Denis Leary takes it to Hollywood -- With ''The Ref,'' can the cantankerous comedian finally retire the pack-a-day pontificator shtick that made him famous?

Hey, Denis Leary! You’ve just gone on MTV and told the world you want to see Cindy Crawford eating an Eskimo Pie on top of the Empire State Building! She thinks you’re cute! MTV thinks you’re a stand-up comic! Nike thinks you’re a perfect pitchman! And Off Broadway thinks you’re a performance artist! What are you going to do now?

I’m going to Disney! Just don’t make me pose with Mickey, okay?

Two years ago, Denis Leary came knockin’, and America let him in. He told us that he would not bond, he would not share, he would not nurture. He told us that the only good thing about the ’80s was that we lost one of the Bee Gees. He told us to stop whining because things don’t turn out the way we want (”Life sucks. Get a helmet”). And America loved every minute. So did MTV, so did Nike, and most of all, so did Hollywood. All of a sudden, he made six movies. All of a sudden, Disney had three words for Denis Leary: THREE-PICTURE DEAL. All of a sudden, with the arrival of the acidic dysfunctional-family comedy The Ref, he wants to be an actor. All of a sudden, he wants to stop his ranting and shed his image while capitalizing on it. But it’s a tall order. Celebrity sucks. Get a helmet.

In 1992, Leary was a 34-year-old struggling performer-writer from Worcester, Mass., living in Manhattan with his wife, freelance writer Ann Lembeck, and wondering how he was going to support his son, Jack, then 2, and his newborn daughter, Devin. ”I had no money,” he recalls. ”When my daughter was born we were in debt and living week to week.” It took 10 auditions for him to win his first movie role, a bad-guy part as an ex-Marine in the throwaway action film Gunmen. Although ”it was increasingly frustrating as the film wore on (that) the character wasn’t getting any more than one dimension deep,” he felt lucky to be working.

Then came those MTV ads, in which Leary, clad in black leather jacket and jeans, stalked amid scorched vacant lots and burning garbage cans, and, with a cigarette drooping from his scowl, preached the gospel of sex, drugs, and Cindy Crawford. Where there was smoke, there was fire — Leary, suddenly a hot media commodity, found himself deluged with movie offers and accepted many of them. He played more bad guys (a gang leader in Judgment Night, about which he says, ”I thought it was gonna be something (other than) a two-hour chase movie”), wild guys (a revolutionary in Demolition Man), and ridiculous guys (a cartoonishly irate police sergeant in Who’s the Man?). He liked the stepdad he played in The Sandlot because he was ”a real guy,” if not a real visible guy — audiences saw him in just a few brief scenes.

Add all these guys up, and they’re somewhat less than the sum of his parts. In his smoldering mini-riffs and one-man show, No Cure for Cancer, Leary created angry, acute, anti-pretentious monologues (”This country needs to sit down and shut up. It’s about time we realized nobody is happy…happiness comes in small doses. The five-second orgasm, the last chocolate chip cookie. You come, you eat it, you sigh, you feel guilty, you fall asleep, and you get up in the morning and you go to work. That’s it, folks. Case closed. Final score: Cookie 12, You 0”). He also revealed shards of the Irish working-class angst that grew out of a rough-and-tumble childhood and the still-raw memory of his father’s death in 1985 (”That’ll pop your little macho balloon. When the guy you think is always going to be there-the John Wayne, Ted Williams guy — is dead. In a millisecond. In a sliver of time so small it cannot even be measured”). The Leary we’ve seen in the movies hasn’t yet come off as complete, and he knows it. ”I’ve always preferred to work in a situation where the characters are the important thing,” he says. Which is not a description many critics applied to his part in, say, National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1.

”We were always looking for the right roles to get to a certain level,” says James Dixon, Leary’s agent of eight years. ”But (our plan) was never, ‘Well, if you do all this s—, you can get some quality stuff.”’ Nonetheless, after what seems to have been more of the former than the latter, Dixon says Leary is more than ready to leave his chain-smoking, chain-ranting MTV persona behind. ”He was classified as an edgy, smoking stand-up. That’s not ever how I perceived him and his talents….It’s what you do at point A to get to point B.”

Clearly, Leary intends point B to be The Ref, in which he plays an acerbic career criminal rattled when the bickering couple he holds hostage (Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey) turn out to wield sharper, nastier tongues than his own. ”This was never intended to be Denis’ Beverly Hills Cop,” says Dixon. ”It’s ; an actor’s role in an actor’s movie.” (”I think Denis liked the script,” says Richard LaGravenese, who cowrote the Ref script with Marie Weiss, ”because the character wasn’t written for him.”) But there’s more to it than that. The success of The Ref, which opened March 11 to warm reviews (Leary, said The New York Times, is ”unexpectedly terrific”) and fair business, rests heavily on Leary’s ability to win over audiences in a leading role. ”He’s someone everyone knows,” says LaGravenese, ”but nobody’s seen yet how he can carry a movie.”

”We steeled ourselves to the idea of making sure the character was not gonna be made into the MTV guy,” adds Leary. ”That’s what we smelled was coming. Businesswise, people love to typecast. If you have knowledge of your ability to do something beyond that, you have to start to protect yourself.”

In fact, the smart, angry, huffing-while-puffing character that Leary made famous may not be easy to shed. Even the man responsible for crafting those MTV spots, The Ref‘s 30-year-old director, Ted Demme, admits that Leary didn’t come by his trademark elements accidentally. ”He smokes, he drinks, he’s pissed,” says Demme, who is Jonathan Demme’s nephew. ”But he’s been all these action and bad guys — he hasn’t gotten a chance to be in a really good, funny film.”

”I hate to think that calculatingly,” says Leary. ”I wanna do work I respond to from the heart. I don’t wanna do work only because I wanna prove I’m not this other thing.”

On the Toronto set of The Ref in a blue blazer with gold buttons, standing next to a Christmas tree and smoking a Marlboro Light 100, Leary looks as uncomfortable as his character; a burglar who’s wearing a straight-outta-Brooks Brothers disguise so as not to alarm his captives’ visiting relatives. As Judy Davis, quite uncomfortable in her role as consummate actress discusses her motivation with Demme (”The reason I won’t do it this way is because it isn’t true,” she observes.) Leary stays on the sidelines, a little alone and slightly at ease.

He’s much more relaxed in the company of his friend Demme, who could be Leary’s lighter alter ego — funny, but looser and without the anger. They riff, laugh, and discuss the sports pages. They grumble about the weekend softball game (”I love softball. Softball is just baseball with beer) against the cast and crew of 20th Century Fox PCU, another comedy shooting in Toronto. (Demme: ”They beat us.” Leary: ”Yeah, but we have a better script.”)

Leary and Demme display the casual comfort of two guys who can sit in a room together without feeling the need to converse. Their silence makes them uneasy only when someone else walks into it. ”We have the Monday-morning blahs,” says Demme. ”More like the 1993 blahs,” says Leary. Their rhythm makes it clear why Leary is confident with Demme behind the camera. ”I feel freer to try stuff when I work with Teddy,” he says. ”If something works, he’s gonna know.”

On the set Leary begins to loosen up when he jokes with Spacey between takes. (Leary: ”Then again, having Kevin’s agent is the same as having an —” Spacey: ”Aren’t you doing that new series with Richard Grieco?”) Serious interactions aren’t as visible. Leary doesn’t say he’s in awe of these veterans — certainly, in another incarnation he’d be making fun of the ultra-serious Davis — but both his respect and nervousness became apparent when he talks about his viewing of the final cut. ”I’ve spent most of my time laughing at Judy and Kevin. That, and constantly thinking about how I could have done everything in the film better,” he says. Not that Disney has any complaints. The single piece of grief the studio expresses was over the mustache and goatee Leary wears in the film. ”Supposedly,” says a source on the set, ”[Disney Studios chairman] Jeffrey Katzenberg hates facial hair.”

There’s no doubt that Leary will get more chances to refine his craft. The question is, can he define it? He has already signed to create another one-man performance peace and to write, direct, and star in a TV movie, both for Showtime; he also got himself a deal with A&M Records for three comedy albums, as well as a pact with Disney for two more films.

That’s a heavy lineup for someone still figuring out what game suits his talents. So Leary, for his next movies, has taken advice from his own No Cure book (”Write what you know, kid” — Jesus to the Apostle Paul, A.D. 33) and chosen a familiar subject: working-class guys, guys whose parents were (like Leary’s) immigrants, who had plenty of paneling on the walls at home, who grew up in the streets of recession-stung industrial towns like Worcester. This summer, for a salary that has just edged north of $1 million, he’ll begin filming Disney’s Two If by Sea, a comedy he cowrote with his wife and Mike Armstrong about several bad days in the life of a ”loser kind of guy” who hangs drywall and can’t commit to a woman he’s been involved with for seven years. Does it bother Leary that he’s come so far from the people he’s writing about? ”Yeah, well, what are you gonna do, ya know? Hopefully you use some of it, and tell a story about it.” Leary and Armstrong are currently finishing yet another screenplay, called Noose, a project earmarked for them about two car thieves in Boston, in which Leary will play ”an intelligent, alcoholic cokehead stuck in the neighborhood he grew up in.” Adds Leary, ”If it’s a comedy, we’re in trouble.”

Until the summer, Leary plans to hole up with his family in a recently acquired apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and seems to be relishing a rare chance to be underexposed. ”When so many things happen so quick,” he says, sounding uncharacteristically vulnerable, ”I think you have to be careful to walk away, and take time not to talk about it, and not to be seen.” Leary goes silent for a moment, and there’s a barely audible self-deprecating chuckle. ”Then again, what the hell? Two years ago, I would have been happy to be talking about any movie.” That’s what Leary would call a nice big slap of Reality Cologne.