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Focus : No Cure for Leary : MTV'S FAST-TALKIN', CHAIN-SMOKIN' MASTER OF PUT-DOWN SHARPENS HIS ACT FOR SHOWTIME

February 14, 1993|STEVE WEINSTEIN | Steve Weinstein is a frequent contributor to Calendar and TV Times

A year ago he was a struggling New Yorker with an off-Broadway show, making next to nothing. Now, thanks to MTV and Nike, he's rich and famous and, if he doesn't die of emphysema or an aneurysm, he, his Marlboro 100s and rant 'n' rave persona are knocking down the door to a big-time Hollywood career.

Denis Leary--the guy who hung out with Cindy Crawford after filming a bunch of angry monologues railing against censorship, racism and Jon Bon Jovi for MTV, the guy who pitched shoes in commercials with Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders--is hot. His one-man show, "No Cure for Cancer," in which he screams and smokes his way through profanity-laced, blackly ironic diatribes against nonsmokers, vegetarians, Elvis, heavy metal, the Bee Gees, Jesus, God, guys who made marijuana bongs out of oranges, life, death and all the big things, is now a book, an album and a Saturday Showtime comedy special.

"The heat," as he calls his notoriety, also has led the former acting teacher, dockworker and singer in a rock band to film roles in four upcoming movies, including "National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon I" and "Judgment Night." He also just sold two screenplays--one a comedy, one an urban drama about Irish car thieves--that had been attracting dust mites in a drawer for years.

All this thrills the 35-year-old married father of two small children. But the vitriolic Irish-Catholic kid from a tough Boston neighborhood insists that he won't get trapped as his MTV "smoking guy." He will continue to use that character--an extremely hyped-up extension of himself--in a new one-man show he's developing called "Birth, School, Work, Death." But he mostly hopes to move beyond that persona into other kinds of roles.

"I'm very hyper-conscious of how fast it has all happened and making sure I don't get pigeonholed within the context of that image," Leary said. "I'm the kind of guy who will actually quit smoking for no other reason than they think I'm the smoking guy."

During a recent visit to Los Angeles, "the smoking guy," smoked through a barrage of questions about the kind of pop cultural stuff he both savages and adores.

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What's your favorite meal?

A greasy burger, fries, Coke at one of the diners on the Lower East Side.

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Which did you prefer, singing in a band or doing stand-up?

I enjoyed the band, but I never took it seriously. I was just having a blast.

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Which has better groupies, the band thing or comedy?

The band thing, definitely.

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What's your favorite book?

It's a toss-up between "Yaz: The Carl Yastremski Story" and "Oblivion Ha Ha" by James Tate. It's a book of poetry from 1975 or '76 that was so surreal and so funny and twisted and sick. It was about death and disease, and it was the first book I ever read where I said, "Oh, you could actually write stuff like this and get it published."

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Do you buy American?

Yes.

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What's the deal with all these bands covering old ABBA songs?

Hey, another example where I never bought one of their records, but the songs are permanently in my brain. And it shows that if you're putrid, and then you disappear for a long time, you stop being a joke and people go, "You know what, they got a raw deal. Those haircuts and those suits, they weren't really their idea, and 'Dancing Queen' actually had some meaningful lyrics."

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Do you like punk rock?

Yeah, that and new wave saved us in the '70s because everybody's older brother and sister were going to nine-hour Grateful Dead jams, and we're saying isn't there a song recorded that is less than nine minutes long. Rick Wakefield from Yes was putting out a solo album that had 13-minute organ suites. Thank god for the Ramones and all those bands. A long song was like two minutes, and you could dance again and do speed.

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Who's your favorite saint?

St. Peter. That's the high school I went to and he's supposed to be the guy at the gate. He's the guest-list guy, so you just pay him off, give him a couple passes to another show, and you're in.

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Do you like Robert Mitchum?

I love Robert Mitchum. My favorite movie of his is "Man With the Gun." It's a really bad one. The best Mitchum movies are the really terrible ones where he still walks through with that look like, 'I can't believe I'm doing this movie.' And Mitchum cologne. I always thought that was supposed to be a Robert Mitchum thing. It smells like whiskey. You can drink it or put it on your face. It's up to you.

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What were you doing when you heard Elvis died?

My parents had gone to Ireland and my brother and I were assigned to take care of the house. We weren't supposed to have parties, but when we heard Elvis died, we had this huge Elvis Is Dead party that lasted four days. We ended up destroying the house, and it's not like "Risky Business" where you actually get the stuff fixed. Our parents did not let us take care of the house ever again.

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Do you have any tattoos?

No. A couple of big scars, but that's it.

Denis Leary's "No Cure for Cancer" airs on Showtime Saturday at 10 p.m.

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