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Lee Tergesen does time
as an 'Oz' inmate

The Associated Press
July 13, 1999

NEW YORK -- In the history of television, there are many pioneers. To name a few: Edward R. Murrow; Milton Berle; J. Fred Muggs. Each brought something new to the tube.

Now Lee Tergesen, in his role as Beecher on HBO's prison drama "Oz," can point with pride to his own crop of firsts.

"I was the first man ever to be branded with a swastika on TV," he begins.

Over a recent lunch, he then lists even more stomach-turning milestones of Beecher's stay at the Oswald State Correctional Facility (known by insiders as Oz).

"Five, 10 years from now," Tergesen breezily sums up, "you'll be sitting at lunch with someone who'll be going, 'I was the first guy ever to be forced to dress up like a woman and sing, "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."' And YOU'LL say, 'Ah! No, no, no, my friend!"'

Until such a day, suffice it to say that Tobias Beecher reigns as a singular character among the many fiercely singular characters on "Oz."

"He's had a rough go of it," Tergesen says with a laugh, and that's not about to change as the superb "Oz" begins its third riveting season Wednesday at 9 p.m. CDT.

But along with the wide variety of, er, indignities to which he's been a party, Beecher stands out from his fellow jailbirds for another chilling reason: He might be any of us in the audience.

Before Oz, he was an attorney and family man safely sheltered in the middle class -- that is, until he happened to kill a little girl while driving drunk.

The other inmates are society's designated losers, fated for Oz as surely as if they'd followed a 12-step program for misfits. Beecher, by contrast, washed up in Cell Block 5 fresh from society's mainstream.

The stricken, clerkish look he brought with him is long gone. By now, Beecher is untamed and mercurial, insolent and sullen. And yet he remains the "ordinary" viewer's captive surrogate. However depraved he may be (and more depraved all the time), Beecher remains too close for our comfort.

A "normal" guy cast into hell and forced to deal with the heat -- Tergesen says he pitched that for his character when he signed to do "Oz."

We don't see Beecher for much of this week's episode. After all, he's been laid up since last season when Schillinger and his cohorts broke Beecher's arms and legs.

But 45 minutes into the hour, he gains release from the prison hospital, returns to his cell and primes himself to inflict sweet comeuppance. His is a scheme so diabolical, so untraceable, that somewhere Alfred Hitchcock is nodding with approval.

So score this week's round for Beecher. But the anti-violent message of "Oz" reminds us that the match will never end.

"You can do whatever you want, but you better be ready to pay for it," says Tergesen. In the long run, no one, certainly not Beecher, ever comes out first.


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