Denis Leary on How TV Helped America Heal After 9/11
Denis Leary, producer, writer and actor, is best known for Rescue Me, his darkly comic tribute to New York firefighters that aired on FX from 2004 to 2011. He’s also founder of The Leary Firefighters Foundation, which provides funding to fire departments around the country. So he was the perfect choice to provide the segment introductions for CNN Films Presents 9/11 Fifteen Years Later, an update of the prize-winning documentary detailing the tragic day the World Trade Center towers were destroyed by terrorists. (More than 39 million people watched the first airing on CBS in March 2002.) Here, Leary shares his thoughts about how TV helps heal the nation in times of crisis.
I was a few miles north of the World Trade Center that day, watching ambulances and fire trucks rush down the highway and hundreds of ash-covered people stream uptown. I heard on my truck radio that a plane also crashed into the Pentagon, but it wasn’t until I got back home hours later that I finally saw the images. What we saw with our naked eyes was so emotional, but watching it on television from all angles was even more horrifying and powerful.
Soon after, David Letterman was coming back on air and asked me to do his second show. I knew Dave had the ability to speak to that kind of event. As he was asking me questions about that day and the firefighters, I realized what he was doing for the nation. Everybody watching him was feeling like we were taking baby steps back toward some kind of communication.
Then when Jon Stewart returned with The Daily Show, it really made me feel secure. Everybody needed that relief. The televised benefits for first responders, especially the Concert for New York City, were also valuable. The most powerful thing I remember about that is not all the rock stars but the firefighters who spoke and the images of them and police officers and other rescue workers. Those are examples of why TV is important. Letterman made a big difference to the public’s peace of mind, and I just have so much admiration for Jon, who takes being famous to a level where it has worth.
I saw the first footage of the original 9/11 film at a firehouse with a buddy who was still working at Ground Zero. The producers, Gédéon and Jules Naudet, wanted firefighters to get a sense of the film [before it aired], so they showed us a clip that included that famous shot from street level pointed up where you could see the first plane hit the North Tower. I remember having a very visceral reaction to the power of the images. When I saw the full film, I considered it a historical document just like footage of Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination.
I had the same reaction with this 15th-anniversary edition. Each time the film is updated, it adds another dimension to what was already an extremely mesmerizing piece of filmmaking. It went from being a shocking and gripping film to a living record. Hearing from the mouths of guys who were there as well as the sons who are following their fallen fathers as firefighters gives it a new perspective and adds a lot of emotional layers. I really want my kids to see it.
The narration did something for me personally. Even though I live in the shadow of [One World Trade Center] I have avoided it. For this project, I had to be at the memorial pools, go into the 9/11 Memorial Museum and go to the top of the new building. I had a lot of trepidation, but the museum was so much more peaceful and meaningful than I expected.
When I made Rescue Me, we used firsthand stories from our technical advisers and turned them into pages of our show. We were not only paying respect and honor to the FDNY and those who died in the Towers, but we included the black humor, which is how many of these guys survived that day. The thanks I still get for that show never ceases to amaze me.
I think television is more important than ever to help bring us together and help heal us. The recent terrorism in Europe—you pick any of those events and most of us [experience it] in front of a TV set. We all used to gather around fires and discuss the past and the present or maybe what happened today. Now more than ever that happens around a television set.—As told to Ileane Rudolph
CNN Films Presents 9/11 Fifteen Years Later, Premieres Sunday, Sept. 11, 8/7c, CNN.