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Billy Devlin carried away in ‘Flood’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

Comedian Denis Leary and actor and now writer Billy Devlin met on ice, years ago in casual hockey games around New York, and then, later on, as participants and sometimes teammates in a Los Angeles celebrity league run by film producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

"Billy and I played hockey," Leary said in a telephone interview recently. "First we played against each other, and then we had a fight, and our animosity turned to friendship in the time-honored Irish way."

Devlin’s version of the story, recalled after the first New York preview performance of "Seamus Flood," the solo show he wrote and which he’s currently performing at Studio L, the subterranean auditorium beneath Raw Space at 529 West 42nd St., is fundamentally the same, but with a twist. "I knew who he was," the handsome, craggy-featured, 33-year-old Long Island native said, "but I didn’t really know him. One night he just came at me, so I put up my stick and knocked him on his can."

Now Leary, along with his partners, Jim Serpico and Tom Sellitti, is the producer of Devlin’s show, whose run was recently extended through Oct. 4.

Devlin, who finished high school in Wantagh, L.I., where his family still lives, and then worked at a variety of jobs locally before moving to Los Angeles seven years ago, embarking on the rougher edges of a career in the movies, as a stunt man, extra and, eventually, bit part actor, mainly in film produced by Bruckheimer, such as "Crimson Tide," "Con Air," and "The Rock."

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The most I ever got to say was something like, "They went that way," Devlin recalled. "I usually get blown up and I never get the girl."

Among the influences on Devlin when he started writing were, in addition to Denis Leary, actor George Dzundza and Colin Quinn, whose own one-man show, "An Irish Wake," is currently on display on Broadway. "Colin and I told Billy not to take a class or anything," Leary recalled. " ‘Just sit down and write it’ is what we told him."

That sort of advice might not work with a lot of people, but it took hold with Billy Devlin. He had come from an intact family of six, four of whom are female. "I have an older brother," Devlin said, "and then I came along and then four girls."

"Seamus Flood" isn’t actually based on the Devlin Family, but even if it had been, audiences would never find Billy playing one of his sisters, let alone all four of them.

"Colin Quinn plays a woman in part of his show. He picks up a purse and becomes Margaret," he said, "but I’d never do that, because people would just say, ‘Oh, there’s Billy in a dress.’ "

What Devlin does play is a string of six brothers, only one of whom has anything very much in common with him. The character with whom Billy Devlin does share at least a good deal of working experience is Tommy Flood, who works the door of a trendy club, standing alongside the velvet rope, determining who is to be admitted and which hopefuls will be met with rejection and turned back to face the night elsewhere.

"I worked at some of the craziest places on both coasts, for parts of something like seven years, " Devlin said. "In New York I worked at Peggy Sue’s and the Living Room, Live Bait, and Trinity and Tattoo and the Gate in L.A.

The real Seamus Flood

Devlin knows precisely when and where "Seamus Flood" took root. "I was in a movie called ‘Crimson Tide’ playing one of the ship’s officers, the navigator, and since I knew I’d have time on my hands, I brought my computer along, and I started to write," he said. "I’d always wanted to write something almost like a love letter to the kind of Irish-Americans that my parents are, the kind of people who go to work every day, take care of their family, and just do the best they can just living by the rules."

He also knows who Seamus Flood is. "He’s an amalgam of my father, my mother," he said, "and even my grandmother and my grandfather. My father is a big, bear-like man, but one of the gentlest people you could ever meet, and smart."

Devlin showed a draft of what he’d written to character actor Dzundza, who was also in the "Crimson Tide" cast. "He told me he wanted to help me with it," the actor remembers, "and he thought we ought to workshop it, as a work-in-progress, which is what we did. We did it for six weeks at the Raven Theatre, a little 47-seat house in North Hollywood, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, three nights a week. Somewhere along the way, I realized it might have real value. Basically, I’d wanted to draw a portrait of this kind of man raising his sons, because I wanted to say that there were lives like this, positive lives. I wanted to do something that said, ‘Hey, it’s OK for a man to say that he really loves the people who raised him, people who love their kids and have a role in the real world.’"

When Dzundza’s filming schedule became too complicated to allow him to continue working with Devlin as much as he wanted to, Denis Leary stepped in.

"I had come back to New York," the 41-year-old Leary said, "and I thought Billy’s show should be seen here. So we did it twice downtown, in places that were really like closets, places with a table and a chair, maybe two tables, if we were lucky. But it worked."

Six weeks ago, Shira Pivan, a Chicago-based writer and actress, joined the "Seamus Flood" team as director of the New York production. "We did it for her to see what she’d have to say about it,’ Devlin said, "and to see what she might be able to bring to it."

Some people, seeing the show, expect the titular character to make an appearance before the end of the evening. In fact, Billy Devlin considered building the father figure into the text, and then thought better of it.

"I might be able to play a 20-year-old kid," he said, "and I know I can play a guy of 35 or 40, but I can’t see myself playing a 64-year-old Irishman from County Monaghan with six sons to raise. I just couldn’t see myself pulling that off."

Why County Monaghan? "Because my grandfather, Peter Callan, who died a month ago, came from there," Devlin said. "In a way, he’s really a big part of the character of Seamus Flood."

Of all the people who have helped him along the way, Billy Devlin holds Colin Quinn in special regard. "He’s a role model to me," he said. "He was the impetus for my doing this. He said to me, ‘You have to be a writer. The best fighters in this world get in the ring and hit with two hands. You won’t believe what being able to write will do for your acting career.’"

Devlin knows full well that he may be standing on the edge of a life-changing and career-altering experience. "Maybe in the future," he said, "I’ll be able to go in as a writer or an actor. If something happens out of all of this, well, that’s great."

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