“My neighbor told me that he had read the script for ‘Rescue Me’ and that there was nothing in it for him, but that there certainly looked like there was something in it for me,” the South Bronx native and Cardinal Hayes High School graduate recalled in a recent telephone interview.
McGee said he immediately phoned his friend, Lenny Clark, who also happens to be a long-time pal of the show’s creator and star, Denis Leary, and who was ultimately cast in the recurring role of uncle to Leary’s character, Tommy Gavin.
“He told me who to call — executive producer Jimmy Serpico and I told him I had been a firefighter in New York City for 10 years. We talked for a minute or two and I told him that I knew (series co-creator) Peter Tolan and was a friend of Lenny Clark and I wanted to make sure he would consider seeing me.”
The raspy-voiced, nice-guy actor with more than 100 film and TV credits on his resume, including “Backdraft,” “The Paper,” “Basic Instinct” and “Seinfeld,” said Serpico was polite, but at first dismissed McGee, telling him he had no clue as to who he was.
“I said, ‘Jimmy, that’s OK, because I don’t know who the hell you are either. But, I tell you this right now: you might be making the biggest decision of your career, unless you see me. In fact, I’m on my way to the airport to go to Hawaii right now. Instead of going to Hawaii, I’m going to come to New York and I’m going to see you.’ That stopped him dead in his tracks,'” McGee recalled.
McGee said Serpico told him to go to Hawaii and just have some taped samples of his acting sent to the producer’s office.
“I told my agent if those reels weren’t in the mail, he was fired and three days later, I booked the job,” he said.
So, what did the FX executives see that convinced them McGee was perfect for the role of hard-boiled veteran Chief Jerry Reilly?
The actor said they watched him play the desk sergeant on “NYPD Blue” and studied his work in the Coen brothers movie, “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”
“I didn’t show them my clip from ‘Showgirls,'” he quipped. “I didn’t think they needed to see that.”
While his character was firmly established as a homophobic, politically incorrect, yet lovable patriarch to the misbehaving firefighters in his house during the show’s first season, McGee now finds himself with even more chances to flex his acting muscled in the sophomore outing of the show lauded by critics for its unique blend of gut-wrenching drama and wicked humor.
“It gives me the opportunity to actually do some acting,” McGee observed, referring to how his character is coping with his wife’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, while also dealing with his disapproval of his gay son’s lifestyle. “A lot of times you make your money as a blue-collar worker, playing a cop or whatever, but this role has some meat to it, some substance. My relationship with my son on the show is developing more and more and I’m pretty excited about that.”
Beloved for his funny, acid-tongued characters, no matter how small the parts, McGee has in the past year achieved a level of fame he has never known before.
“Life has changed a lot,” he confided. “You don’t get the role of a lifetime without some drawbacks and benefits.”
McGee and his wife moved out to Studio City, Calif. about 10 years ago, so he could pursue his acting career. The downside has been homesickness and not seeing his family and friends. “Rescue Me,” which films in the Big Apple, affords him the chance to catch up with everyone now and then.
“It is the role of my career, thus far, and hopefully, it will open more doors,” he said, naming another perk. “I just hope it will lead to more work.”
Another actor who has shot to fame years after starting his career is Albany native James McCaffrey, who plays Jimmy Keefe, the ghost of Tommy’s best friend, who was killed in the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Known for his work on the TV shows, “Viper” and “Swift Justice,” and in the films, “American Splendor” and “She Hate Me,” the handsome Irish-American actor said he loved the idea of being cast as a specter who helps keep alcoholic, womanizing Tommy on the straight and narrow.
“I fought to get the meeting with Denis and Jim Serpico about the character because I had heard about it,” he remembered. “And I had played sort of Denis’ doppelganger on the series, ‘The Job,’ and so with the help of (technical adviser) Terry Quinn and my managers and agents, I got the meeting and I loved the part when I auditioned for it.
“When I got the offer, Denis said to me, ‘You got a little more than you bargained for, didn’t you?'” he continued. “And I thought, ‘Thanks to you, brother, I’ll take what I can get.'”
Describing Jimmy as Tommy’s conscience, best friend and cousin, McCaffrey said it is his character’s duty to keep the bad-boy smoke-eater in check. Fans of the show probably noticed that Jimmy was nowhere to be found when Tommy was at his worst in the first few episodes of Season 2.
“Well, I’m a little angry with him right now because he is sleeping with my wife,” McCaffrey teased, adding that subsequent episodes reveal where Jimmy has been and noting “he will get some comeuppance.”
Although his screen time is minimal, McCaffrey’s character is more complex than many of the other characters on the show. But the actor said he greets the task of having to convey a lot of emotion and wisdom in the few moments he has as an incredible challenge.
“Honestly, it’s the best role I’ve ever had to play and I try to fill out all my characters as extensively as I possibly can. I work at the Actor’s Studio and that’s drilled into your head and soul that you should make the character as rich as possible and I’ve done it in everyone I’ve played and some, in the writing, you have to do more with and some just come easy, like with Denis and Peter Tolan’s writing. The character is already rich and I just bring to it whatever I can and Denis seems to loving everything. “
“Rescue Me” airs Tuesday nights on FX.