Denis Colin Leary was born on August 18, 1957, in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Roman Catholic immigrant parents from County Kerry, Ireland. His mother, Nora (née Sullivan) (b. 1929), was a maid, and his father, John Leary (1924–1985), was an auto mechanic. Being the son of Irish parents, Leary is a citizen of both the United States and Ireland. Through marriage, Leary is a third cousin of talk show host, Conan O'Brien.
He attended Saint Peter's High School (now Saint Peter-Marian High School), in Worcester and graduated from Emerson College, in Boston. At Emerson, he met fellow comic Mario Cantone, whom to this day Leary considers his closest friend. At the school, he founded the Emerson Comedy Workshop, a troupe that continues on-campus today.
After graduating with the Emerson Class of 1981, he took a job at the school teaching comedy writing classes and maintained the job for five years. He received an honorary doctorate and spoke briefly at his alma mater's undergraduate commencement ceremony on May 16, 2005; he is thus credited as Dr. Denis Leary on the cover of his 2009 book, Why We Suck.
Leary began working as a comedian in the Boston comedy scene of the 1980s at the underground club, Play It Again Sam's; however, his first real gig was at the Rascals Comedy Club as part of the TV show, The Rascals Comedy Hour, on October 18, 1990. He wrote and appeared on a local comedy series, The Late, Late Show, hosted by his friend, Lenny Clarke, and written by writer, Martin Olson. Leary and Clarke both spoke about their early affiliations and influences in the Boston comedy scene in the documentary film, When Standup Stood Out (2006), and during this time, he developed his stage persona. He appeared in skits on the MTV game show Remote Control, playing such characters as Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, the brother of co-host Colin Quinn, and artist Andy Warhol.
Leary earned fame when he ranted about R.E.M. in an early 1990s MTV sketch. Several other commercials for MTV quickly followed, in which Leary would rant at high speeds about a variety of topics, playing off the then-popular and growing alternative scene. One of these rants serves as an introduction to the video of "Shamrocks and Shenanigans (Boom Shalock Lock Boom)" by House of Pain. He released two records of his stand-up comedy: No Cure for Cancer (1993) and Lock 'n Load (1997). In late 2004, he released the EP Merry F#%$in' Christmas, which included a mix of new music, previously unreleased recordings, and some tracks from Lock 'n Load.
In 1993, his sardonic song about the stereotypical American male, "Asshole", achieved much notoriety; however, this bit was allegedly stolen from Louis C.K., discussed by Louis on an interview on the Opie and Anthony Show. It was voted #1 in an Australian youth radio poll (the Triple J Hottest 100). The song was used as part of the Holsten Pils series of ads in the UK, in which Leary was participating, with adapted lyrics criticizing a drunk driver. The single was a minor hit there, peaking at No. 58 in the UK Singles Chart in January 1996.
Leary has appeared in more than 40 films, including: The Sandlot as Scott's stepfather Bill, Monument Ave., The Matchmaker, The Ref, Draft Day, Suicide Kings, Dawg, Wag the Dog, Demolition Man, Judgment Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Operation Dumbo Drop. He had a tiny part in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers that was eventually cut. He held the lead role in two television series, The Job and Rescue Me, and he co-created the latter, in which he played Tommy Gavin, a New York City firefighter dealing with alcoholism, family dysfunction and other issues in post-9/11 New York City.
He received Emmy Award nominations in 2006 and 2007 for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Rescue Me, and in 2008 for Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Miniseries Or A Movie for the HBO movie Recount. Leary was offered the role of Dignam in The Departed (2006) but turned it down due to scheduling conflicts with Rescue Me. He provided voices for characters in animated films, such as a fire-breathing dragon named Flame in the series The Agents, a pugnacious ladybug named Francis in A Bug's Life and a prehistoric saber-toothed tiger named Diego in the Ice Age film series. He has produced numerous movies, television shows, and specials through his production company, Apostle; these include Comedy Central's Shorties Watchin' Shorties, the stand-up special Denis Leary's Merry F#$%in' Christmas, and the movie Blow.
As a Boston Red Sox fan, he narrated the official 2004 World Series film (Q Video/MLB Productions, 2004). In 2006, Leary and Lenny Clarke appeared on television during a Red Sox telecast and, upon realizing that Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis is Jewish, delivered a criticism of Mel Gibson's antisemitic comments. As an ice hockey fan, Leary hosted the National Hockey League video NHL's Greatest Goals. In 2003, he was the subject of the Comedy Central Roast of Denis Leary.
Leary did the TV voiceover for MLB 2K8 advertisements, where he used his trademark rant style in baseball terms, and ads for the 2009 Ford F-150 pickup truck. He has also appeared in commercials for Hulu and DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket package. Leary was a producer of the Fox Broadcasting series Canterbury's Law, and wrote and directed its pilot episode. Canterbury's Law aired in the spring of 2008 and was canceled after eight episodes. On September 9, 2008, Leary hosted the sixth annual Fashion Rocks event, which aired on CBS. In December of the year, he appeared in a video on funnyordie.com critiquing a list of some of his "best" films, titled "Denis Leary Remembers Denis Leary Movies". Also in 2008, Leary voiced a guest role as himself on the "Lost Verizon" episode of The Simpsons.
On March 21, 2009, he began the "Rescue Me Comedy Tour" in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The 11-date tour, featuring Rescue Me co-stars Lenny Clarke and Adam Ferrara, was Leary's first stand-up comedy tour in 12 years. The Comedy Central special Douchebags and Donuts, filmed during the tour, debuted on American television on January 16, 2011, with a DVD release on January 18, 2011.
He played Captain George Stacy in the movie The Amazing Spider-Man, released in July 2012. He wrote the American adaptation of Sirens.
He is an Executive Producer of the documentary, Burn, that chronicles the struggles of the Detroit Fire Department. Burn was the winner of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award.
He created a television series for FX, in which he also stars in the lead role, called Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. A 10-episode first season was ordered by FX, which premiered on July 16, 2015. The show was renewed for a second season, which was broadcast in the summer of 2016, and was canceled after the broadcast of the second season. Leary has been the narrator for NESN's documentary show about the Boston Bruins Behind The B since the show began in 2013.
Leary has been married to author Ann Lembeck Leary since 1989. They met when he was her instructor in an English class at Emerson College. They have two children, son John Joseph "Jack" (born 1990) and daughter Devin (born 1992). Ann Leary published a memoir, An Innocent, a Broad, about the premature birth of their son on an overseas visit to London. She has also written a novel, Outtakes From a Marriage, which was published in 2008. Her second novel, The Good House, was published in 2013.
Leary is an ice hockey fan, and has his own backyard hockey rink at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, with piping installed under the ice surface to help the ice stay frozen. He is a fan of the Boston Bruins and the Boston Red Sox, as well as the Green Bay Packers.
Leary describes himself as a "Jack Kennedy Democrat" with some conservative ideologies, including support for the military. Leary told Glenn Beck, "I was a life-long Democrat, but now at my age, I've come to realize that the Democrats suck, and the Republicans suck, and basically the entire system sucks. But you have to go within the system to find what you want."
Leary has said of his religious beliefs, "I'm a lapsed Catholic in the best sense of the word. You know, I was raised with Irish parents, Irish immigrant parents. My parents, you know, prayed all the time, took us to Mass. And my father would sometimes swear in Gaelic. It doesn't get more religious than that. But, no, after a while, they taught us wrong. I didn't raise my kids with the fear of God. I raised my kids with the sense of, you know, to me, Jesus was this great guy...."
On December 3, 1999, six firefighters from Leary's hometown of Worcester were killed in the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire. Among the dead were Leary's cousin Jerry Lucey and his close childhood friend Lt. Tommy Spencer. In response, the comedian founded the Leary Firefighters Foundation. Since its creation in the year 2000, the foundation has distributed over $2.5 million (USD) to fire departments in the Worcester, Boston, and New York City areas for equipment, training materials, new vehicles, and new facilities. Leary won $125,000 for the foundation on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Leary has close ties with 107.3/WAAF, which in 2000 released the station album Survive This! Part of the proceeds from this album were donated to the Leary Firefighters Foundation.
A separate fund run by Leary's foundation, the Fund for New York's Bravest, has distributed over $2 million to the families of the 343 firemen killed in the September 11 attacks in 2001 in addition to providing funding for necessities such as a new mobile command center, first responder training, and a high-rise simulator for the New York City Fire Department's training campus. As the foundation's president, Leary has been active in all of the fundraising. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Leary donated over a dozen boats to the New Orleans Fire Department to aid in rescue efforts in future disasters. The foundation also rebuilt entire NOLA firehouses.
For many years, Leary had been friends with fellow comedian Bill Hicks. When Leary's comedy album No Cure for Cancer was released, Leary had stolen Hicks's act and material. The friendship ended abruptly as a result. In April 1993, the Austin Comedy News remarked on the similarities of Leary's performance, "Watching Leary is like seeing Hicks from two years ago. He smokes with the same mannerisms. (Hicks recently quit) He sports the same attitude, the same clothes. He touches on almost all of the same themes. Leary even invokes Jim Fixx." When asked about this, Hicks told the magazine, "I have a scoop for you. I stole his [Leary's] act. I camouflaged it with punchlines, and to really throw people off, I did it before he did".
At least three stand-up comedians have gone on the record stating they believe Leary stole Hicks' material, comedic persona and attitude. One similar routine was about the band Judas Priest, during which Hicks says, "I don't think we lost a cancer cure."
During Leary's 2003 Comedy Central Roast, comedian Lenny Clarke, a friend of Leary's, said there was a carton of cigarettes backstage from Bill Hicks with the message, "Wish I had gotten these to you sooner." This joke was cut from the final broadcast.
The feud is also mentioned in Cynthia True's biography American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story:
Leary was in Montreal to host the "Nasty Show," at Club Soda, and Colleen was coordinating the talent so she was standing backstage when she heard Leary doing material that sounded incredibly similar to old Hicks riffs, including his perennial Jim Fixx joke: ("Keith Richards outlived Jim Fixx, the runner and health nut dude. The plot thickens."). When Leary came offstage, Colleen, more stunned than angry, said, "Hey, you know that's Bill Hicks' material! Do you know that's his material?" Leary stood there, stared at her without saying a word and briskly left the dressing room.
According to the book, True said upon hearing a tape of Leary's album No Cure for Cancer, "Bill was furious. All these years, aside from the occasional jibe, he had pretty much shrugged off Leary's lifting. Comedians borrowed, stole stuff and even bought bits from one another. Milton Berle and Robin Williams were famous for it. This was different. Leary had, practically line for line, taken huge chunks of Bill's act and recorded it."
In a 2008 appearance on The Opie and Anthony Show, comedian Louis CK claimed that Leary stole his "I'm an asshole" routine, which was then expanded upon and turned into a hit song by Leary. On a later episode of the same show, Leary challenged this assertion by claiming that he (Leary) co-wrote the song with Chris Phillips.
In his 2008 book Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid, Leary wrote:
There is a huge boom in autism right now because inattentive mothers and competitive dads want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can't compete academically, so they throw money into the happy laps of shrinks... to get back diagnoses that help explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons. I don't [care] what these crackerjack whack jobs tell you — your kid is not autistic. He's just stupid. Or lazy. Or both.
In response to the controversy, Leary stated that the quote was taken out of context and that in that paragraph he had been talking about the trend of unwarranted over-diagnosis of autism, which he attributed to American parents seeking an excuse for behavioral problems and under-performance. Later, he apologized to parents with autistic children whom he had offended.1993: No Cure for Cancer
1997: Lock 'n Load
2004: Merry F#%$in' Christmas
2009: "At the Rehab"
2012: "Kiss My Ass"