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Putting That MTV Guy to Death : Denis Leary still has the bite that cemented his antsy persona, from 'No Cure for Cancer' to his Cindy Crawford ravings. But with 'The Ref,' he's set his sights higher. Is America ready for Denis Leary, movie star?

March 06, 1994|MICHAEL WALKER | Michael Walker is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles

You can smoke in the bar at the Hotel Nikko Beverly Hills, but almost nobody does. Except Denis Leary. That's him, slouching in a black-leather sofa over in the shadows, firing up another cigarette, ordering a platter of shrimp, the guy with the fine Irish features and drunken-altar-boy roll to his shoulders who, in this dim light, looks astonishingly like Bryan Adams.

Leary would hate the comparison. To his way of thinking, high-rotation rock stars like Adams and R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe should be rounded up and euthanized. In "No Cure for Cancer," Leary's breakthrough 1990 one-man show, the writer, actor and comedian seethed: "See that scar on my wrist? Know what that's from? I heard the Bee Gees were getting back together." Smoke and spit flying, Leary added: "We live in a country where John Lennon takes six bullets in the chest and Yoko Ono--who's standing right next to him-- doesn't get one ? Stevie Ray Vaughan is dead and we can't get Jon Bon Jovi into a helicopter? Do we need a two-hour movie about the Doors? No, I can sum it up in five seconds: I'm drunk, I'm nobody; I'm drunk, I'm famous; I'm drunk, I'm dead."

"No Cure for Cancer," which Leary assembled while marooned in England after his wife, Ann Lembeck, went into premature labor there, created a sensation Off Broadway in 1991. The show spawned a book, a cable-TV special, an album for A&M Records and, indirectly, a series of 60-second spots for MTV in which Leary smoked, paced and raved about everything from Rodney G. King to Cindy Crawford.

Now, almost inevitably, the 36-year-old Leary, thwarted hockey player, former acting teacher, part-time house painter and reluctant stand-up comedian, the son of blue-collar Irish-American parents from Worcester, Mass., wants to establish himself in mainstream movies. It's a career path strewn--literally--with the bodies of comedian-cum-actors who went before him. For every Chevy Chase and Robin Williams, there's a John Belushi or a Sam Kinison--fire-breathing comics in Leary's mold suffocated by Hollywood's commercial expectations. Even Eric Bogosian and Spalding Gray, theatrically grounded performance artists like Leary whose effortless irony and intelligence he approaches, have yet to make films that match the magnetism of their stage personae.

Leary, nevertheless, is trying, even if his film resume thus far is almost direct-to-video. He co-starred with Emilio Estevez in "Judgment Night," turned up in "The Sandlot" and "Demolition Man" and, earlier this year, in "Gunmen," a movie his publicists won't even list on his credits.

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Now comes "The Ref," Leary's first starring vehicle, with its first-class cast (Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey), big-time executive producers (Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson) and big-time expectations. With no bankable stars and a freshman director (Leary's close friend, Ted Demme, who directed the MTV spots), the movie, which opens Wednesday, rests squarely on Leary's shoulders.

Playing a cat burglar who takes hostage a bickering couple (Davis and Spacey), Leary delivers a variation on his suffer-no-fools MTV persona much the way Robin Williams riffed his way through "Good Morning, Vietnam." Although the role plays to Leary's comic strengths, it also brings him to the brink of type-casting. "The Ref" could be his breakthrough but it could also be a trap, and Leary knows it.

"Having come from outside of films and wanting to get in, and knowing that that (MTV guy) image existed, I was concerned, because I didn't want to get stuck with it," he explains in his raspy Boston brogue, cigarette smoldering in the ashtray. "I also understand the reason you get cast in something is that they want what they've seen. Strangely enough, ('Ref' screenwriter) Richard LaGravenese was a guy I went to Emerson College (in Boston) with back in '78 and never heard from again. He had written the script without thinking about me at all, but there was an element to the character that was recognizable as what people consider the MTV guy, which is why, quite frankly, they made the movie."

Theoretically, "The Ref" is the bridge that will take Leary, who appeared in productions at the Boston Shakespeare Company after graduating from Emerson in 1979, to meatier, more serious roles. Leary cites Steve Martin, who deftly jettisoned his arrow-through-the-head "wild and crazy guy" and eventually became accepted as a credible actor.

"It becomes a matter of your attention span," he continues. "Doing the same character over and over, it gets boring. You end up like LeRoy Neiman. I mean, how many goddamn golf events can you go to and paint?"

"My gut feeling about Denis is, he can act," says Doug Herzog, MTV's senior vice president of programming, who attended Emerson with Leary. "He's obviously a comedian, but at the end of the day, he's an actor."

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