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Actor Michael Zegen of 'Rescue Me' opens up about playing a brain-dead firefighter

September 1, 2010 | 11:00 am

20100104_setup_RM20091215-136 Damien isn't dead.

But it's worse, isn't it?

Whether you loved or hated how "Rescue Me" ended its sixth season Tuesday night, viewers seem to be in agreement over one thing: What happened to Damien was a visceral blow to the viewer's gut, one that is going to take some time getting used to.

And if you think you're having a hard time with it, talk to Michael Zegen, who plays Damien, and can't bear to even watch the episodes.

"It sucks," Zegen said during a phone interview. "It really sucks. When they told me it was going to happen, I didn't know how to react."

Plans to permanently injure Tommy Gavin's godson, the son of Sheila and Jimmy, Tommy's cousin who died on Sept. 11, have been in the works for two years. Originally, the young "probie" would get hurt fighting a fire in the fifth season, but the writers and producers liked Zegen so much they changed their minds and postponed it.

"He's a good actor and we just like Zegen a lot," co-creator and producer Peter Tolan said. "We were like, we can't put the kid in a chair quite yet."

Zegen hoped Tolan and Denis Leary, who plays Tommy and is a writer and executive producer, would change their minds again, but that didn't happen.

"Originally, it was supposed to be a furnace that they were going to drop on me," he said. "Then it turned out to be a table saw."

Either way, for Zegen it was the end of playing a firefighter, and he took it so hard that he won't look at the episodes.

"I was having so much fun playing a firefighter," he said. "First of all, never in a million years did I think I'd be playing a firefighter. I'm a skinny, little guy. I didn't think it was ever going to happen. And it did and I was very happy about it. I was having so much fun, and to take that away and do this new thing I'm doing, it was a bummer. I like playing a firefighter better but this is obviously more challenging."

The producers told Zegen his character is now brain-dead and arranged for him to meet with New York acting coach Terry Knickerbocker.

"I showed him a page of the scene and it just basically said Damien's brain-dead, and he said, 'I don't know what to do with this," Zegen said. "So he asked me a lot of questions: Can he eat? Think? All these types of things we take for granted. And I didn't know the answers. So I went back to Denis and he gave me some answers but, for the most part, it was 'Figure it out and make it your own.' "

Zegen did his own research and watched a "depressing" YouTube video about a young man who was studying abroad and was jumped and thrown off a bridge. The video follows him through his ordeal, and Zegen used that as the foundation for what has happened to Damien.

"I get uneasy watching myself normally and I think if I watch this, it's going to be too depressing for me," Zegen said. "I don't think I can handle it. But I have no regrets. I learned so much being on that set with all those amazing actors on the show. Denis Leary, first and foremost, it's so impressive what he's done with his career. He producers, writes and stars in his own show. He was there every day, regardless of whether he was in the scene or not. They gave me such a huge opportunity and I'm gonna miss it."

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Tolan said the writers never entertained killing Damien because his accident is a catalyst for events that take place in the next and final season. His injury occurred as a result of Lou (John Scurti) insisting on working, despite his doctor's advice to retire because of a heart condition. During a fire, Lou collapses and as the crew struggles to help him, a table saw crushes Damien.

"When you kill him, it’s over," Tolan said.  "What happens to Damien, it helps us because poor, bereft Sheila suddenly has a reason for being. Her baby comes home and she’s going to take care of him and she’s going to make him walk again. It's perverse. On some level, she's energized and alive again because of this.

"Not only that, she can enlist Tommy’s aid," Tolan added. "Which is natural, his sense of guilt is so great, of course, he’s going to be there. And that’s going to put him in direct conflict with what his primary objective is, which is to be a full-time dad to his own kids. So, from a dramatic standpoint, it works great to have him survive but be impaired."

Viewers may also wind up seeing Lou in another light. The fan favorite and the heart of the show, Lou does not seem that affected by what happened to the young firefighter as a result of his selfish actions.

"He does feel a responsibility for that," Tolan said. "That may be trumped by Tommy's sense of responsibility. He was the one who was supposed to convince Damien to leave the fire service."

"Rescue Me" fans have followed Tommy as he's grieved over Sept. 11 and destroyed his life with alcohol. This season, Tommy seemed to finally have sobered up, but his life is as complicated as ever. His reconciliation with wife, Janet, (Andrea Roth), and their children hangs in the balance, threatened by his devotion to Sheila (Callie Thorne) and Damien. The series wrapped production on its final nine episodes in May.

"He's going to try and juggle everything," Tolan said. "But a lot changes in the extended Gavin family unit and it becomes stronger and Tommy realizes he isn't needed as much. It's going to be a change for him, not being the center of all activity and not knowing his role. I think he realizes that the family could survive quite well without him. And he’s got to work a little harder to reinvent himself just the way they all have in the face of this small tragedy to the family."

Next season, the show will jump time and take place near the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11. FX plans to air the series finale near that date too. (Note: Do not read further if you don't want to know more about the final season.)

"There's always been a question of whether a person who has an intimate relationship with a tragedy on the scale of Sept. 11 is going to survive, is going to be one more fatality to that event or not," Tolan said. "And I think, ultimately, we get to a place where Tommy does survive and he's able to embrace living as opposed to so much death and unhappiness and self-medication. He's actually going to embrace life."

As for Damien?

"Well, you're going to see a lot of me in a wheelchair and brain-dead," Zegen said. "That's really all I can say."

Despite that, Zegen says "Rescue Me" fans will feel "content" when the series ends.

"I was worried about that but it works," Zegen said. "It's a great episode. There are sad moments but there are also happy moments. It's just like the rest of the whole series."

-- Maria Elena Fernandez
twitter.com/writerchica

Top photo: Michael Zegen as Damien in "Rescue Me." Credit: Craig Blankenhorn / FX

Bottom photo: Michael Zegen, left, and John Scurti on the set of "Rescue Me." Credit: FX

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