis Leary sure is protective of his nudie mags. Maybe we should clarify that before his lawyers burn up our phone lines: Dennis Leary's character, Tommy Gavin, the hot-tempered firefighter at the center of the searing FX drama Rescue Me, sure is protective of his nudie mags. The gangly, 49-year-old actor and comedian is sprawled on a threadbare couch, clutching copies of Juggs, Leg Show, and Perfect 10 to his chest and shooting a death stare at anyone who dares to even think about parting him from his porn. It seems Tommy and his crew just learned that FDNY headquarters will confiscate morally questionable materials at their Harlem firehouse. The sense of urgency is palpable: Daniel Sunjata (playboy Franco Rivera) actually slips and falls unscripted while rushing to save his stash. ''This is really sad,'' he laments, surveying the overturned couch cushions and scattered smut in Ladder 62's break room. ''We're like a bunch of Animal House frat boys.''
Some men never grow up even when their lives have been upended by tragedy. When Rescue Me debuted in 2004, it was the first TV series whose characters were directly affected by the events of Sept. 11, 2001: Tommy lost several coworkers, including his cousin and best friend, Jimmy (James McCaffrey). Critics dug its unrepentantly ballsy take on the tragedy, but the show soon morphed into a thoughtful study of tightly knit coworkers who are by turns witty and idiotic, homophobic and metrosexual, womanizing and celibate. About 2.8 million viewers tuned in weekly for its first two seasons, and it's the channel's highest-rated drama among men. The fans apparently include a good chunk of Hollywood's A-list, too: As the show returns for season 3 (May 30 at 10 p.m.), it will boast such unlikely guest stars as Marisa Tomei, Tatum O'Neal, and Susan Sarandon, who'll appear in a four-episode arc as Franco's older lover.
Oscar winners may seem a bit out of place on Rescue Me's rowdy Queens set. On a recent May afternoon, the high jinks are in full swing. Leary, who's also an executive producer, has decreed that the traditional ''Cut!'' be replaced with ''Hangover!'' (a reference to the cast and crew's frequent late-night merrymaking). Sunjata ogles Heather Locklear and Denise Richards, who appear on the cover of a nearby tabloid. (''Ah, Heather,'' he sighs. ''Who would ever betray her?'') Meanwhile, the other players John Scurti (droll Lieutenant Kenny Shea), Michael Lombardi (naive rookie Mike ''Probie'' Siletti), Steven Pasquale (dimwitted Sean Garrity) and Jack McGee (old-school chief Jerry Reilly) chain-smoke Marlboro 100s, talk with their mouths full of Tostitos, and peruse prop issues of Panty Play between takes. ''You're talking about a very specific type of person here,'' says co-creator and executive producer Peter Tolan. ''These guys are all living on the edge. They need an outlet that has that same kind of adrenaline fix...a lot of drinking, a lot of messing up their private lives.''
For Leary, acting out those temptations against the backdrop of 9/11 was no easy task: His cousin and a childhood friend died in 1999 while fighting a fire in his hometown of Worcester, Mass. Shooting Rescue Me can sometimes open old wounds. ''It was very difficult for me,'' says Leary, who soon after established the Leary Firefighters Foundation. ''But [our characters] deal with it the way firemen have to deal with it it's not something they can pay a lot of attention to because they've got to go to work every day.''