HUMANITAS President Emeritus Tom Fontana's Show 'OZ' Forever Changes Television
On July 12, 1997, the landscape of television—and the way we consume and relate to entertainment—changed forever. It was the premiere of a new drama called OZ, which chronicled the story of the experimental unit Emerald City in a fictional New York prison called Oswald State Penitentiary. The show was about the correctional officers who policed it, the government officials who tried to hinder it, the doctors and priests who tried to heal it, and the prisoners who tried to destroy it. It was created by Tom Fontana while he was still writing his other show, Homicide: Life on the Street, and was the first ever hour-long cable drama.
"We were sort of this lonely outpost on HBO," says Fontana, "because we were the first drama series on there, and back then, we were out there just doing what we thought was right—but we had no idea whether anyone would have any interest in it whatsoever."
Before Fontana took his idea to HBO, the cable network was just a vessel for movies. "They were showing features, buying libraries of movie studios," says Fontana. "In fact, when I was pitching to Chris Albrecht [former chairman and CEO of HBO], and he said he wanted to do OZ, I was exuberant. I was like 'Yay! This is gonna be great!' and all of my friends in the business were like, 'Why do you want to do a show on HBO? It's a movie channel, nobody watches it.' I said, 'Well yeah, but they're going to let me make the show I want to make, so I don't care if nobody watches it.' Like I said, it was a lonely place 20 years ago."
These days, the idea of HBO picking up your show as a bad thing seems unfathomable. Since OZ first aired, the network's name has become synonymous with quality programming (with the exception of Entourage and Vinyl—nobody's perfect.) The shows it has produced—and still produce—have dominated conversations around the format it's credited with creating. But it isn't just a format: The hour-long cable drama—coupled with the emergence of the DVD, capable of holding more shows per disc than a VHS, at a higher quality—created a new way of consuming television.
OZ was the genesis of this sea change.
"The thought was that I was prescient," says Fontana, "which I've always said I wasn't. There was no grand vision of the future of cable television—all I knew was this guy was gonna let me make this crazy prison show, and do it without any censorship."
Twenty years ago, American television was largely restrained by the chaste, Tipper Gore–esque attitudes of middle America, so commissioning a show like OZ could have proved a risky move. However, for Chris Albrecht, it was something of a no-brainer.
"He was in the mood for a prison show," Fontana tells me. "I think he saw the value of that for his audience; they had had great success on HBO with prison documentaries. Everything I do I start with character anyway, so I just started laying out who all the major characters were. He said, 'I don't care if they're likable as long as they're interesting.' That was my mantra."
Fontana wasn't stuck for interesting actors to play these interesting characters, either. In fact, he wrote many of the parts with specific people in mind.
Dean Winters—who played the duplicitous Irish American string puller and old romantic, Ryan O'Reilly—worked in a bar on New York's Upper East Side with his brother, Scott, who would go on to play Dean's mentally disabled on-screen brother Cyril in the show. This was in 1992, when Winters was a jobbing actor who was all but ready to give up on his career until Fontana—who occasionally drank in Winters's bar—visited him on the set of the Mel Gibson political thriller Conspiracy Theory.
"I was in my trailer, and I really didn't think the acting life was for me," he tells me over the phone. "Tom came in and said, 'Listen, don't quit just yet—I'm doing this little experimental show for HBO; it's their first cable show, and I've written you this really incredible role.' Tom really based my part on two things: the character Iago from Othello and watching me bartend. When I was a bartender, I had this mantra in my head: 'If you leave my bar with cab fare, then I've failed.' I think there was a whole kind of stew there that Tom saw between those two worlds, and that's how the character of Ryan O'Reilly was born."
Winters wasn't the only cast member who had served Fontana a drink in a previous life. "I didn't really know what he did," says Lee Tergesen, who played timid alcoholic family man turned psychotic lover boy Tobias Beecher. "I just knew he was a nice guy who ordered the chicken breast." Fontana found Tergesen in a diner in Chelsea, Manhattan, and went to see a play he was in.
"He used to come in all the time. He and I used to bullshit a little bit. I was doing a play downtown with a bunch of friends I worked with. The last night of the show, all of a sudden the director comes down, and he's like, 'There's a producer in the audience from [a medical drama Fontana worked on] St. Elsewhere!' And when he said his name I was like, 'What?!' That was in 1990."
Does Tom Fontana find all his acting talent in dive bars and diners?
"He's a degenerate!" Tergesen laughs.
Not everyone was so easy to cast. One of the more fascinating characters, and performances, in the series, was that of Kareem Saïd, played by British actor Eamonn Walker.
"I was having an incredibly difficult time casting that role because the black actors who were coming in to read for it were still being very 'street,'" explains Fontana. "I kept trying to find somebody who had a—not a holiness about him, but a nobility about him. I was really having a tough time, and we were getting closer and closer to the start of shooting, and I was on the phone with Lynda La Plante [creator of Prime Suspect], telling her how much trouble I was having casting this one part, and she said, 'Oh darling, I know the perfect actor. I'll send him right over.'
"Now, she said 'send him right over' like he was on 58th Street and she was going to send him to 13th Street, but what she meant was he's in London, and she was sending him to New York. I was like, 'Please don't do that. Please, please don't do that,' because all I could think was: This poor guy's gonna fly in, and he's going to be jet lagged and he's gonna start reading, and it's gonna be wrong, and I'll be feeling terrible because he came all this way. He came in the room, and he read maybe five lines, and I knew this was the guy. Lynda was absolutely right, of course."
"I turned up there, and [Fontana] went, 'You know I'm only talking to you because I love Lynda, and I know you love Lynda, so you know, hey, we might as well do the audition,'" says Walker. "I was up for the Terry [Kinney]'s character, and [Fontana] called me up personally while I was still in New York and said, 'That's not going to work out for that role, but because your audition was so extraordinary, I'm going to write you up role when we get picked up.' I said to him, 'You don't have to do that—you don't have to be nice,' and he laughs and says, 'You obviously have no idea who I am! When we get picked up, I'm going to write you a role.' It took two or three months to get picked up, and he wrote Saïd for me."
The character of Kareem Saïd is in many ways an exceptional one. Part Malcolm X, part Louis Farrakhan (or so he'd like to think), he sees himself as totally magnanimous, but playing into the duplicity of his environment, his piety is eventually shot because he commits the cardinal sin of falling for a white woman. It was the kind of character Fontana had never conceived of before, which is perhaps why it was so difficult to cast.
"The whole black Muslim thing, I swear to God I'd never even heard of it before I started going to prisons [for research,]" he says. "Then I actually read the Qur'an to try and understand what the foundation of Islam was, so I didn't sound like a complete butthead."
"This was a big opportunity for a lot of guys who didn't have much experience. I was actually one of the elder statesmen of the group," says J.K. Simmons, who played the gruesomely evil neo-Nazi rapist Vern Schillinger, the closest thing the show had to a true arch villain. Simmons had already played an evil Nazi on Homicide—which appears to have been a kind of proving ground for future OZ cast members—and was feeling a little apprehensive about being typecast. "I thought, This could be an iconic show, and I was concerned that I would be stuck in a career playing the Nazi bastard guest star on every TV show for the rest of my life. I didn't want to do that, so at the same time as it was a gigantic opportunity for me, I was a little wary of it as well."
It would turn out that his concerns not only didn't materialize but went in the complete opposite direction. Of all the OZ alumni, Simmons has enjoyed the most mainstream success since the show aired, winning an Oscar for his role in the stressful jazz drumming movie Whiplash.
So Fontana had his cast of young, relatively inexperienced actors to play his merry band of experimental prisoners, and a few seasoned pros for his prison staff, like Ernie Hudson and Rita Moreno. The earlier seasons also featured Edie Falco as troubled but stoic CO Diane Whittlesey. Falco would go on to garner a great deal of much-deserved acclaim in her role as Carmela Soprano, and as Jackie Peyton in Showtime's Nurse Jackie.
Thematically, OZ treads an odd line between the parameters of harsh reality and near-delirious fiction. There are many instances of typical prison brutality—fights in the gym, shanking, rapes, etc.—but these are cut between abstract pieces of narration and woozy, saturated flash back scenes. The most famous of these format rejigs is surely Harold Perrineau's character Augustus Hill delivering his sermons every episode from a perspex prison cell.
"We wanted him to be in a null space," says Fontana, "but we didn't want it to be black curtains or something—we wanted to actually have some motion and personality."