Acclaimed actor, writer, and comedian Denis Leary ’79 was on campus this week to talk to students about his time at Emerson and his career, and to give advice on “making it” in the entertainment industry. The star and co-creator of Rescue Me spoke to about 170 students packed into the Bright Family Screening Room.
Having the most talent, he told them, doesn’t necessarily lead to success. What pays off is persistence and hard work. “You have to really love it to make it,” he said. The difference between those who do and don’t are those who want to be an actor, and those who have to be an actor, he added.
Leary, who didn’t “make it” until he was in his early 30s, said he spent a lot of time living in crummy apartments and without frills, and noted that students who really want to be in the entertainment industry have to be willing to make those kinds of sacrifices.
He also advised students who want to work in the entertainment industry to get to New York or Los Angeles as soon as they can to start developing their networks, but to go to those places prepared. “If you’re a band, you don’t want to go to New York with one song,” he said. “I had a 45-minute [standup comedy] act before I went.”
Leary didn’t always envision himself as a comedian, though. When he came to Emerson, he said he was “strictly a theater actor,” but ended up organizing a new group called the Emerson Comedy Workshop with other students who wanted to create original productions. He credits the late James Randall, a writing teacher at Emerson, with helping them establish the group and get course credits for it, and for teaching them about the writing process.
“Jim Randall taught us that actors can also be writers,” said Leary. “Actors all have peaks and valleys in their careers,” and having versatile skills, such as being able to write or produce can help during the “valleys.”
Leary doesn’t appear to have hit any of those valleys lately. He recently concluded the seventh and final season of his hit show Rescue Me, and is currently working on Amazing Spider-man and on several projects with the Ice Age animated series franchise. He also plans to work on new television projects soon.