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How Denis Leary Honored David Bowie on Last Night’s ‘Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll’

Warning: This article contains major plot points from the most recent episode of “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,” “Rebel Rebel.”

At first glance, Thursday’s episode of “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” seemed preoccupied with blithe plotlines involving Johnny Rock (Denis Leary) and his girlfriend, Ava (Elaine Hendrix), engaging in a threesome – and Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies) throwing over boyfriend Flash (John Corbett) for some sexual experimentation with a sultry singer from out of town (Rebecca Naomi Jones).

But underneath the comedic narrative, the episode, titled “Rebel Rebel,” also served as series creator Leary’s homage to the late David Bowie, who died at age 69 earlier this year.

“He’s one of my favorite artists,” Leary told Speakeasy on the set of “SDRR” back in April. “Bowie and the Stones were my bridge until punk rock happened, so he’s always been a huge part of my rock and roll life.”

Before Leary even got into how he was able to work the legendary music artist into his FX show, he reflected on how Bowie’s death came on the heels of the loss of his friend and longtime collaborator, guitarist-composer Adam Roth, who passed away in December 2015 following a battle with cancer. But in an unexpected way, it was Bowie’s video “Lazarus,” released two days before the singer’s death, that provided Leary with an initial sense of healing:

“We were all mortified about what happened with Adam,” said Leary. “And that Friday [Jan. 8], I saw that video by Bowie. I thought it was an amazing video about a guy dying. I called [“SDRR” music-tech advisor] Charley [Roth], Adam’s brother, and his wife, and I said, ‘You guys have got to watch this video,’ because it’s the first time since Adam died that I watched something and I went, like, ‘Oh, my God!’ This made me feel almost like I’m healing a little bit. Like, spiritually, it’s uplifting.

“And then [a couple of days later],” Leary continued. “I wake up and find out that Bowie died, and I went, ‘That’s f—ing crazy.’ That that guy, an artist, could know what was happening to themselves and leave this document afterwards that – by the way – it’s not sappy, it’s not sentimental. How crazy is that video? And powerful!”

Leary’s next challenge was figuring out how to best honor Bowie on “SDRR” without messing with the show’s light, comedic tone. “It was very emotional for me,” he said. “[The writers and I], we said, ‘We gotta pay tribute, but we can’t do something serious because that would just be crazy.”

HIDE CAPTION Denis Leary as Johnny Rock in the 'Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll' episode 'Rebel Rebel' PHOTO: JEFF NEUMANN/FX
Denis Leary as Johnny Rock in the ‘Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll’ episode ‘Rebel Rebel’ PHOTO: JEFF NEUMANN/FX

So other than a couple of fleeting references to Bowie’s passing in the dialogue – and the “Rebel Rebel” title – last night’s Julieanne Smolinski-penned episode kept the Thin White Duke’s presence to a minimum. That is, until the final moments.

After Johnny and Flash found themselves booted out of their respective bedrooms so their girlfriends could engage in some women-only action (Ava with a member of an all-female AC/DC tribute band; Gigi with Jones’s character, Davvy), they bonded over pizza and a David Bowie doc. But what Leary never expected, was that he would be able to make the documentary part of that scene actually happen.

“I wanted to do a thing at the end where we would pay tribute to Bowie by virtue of the fact that this funny stuff was happening – and we were watching this Bowie documentary,” he said. “But I figured, I’m never going to get permission from his family, because it’s not, like, a serious tribute, it’s just me and Flash, who love Bowie, at the end of the show.”

As it turns out, the artist’s family was more than accommodating: “They gave us, like, 20 minutes of footage from back in the ‘Aladdin Sane‘ days, onstage and backstage,” said Leary.

For the record, the clips are not from an actual documentary. They’re BBC-owned footage of Bowie from the 1970s.

The end result was the best of both worlds for Leary: “You have to pay tribute to the guy, but on this show, it’s just gotta be funny.”

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