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The Provocateur: Peter Tolan

Peter Tolan, the writer-producer behind FX’s Rescue Me and Fox’s Rake finds the sublime in his conflicted characters.

Amy Dawes
  • Peter Tolan

Anyone mulling the question of what’s ailing the broadcast networks would do well to consult with Peter Tolan.

The well-regarded writer-producer-director (Rescue Me, The Larry Sanders Show) has been hacking his way through the development jungle for the past several years, and he reports that the situation isn’t good.

“The testing process guarantees that nothing interesting will come out the other side,” Tolan declares. “Everything has to be simple-minded and easy to follow. Anything that is controversial or thought-provoking will not succeed. Anything with a character who’s negative or has an outrageous opinion will test poorly.”

His success rate in early stages of the game has been strong — he sold 3 pilots this season alone, generated via an overall deal between Sony Pictures Television and Fedora Entertainment, his company with producing partner Michael Wimer. But none of these projects has made it past network testing, which Tolan describes as “screening them for 30 or 40 people in Las Vegas in a mall.”

Still, Tolan’s sardonic sensibility will return to the airwaves midseason, when Rake — a comedic drama about a gifted but self-destructive defense lawyer played by Greg Kinnear — premieres on Fox.

Tolan didn’t conceive the show — it’s based on an Australian series created by Peter Duncan, who also wrote the pilot and is an executive producer — but he’ll no doubt put his stamp on it as executive producer and showrunner. And his fans will welcome the news that Rake is the kind of show network testing typically stops in its tracks.

Highly touted by Fox during the upfronts, it features Kinnear as Keegan Deane, a debt-ridden, gambling-addicted criminal lawyer whose train wreck of a life is redeemed only by his charm and talent for his work, along with his innate optimism and belief in the justice system. In the pilot, Deane goes to bat for a confessed cannibal — who insists that, while he may have eaten a human being, he’s done nothing wrong.  

The loony tone and edge-of-outrage territory make the material a natural for Tolan. “It’s Tommy Gavin as a lawyer,” says Denis Leary, who co-created and coproduced Rescue Me with Tolan and starred as Gavin, its tortured and flawed firefighter protagonist.

Leary says he deserves some credit for Rake — he happened upon the Australian show while casting another project, and it struck him as so perfect for Tolan that he urged his longtime collaborator to check it out.

Sony already had an American remake in the works with another showrunner, but when that arrangement fell through, the project came to Tolan, who polished the script and produced the pilot, directed by Sam Raimi. And true to form, Tolan says, it tested poorly.

“But [Fox president] Kevin Reilly is doing something that’s pretty rare nowadays,” he says. “He’s saying, ‘The numbers weren’t good, but I like it. Let’s stand behind it.’ There are very few programmers now who will do that.”

Landing Kinnear (Little Miss Sunshine, As Good As It Gets) no doubt boosts the network’s confidence. The likable film star appeared on TV as J.F.K. in the ReelzChannel miniseries The Kennedys (earning a Primetime Emmy nomination) and has had numerous guest shots, such as a recent arc on Modern Family (also a nominated role). But Rake marks his first series lead.

“This character is a cousin to extreme characters like Tommy Gavin or Greg House,” says Tolan, referencing the Fox hit that starred Hugh Laurie as a cranky M.D. “But those guys were both saving lives. It’s a little tougher with a lawyer — that’s why Kinnear is good casting. We can get away with a little more, because he’s going to be so delightful.”

Tolan has been rising to the challenge of unlikely scenarios for decades now, though the source of his talent remains somewhat of a mystery. He didn’t come from an artistic family, nor did he survive rough streets, as his prowess with the East Coast blue-collar dialogue and humor of the Rescue Me firefighters might suggest.

Rather, he grew up middle-class Irish Catholic in Scituate, Massachusetts, a seacoast town an hour south of Boston awash with lobster boats, lighthouses and sandy beaches. Leary refers to it as “the Irish Riviera.”

“It was like growing up in a picture postcard,” Tolan acknowledges, “though that was hard to appreciate at the time because I had no frame of reference.” Once a fishing village, Scituate had evolved into a Boston bedroom community by Tolan’s 1960s childhood. It had good schools, he says, but little in the way of big-city cultural influence. Even so, his classroom antics drove him into the dramatic arts in junior high.

“My teacher said, ‘You think you’re so funny? You’re doing this play,’” Tolan recalls. “I never would have done it myself, but it turned out I liked the attention — and I really liked the laughs.”

He stayed with theater in high school and college, where, he says, he was “a lousy student but industrious.” At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he plunged into comedy writing, devising sketches and lyrics for musical revues that lampooned campus life.

They went over so well that he neglected his studies and flunked out — but panic was averted when Dudley Riggs, founder of Brave New Workshop, a respected comedy improv theater in Minneapolis, promised to set him up with a job after a theater contact sang his praises.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is incredible! I love the real world!’” Tolan says. Reality set in after he arrived in Minneapolis. Riggs seemed to barely remember him and gave him a broom to push. “I was the janitor at the theater — that was the job,” Tolan recounts. “After a few weeks, I decided it was bullshit.”

Feeling defeated, he moved on to a job in a bank, but it turned out he’d made an impression at the theater. Tolan was called back to become music director of its touring company, and he enrolled in improv classes. His wit was quickly recognized, and he soon became a main-stage actor. He also wrote plays and musicals, which Riggs produced, and eventually moved to New York City.

There, he performed as half of the comedy duo Wallem & Tolan, doing sketches and music in clubs and Off-Broadway. (His partner, Linda Wallem, would go on to her own TV career, producing series such as Showtime’s Nurse Jackie.)

By the late ‘80s, Tolan felt his career was stalling. “Nothing was really coming of it all, and I was broke,” he remembers. Television was a medium he’d never considered, but stuck in a small apartment in Brooklyn, he began to watch the comedy Murphy Brown alongside his then-wife.

“I noticed how witty it was, and I thought, ‘If I was going to write for a show, I’d write for that.’” He turned out a spec script that — remarkably — led to a job offer as staff writer from Murphy creator Diane English. His sojourn on the iconic sitcom lasted from 1990 to ‘93, during which time he wrote 11 episodes and worked alongside talents such as Michael Patrick King.

When the show won its 2nd Primetime Emmy as outstanding comedy series in 1992, Tolan, as coproducer, was among those honored. But he was chafing at what felt like a sitcom straitjacket. “You gotta keep it bubbling — they wanted at least 2 or 3 jokes a page. I started thinking, ‘This is artificial. People don’t talk like this.’”

HBO was then in the infancy of its original series efforts, but Tolan had a friend who was working with comic Garry Shandling to mount a satire loosely inspired by Shandling’s experiences guest-hosting The Tonight Show. Tolan landed a freelance gig.

Shandling remembers his first impression when Tolan showed up. “He didn’t look like the offbeat type who would be able to catch what I was interested in doing,” he says. “He had a briefcase and a button-down shirt. But we talked about a story idea for not very long, and Pete handed in a draft that shocked me. I thought, ‘This is the show!’

"Up until then we were still searching for it. We didn’t have to do much tightening — Pete’s writing was fluid and seamless and hilarious.”

Tolan’s script, “The Garden Weasel” — named for a product Sanders doesn’t want to promote — aired as the 1st episode of The Larry Sanders Show in August 1992 (it was retitled “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” when the series was released on DVD).

Tolan would remain with the show through its 6-year run. He and Shandling share a Primetime Emmy for cowriting its final episode, “Flip,” in 1998, and Tolan was nominated on 8 additional occasions for Sanders, as a writer and producer. (He was also nominated 3 times for Rescue Me — for writing, directing and music and lyrics — and another time as a producer of Murphy Brown.)

“He was the most significant writer on the series, the one I leaned on,” Shandling says. “Without him, I don’t know what I would have done.”

“I just hooked into what Garry wanted, and it was revelatory,” Tolan says. “I thought, This is what I’ve been waiting for — this is the world I want to create. It’s more subtle, more adult in tone and storytelling technique. It doesn’t require a joke every few beats. The humor comes from how the characters express themselves, and their point of view.”

Leary, who credits Tolan with teaching him how to write for TV when they 1st collaborated on the ABC cop comedy The Job, describes his friend’s talent this way: “He’s just a very bright guy. You can give him a 1-line idea, and he can immediately expand it into an entire episode, because he sees how everybody around the character would relate to that storyline.”

Though writing gigs and recognition have been abundant for Tolan ever since, his journey has not been without its hurdles. One was getting a handle on his gambling habit (“When you go to the track with Pete, the horses know his name,” Leary half-jokes).

But there were yet more personal truths to face. “I was married, and I was attracted to men,” he explains. Two-and-a-half years ago he came out, 1st to his wife, producer and editor Leslie Tolan, with whom he has a son and daughter (he also has a son from a previous marriage), and then to friends and associates, including Leary and Shandling.

For that, he says, he chose Super Bowl Sunday, “because the irony would be good.” On game day, he fired off some emails that began, “This isn’t a joke” — because, he says, “People who knew me would think that it was.”

He describes the phone message he got back from Leary, doing a dead-on impression: “It’s all good, man. It’s all positive, but what the f--k?”

Leary laughs and adds: “We got into this soulful personal chat, and then he said, ‘I’m feeling better, I’m feeling better. By the way, could you call blah, blah and blah and tell them I’m gay?’ I said, ‘Wait a minute!’ but he hung up on me. So I did it, and those were not short phone calls, believe me.”

Tolan now lives in Santa Monica and drives to the Santa Barbara area every weekend to visit his family. He continues to work with his wife (who was an editor and producer on Larry Sanders, The Job and Rescue Me); she’s a coexecutive producer on Rake.

Fans of Rescue Me will recall the many times the show mined humor from the discomfort of firefighters with homosexuality.

Leary remembers a conversation with Tolan, who had not yet come out, on the last day of shooting in 2010. “He said, ‘I have a couple of regrets.’ I said, ‘Like what?’ He said, ‘We did a lot of gay jokes. I kind of feel bad about that now.’ But he wouldn’t say why.”

“I would wince sometimes,” Tolan says. “But I can also defend it, because it came from the characters — it’s who they are.”

Leary, who created the show after 2 firefighters, his cousin Jerry Lucey and his friend Tommy Spencer, died in a warehouse blaze, thinks that over.

“In the firehouse culture, whatever your personal thing is, they’re gonna bust your balls about it,” he says. “That’s part of the process. But in the end, nobody cares what color you are or what your sexuality is. If you’re a great fireman, they want you on their team. That’s the bottom line. They want someone who hits home runs.”

Just like Peter Tolan.

Originally published in Emmy magazine issue no. 2013-07