At the end of the last millennium, HBO gave the green light to a prison drama with a difference, and television hasn't been the same since.
J.K. Simmons as Vern Schillinger Photo: Larry Riley / HBO.
This article about a TV show that is older than Jaden Smith naturally contains spoilers.
On the 12th of July, 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 that policed it, the government officials that tried to hinder it, the doctors and priests that 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 that HBO picking up your show could be 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 they have produced – and still produce – have dominated conversations around the format they're 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 likeable 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 Dean was a jobbing actor who was all but ready to give up on his career, until Fontana – who occasionally drank in Winters' 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 of 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 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, mate – 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 Quran 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 JK 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, OZ,' 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 materialise, 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, shankings, 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."
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Augustus Hill provides the guiding voice of the show. He wasn't always featured in the box – sometimes he would be a pharaoh receiving fanning from slave girls, or some other poetic historical reference – but he would always be pontificating about the minutiae of life, and how it always relates back, one way or another, to prison. Fontana wanted Hill's character to be able to provide a greater insight into the machinations and contusions of humanity than anyone else, so he gave him a wheelchair.
"One of the things that I came away from all those prison visits with was that the prisoners didn't open up," Fontana tells me. "They had to protect themselves, so you could see there wasn't a lot of philosophical bantering amongst them, because that would expose some sort of vulnerability. Having done Homicide, where we would purposely have two of the detectives driving to a crime scene or driving away from a crime scene, and they would be talking in this philosophical way about death or life or money or whatever, I realised I wouldn't be able to have those scenes per se on OZ, so I thought, 'Well, I'll steal from the ancient Greeks and have a sort of Greek chorus, but not a lot of people, just one guy.'
"I wanted him either to be black or Latino, because I wanted him to be in a minority, but then I wanted him in a wheelchair because I wanted him to be in an even smaller minority, if you will. As somebody who's suffered both prejudice and the challenge of being in a chair, I thought that that would endow the character with a sort of knowledge of the world that, if it was just some punk from Brooklyn, it would make less sense. It made sense to me that this African-American in a wheelchair would have more understanding of the world than anybody else."
It's also important to note that the character of Augustus Hill is one of – if not the – most visible disabled black character in TV history (aside from perhaps Stevie Kenarban of Malcolm in the Middle). The startling levels of diversity in OZ wasn't a conscious decision by Fontana to make TV more representative, but its effects are no less important.
"All I was trying to do was reflect the diversity of the prison population as I saw it when I was doing all my research going in and out of prisons," he says. "To me, that seemed like the essential part of the story – here was this American nation in small, all put in a building, and so I wanted it to represent the real sense of how big the various populations were."
The theatrics of the show are in many ways its crowning glory. A lot of blockbusters have a level of camp to them (Game of Thrones being the obvious example), but there was something more balls-out in the way OZ did it. This is exemplified perhaps in the most obvious way by one of the most pivotal points in the show – the killing of Vern Schillinger by Tobias Beecher during a production of Macbeth. It's this cleverness of theme that gets lost a lot of the time in the collective memory of what OZ was. Many people I speak to now refer to it as the show with "all the rapes". It was watched in the UK late at night, usually by naughty children.
"I feel like the brutality of the material and the shocks that come one after another sometimes are what is most remembered," says Terry Kinney, who played Emerald City boss and philandering great white hope Tim McManus (and also directed some episodes). "One of the things many people have said to me is that, 'Oh, I wanted to watch it but I had to look away,' and I would think that's such a shame. You don't watch the beautiful writing and these long, long scenes. The writing was the main element to what we did, not the brutality."
The one-man chorus was not the only Greco-influenced element of the show. The tumultuous relationship between Chris Meloni's sociopathic plotter Chris Keller and Lee Tergesen's Beecher oozes the extreme vengeful love of Achilles and Patroclus. It was, according to Tergesen, a time of great homophobia in popular culture, too.
"At that time there was a movie that Will Smith did called Six Degrees of Separation, where Denzel Washington had told him not to kiss a man on screen," he says. "And he didn't do it, even though it was in the script [in the film the kissing scene between Smith and co-star Anthony Michael Hall was created using camera tricks]. There was all this homophobic stuff going on, so I said. 'Hey Chris, let's go out to dinner [to talk about the storyline],' and we'd literally just met. We got together and I said, 'Listen, this show is hard, it's violent, ugly and very raw – we should try to make it sexy.' He looks at me and he goes, 'Wooow!' [laughs]. But I thought we did [make it sexy]! We went there with it. I was happy that we were able to do it the way we did it."
It was another first for television – two men openly talking about fucking each other, in the toxic setting of a maximum-security prison.
Meloni and Tergesen's cosy off-screen relationship wasn't unique among the OZ cast. The one thing that has cropped up continuously in my speaking to the actors is the incredible friendship they shared for the duration of the show's run. They all claim it was 100 percent good vibes all the time. Surely there must have been some point of contention, a trailer prank gone wrong? An almost real shanking?
"I can't remember one moment, you know? Everyone got along," says Kirk Acevedo, the man behind unhinged and emotional Latin gangster Miguel Alvarez. "There was never any show. You could hang out with different people every other day and work was great. We ran New York City, you know? We were 20 guys separated by, like, five years, age-wise, but we would go out at least four or five nights a week and we were all in our early twenties. Not only did we work with each other, we would see each other after work! We would go bowling this night, or watch a fight on HBO. I can't say there was ever an issue."
Acevedo was, aside from Edie Falco, the first cast member to really start reaping the benefits of the growing HBO monolith. As the seasons passed, more and more HBO shows got commissioned – Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, to name a few. The "box office" part of the company's name really came to fruition with the Stephen Spielberg-produced epic World War II miniseries Band of Brothers. Avecedo landed a role on it as Staff Sergeant Joe Toye. However, Band of Brothers was a totally different operation to OZ. Gone was the friendliness and camaraderie of Fontana's set; now, Acevedo was also working in a more straight-laced, high-production value environment and he couldn't do both things at once.
"I spoke to Tom Fontana and I said, 'Listen, I got a part – it's Spielberg, maaan; it's 11 months, it's a big opportunity.' My representation was saying, 'We'll make the phone call,' but for me – and I'm sure a lot of the other guys, too, like Dean and Lee – we would never have our representation call Tom on our behalf to ask a question or demand something. I told my people, 'I gotta ask Tom myself.' So I went to him and I sat in his office and I told him. He looked at me and he said, 'You still wanna be part of the show?' And I go, 'Of course!' He says, 'You wanna escape? And then we capture you again?' I said 'Yes!' So he goes, 'Alright, let's do it.' I know Tom wanted to do that with [another character, Simon] Adebisi too, but he didn't want to do it with back-to-back people cos it would weaken the show. That's the difference between OZ and Band of Brothers, aside from of course the scale, the people, the mass… There's an intimacy and trust with a smaller crew that you don't get on a bigger crew."
The idea of the set being a deeply close setting didn't end with that sense of brotherhood. At the end of season two, Acevedo's character, Alvarez, stabs a CO in both eyes on the command of his gang boss, Raoul Hernandez (played by Luis Guzmán). Reason being: Hernandez questions Alvarez's loyalty and ability because he's whiter than the other Latino gang members – a scene that was the result of an unusually collaborative relationship between cast and showrunner.
"After every season Tom would sit down with you – which is unheard of, by the way; showrunners do not do this, and I've been doing this for 20 years," says Acevedo. "This is the only showrunner that's ever, after a season, sat me down, and sat with the whole entire cast individually, and asked, 'What do you think of the season? What do you think of your character's progression? Where would you wanna go next season?'
"One of the things about me growing up – I'm Puerto Rican, and I was raised in the South Bronx. As a culture we come in all shapes, sizes and colours. I crack a joke, people in the Caribbean – meaning Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico – we've been fucked by everybody, right? I've got uncles that are black, cousins that are blonde and blue eyed. Growing up in the Bronx I was the fairer complexion. A lot of the time I would have to fight because they would call me 'white boy' or whatever, and I wasn't. I brought it up to Tom and he wrote that whole arc into season two."
The only thing more evident among the cast than their genuine love for each other and the time they spent together on OZ is the universal reverence they give creator Tom Fontana. He appears as the total patriarch, gently guiding his actor children through the adolescence of their careers, one gay kiss, one shower stabbing, one cell block love making, one intentional HIV infection, one execution, one suicide, one rape, one murder, one marriage, one escape, one prison rendition of Shakespeare at a time. It's the admiration for Fontana and what he created for them all that brings the fire and brimstone of defence out of Dean Winters, like when he was on The Artie Lange Show and someone called in to say the first few episodes were "clichéd".
"It's very personal for me," he says. "I met Tom in '92 and we started shooting in '97, so we'd formed a brotherhood over five years. My brother played my brother. My other brother was one of the writers [Brad Winters]. On top of that, the balls of that person to refer to the first episode as 'clichéd' – are you out of your fucking mind? These are people that I have zero time for, the uneducated masses, the people that voted for Trump. I have zero patience, zero respect and zero time for them... I was there from the genesis. I went with [Tom] to watch Romeo and Juliet because he was thinking about casting Harold Perrineau, and Tom was like, 'I want your opinion on this guy.' I was there for all of it, from the jump, so it's extremely personal. When someone debases it with a stupid line like 'it's clichéd', I'm just like, go fuck yourself. Everything Tom touched on – sex, religion, drugs, family, violence, ethics, morals – it was a master-weave, and I take it personally when someone breaks it down into one word."
Ultimately, it takes a strange and unique person to make such a strange and unique show. Fontana's approach to making OZ, and making it his way, is what imbues it with its phenomenally enjoyable oddness. It's like a mushroom trip, with dips of reality peppered into swathes of peculiarity. It's a style of TV making that has never been fully replicated, a veritable big bang of ideas that then turned into the constellations and galaxies we see on TV and online today. Without the risks OZ took, and they way in which it took them, television would not be the same as it is now.
Because it's not just about doing something different; you have to make it excellent, too. If it's not excellent, then what's the point in even doing it?
A special thanks to Bill Butler, Diego Aldana, Andrew Loane and Matthew Nemeth for their help with this article.
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