The movie “Backdraft” showcased the Chicago Fire Department. It had brave rescues, rollicking Irish music, sexy trysts atop firetrucks and Robert De Niro as the quiet heart of the movie as Don Rimgale, a fire investigator hunting a dangerous arsonist.
On Monday, the real Don Rimgale, who helped De Niro prepare for the role, died of cancer at his Elmhurst home at 77, prompting condolences from the actor.
“I am sorry to hear of his passing,” De Niro said. “He was extremely helpful to me, and I always appreciated what he brought to his profession.”
A South Side native who spent 31 years with the fire department, Mr. Rimgale gave De Niro advice in preparing for the 1991 Ron Howard film. He took De Niro to the county morgue to view fire victims while the actor followed him around with a tape recorder. He even had a few lines of dialogue in the movie, including announcing the honor guard salute in the funeral scene. He’s among the department staffers thanked in the credits.
The 1991 book “De Niro, a Life,” says his “Backdraft” character was “named after a famed Chicago fireman who, at six feet six inches tall, cut an impressive figure around fire scenes.”
Mr. Rimgale actually stood 6-feet-5, according to his daughter Rachel Rimgale.
“If you were at a fire with him, you knew you were safe,” said Ken Musial, a childhood friend and retired Chicago firefighter. “I’ll never forget we were at this real smoky fire once, and he came out, and he had kittens. Don heard these kittens, and he went back in there, and the fire was still burning, and he got them out of there.”
Mr. Rimgale served on elite squads that, in addition to fires, also handled water rescues, building collapses and extrications from vehicles.
“He was always on busy companies. He loved the fire department,” said Bill Kugelman, former 10th Battalion chief who once led Local 2 of the firefighter’s union.
With De Niro, “Don gave him, ‘Here’s what we do, here’s the intensity,’ and that’s what showed in the movie, intensity and passion,” said Carol Stream Fire Chief Robert Hoff, a former Chicago fire commissioner. “The great part De Niro played in the movie was in great part due to the passion that Don Rimgale and [firefighter and technical adviser] Bill Cosgrove had passed on to De Niro.”
“Anytime anything was real big, he was around, and he made it better, easier,” said Cosgrove.
After the 1993 Paxton Hotel fire that killed 20, Mr. Rimgale worked for days to help retrieve bodies hidden in the rubble, Cosgrove said.
Young Don grew up at 44th and Mozart in Brighton Park. His dad Adam was a truck driver. After his mother Stella died of heart disease when he was 11, Don, the oldest child, stepped into the role of parent and protector. At dinnertime, “He’d cook us up Campbell’s soup and sandwiches,” said his sister Barbara, “and make sure we had cereal before we went to school.”
According to his friend Musial: “They lived in a basement apartment. A few chairs, a bed, a table.” If Don went out for hamburgers with friends, he never ordered anything, Musial said: “He’d give all his money to his family. He just wanted the other kids to have food on the table.”
If anyone ever bullied his siblings, all they had to do was mention their brother was Don Rimgale, his sister said, and “they walked away.”
After Kelly High School, Mr. Rimgale thought of joining the police department, but “he heard that the firefighters had better hours,” his daughter said. “They worked one day and got two days off.”
After “Backdraft,” the longtime Garfield Ridge resident landed other on-screen roles, including parts in “Baby’s Day Out” and “Henry II: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” His family said he also appeared in “Chain Reaction” and “The Fugitive.” On TV, his credits included “The Untouchables,” “Early Edition” and “Polish Hill.”
After retiring from the Chicago Fire Department, Mr. Rimgale became chief of the Sandwich Fire Department.
“He brought a lot of expertise to our community and gave us insight to fire investigations,” said Sandwich Mayor Rick Olson, “a different set of eyes with a lot of experience.” He retired in 2016.
Mr. Rimgale enjoyed golf, the Blackhawks and the Green Bay Packers. “Vince Lombardi was his hero,” said his daughter.
In addition to his daughter Rachel and sister Barbara, he is survived by his wife Sharon; daughters Becky Mannarelli and Roxanne Gardner; sons Donn Jr., Robert and Timothy; brothers Ron and Adam; and five grandchildren. His son Daniel died of leukemia at 6.
Visitation is planned for 1 p.m. Nov. 25 at the Sandwich Fire Department, 310 E. Railroad St., followed by a memorial service at 4 p.m.