Real life and illusion converge in this summer’s action blockbuster Back-draft, an arson epic that peers into the very souls of Chicago firefighters. To make the fire scenes authentic, director Ron Howard had his stars Kurt Russell, William Baldwin and Scott Glenn train alongside real Chicago firemen for three weeks and hired firefighters Cedric Young, Richar Lexsee and Kevin Casey to play small roles. “If they had egos, I missed them,” says Casey of the actors. “We were just guys talking about sports, women, our kids—all the things firemen talk about. “And in front of the cameras, Young recalls, “these guys were really game players. They met their challenge, and they wanted to go to the limit.” Here are the stories of three men who take it to the limit every day.
The shining pipeman
For Richar Lexsee, 37, fire fighting started as a day job to supplement the dry spells of a fledgling acting career that began while he was a student at Chicago’s Kennedy-King Junior College. (He earned a certificate in 1975.) He was soon acting in plays and building up the usual young actor’s résumé: selling women’s shoes and men’s clothing, distributing newspapers, doing night security jobs and hospital laundry work. Finally his stepbrother and friends in the department convinced him to try fire fighting.
“At first I said, ‘I’m not going into anyone’s burning building,’ ” Lexsee recalls. But that idea changed, and a month after he joined up in 1988 his South Side company was called to a fire in a two-story frame house. “When we got there it was glowing,” he remembers. “It was night but it looked like the sun was shining.” And when he approached the back of the house, the door crumbled like tissue paper. Then the officer handed him “the pipe,” firemanspeak for the hose nozzle. “I took it and the blue stuff started hitting the red stuff and I was winning,” he says.
Off duty, Lexsee spends time with daughter Tanika, 18, and girlfriend Yvonne Reed. And at the firehouse during downtime, of which there can be an abundance, he lifts weights, plays basketball, pool and horseshoes, watches TV or just shoots the breeze. “The people you work with become your best friends,” says Lexsee.
The best part of working on Back-draft, he says, was that “it was like going to drama school every day,” learning from Howard and watching Russell, Robert De Niro, Baldwin and Glenn. But he might think twice before permanently trading in his helmet for a flambé at Spago. “Once I became a fireman, I found I like saving someone’s house or helping someone down the stairs,” he says. “I like being able to shine.”
A life after football
Growing up in a housing project, Cedric Young, 41, was a Chicago Vocational High School football star. He set his sights mi the pros until a knee injury diverted him to acting, which became an outlet for his political views. By day he earned a living working in steel mills. By night he played the Chicago folk and blues clubs as part of the improvisation group the Rapid Transit Guerrilla Theater.
Young took time off from his studies toward a B.A. in communications and theater from the University of Illinois—Chicago to train at the Robert J. Quinn Fire Academy. “I didn’t want a 9-to-5 job, and I was still too much of a revolutionary to become a cop,” he recalls. Plus, Chicago firefighters get two days off for every 24 hours they work, leaving him time for casting calls and to be with his wife, Mary, and their son, Malik, now 17.
Now a candidate for promotion to lieutenant, Young has appeared in a string of TV commercials and industrial films and had a small part in Big Shots, a 1987 film starring Paul Winfield. Yet his agents didn’t see that he was made to order for Backdraft. “I had to keep reminding them I wasn’t just an actor—that I had been a fireman for 12 years,” he recalls.
Once on the set, he was surprised at how unaffected the stars were. Between scenes with De Niro, who plays a fire investigator, the two discussed their teenage sons. “He told me to hang in there and let the kid have some space,” says Young.
Kevin Casey, 39, and his brother Tommy, 37, both members of Chicago’s Engine Company 117, could have been the models for Backdraft’s fictional McCaffrey brothers (played by Russell and Baldwin), except they don’t squabble like their screen counterparts. Kevin, a muscular 6’4″, describes himself as a “thoroughbred Irishman.” He grew up on Chicago’s West Side in a family of seven kids (two other brothers are also in the department) and always wanted to be a fireman like his uncle and the guys who hung around his father’s tavern on Chicago Avenue.
Married to Denise for 16 years, and the father of five kids ages 4 to 11, Casey tries to give equal time to his job and his family. On days off, he coaches his daughters in soccer and his sons in basketball and baseball. To make ends meet, Casey started fashion modeling in 1982 and landed work as an extra in TV commercials and in a stunt scene with Mr. T in the TV movie The Toughest Man in the World.
For him the highlight of his Back-draft role was the bonding that developed with the stars over beers, dinners and Sunday basketball games. Ron Howard’s kids even came over to play with the Casey brood. As for the fireman’s wife, Denise explained to Rebecca DeMornay, who plays Russell’s wife in the movie, that she keeps fears for Kevin’s safety tucked quietly away in the back of her mind. “I think Kevin’s smart enough not to take chances,” she says. As for the rewards of being a fireman, says Casey, “We wait for a disaster to happen, and when it does, everyone is always glad we came.”
CIVIA TAMARKIN in Chicago