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The Wizard of Oz

Creator Tom Fontana Blends High Drama With Lowlifes for His Combustible Prison Drama

By Diane Snyder
July 13, 1999

NEW YORK -- Viewers aren't the only ones who have had trouble shaking Oz, the unrelentingly brutal HBO prison drama, from their system. Once he's written a season's worth of eight one-hour episodes, Tom Fontana needs a month to recover.

"And usually I can go the next day and start writing something, but with Oz, it kind of hovers around me for longer than I like," says the bespectacled creator and executive producer, punctuating his response with a laugh, as he often does.

After a season finale that saw four killings (including the crucifixion of a priest/child molester), the blinding of a guard by a prisoner and the brutal attack of another prisoner, whose arms and legs were broken, the third season kicks off Wednesday night (10 p.m. ET) with more angst, deception and another killing. It's enough to make another tempestuous Fontana show, Homicide: Life on the Street, seem like the feel-good series of the year.

For a writer whose series dwell on the dark side of human nature, Fontana comes across as quirky rather than gloomy in conversation. Relaxed, straightforward and funny, he hardly seems like someone who has spent the last three years chronicling mankind at its most depraved. On the eve of the millennium, he's a writer who doesn't own a computer ("plugging in something terrifies me"). And when he couldn't find someone willing to get an Oz tattoo for the show's opening, he volunteered his own flesh.

Fontana plunges his own blade just as deeply into his characters, whether they're the intrepid Baltimore detectives in Homicide or the viciously barbaric prisoners in Oz. His search for the best and the worst aspects within his characters, as well as Oz's compelling soap opera format, has won him a devoted following. Audiences embrace his shows with Trekker-like passion, and Oz has become one of HBO's highest-rated dramatic programs. Some critics have blasted the show for glorifying the violence it professes to condemn, but others have designated Oz one of television's most stunning and original series.

"He's like a late-20th-century American version of Dickens," says Austin Pendleton, who has had recurring roles on Oz and Homicide and in the early '80s appeared in a Fontana play.

"More than anybody who's writing now, he really heads right into all the darkest things that are going on today in America, and that's so exciting to actors. You really feel that you're right at the a heart of it when you work on his shows."

But Fontana is quick to shift the spotlight from himself to two mentors who encouraged him to take risks: Barry Levinson, his co-executive producer on Oz and Homicide, and Bruce Paltrow, who hired Fontana for his first TV venture, St. Elsewhere.

Fontana doesn't do things "the normal way." "That's why I live 3,000 miles from Hollywood," he says, speaking from his Chelsea office just before the Fourth of July weekend while other New Yorkers were already escaping to the Hamptons or the Jersey shore. "I don't even know what the normal way is."

It certainly doesn't involve including your cast in the creative process, but Fontana elicits input from his actors about what they'd like to explore with their characters. Some, like Rita Moreno, who plays Sister Peter Marie, have very specific ideas; others put their faith in him.

Family plays a substantial role this season on Oz, which is shot in New York. For starters, Rebadow's mother (played by legendary stage actress Uta Hagen) stops by for a visit. Andrew Schillinger (Kate and Allie's Fred Koehler) joins his neo-Nazi father in prison. Ryan O'Reily takes steps to ensure that his brother, Cyril, who he is now rooming with, succeeds in Oz's new boxing ring.

However, Fontana insists that by delving into the pasts of his prisoners, he's trying to illuminate who they are, not win sympathy for them. "We're looking to explore not only the effect of having a prisoner in one's family, but also where these prisoners have come from. What in their history brought them to the crime they've committed."

That sensation of being cut off from family and friends hit Fontana the hardest when he was doing research by visiting prisons on and off for two years. His only previous experience behind bars was in the distinguished company of folks like Lauren Bacall, Jason Robards and Celeste Holm, who were among the many entertainment professionals arrested for protesting the demolition of two historic Broadway theaters almost 20 years ago.

Fontana talked to inmates as well as personnel, "just trying to get the essence of prison life." And although he says he hasn't depicted their actual stories, certain elements have worked their way onto the screen.

One prisoner talked about killing someone by feeding him broken glass, the slow but ultimately effective method used by O'Reily and Adebisi to kill Nino Schibetta during the first season. "I said, 'Doesn't that take a long time for them to die,'" Fontana recalls, "and he said, 'What else have I got but time?'"

The layout for Emerald City, the experimental wing of Oz where most of the action takes place, also originated from a prison excursion. Fontana visited the Federal Corrections Institute in southern New Jersey where cells are arranged in a semi-circle and inmates are kept exposed behind glass doors instead of prison bars.

"If you take away someone's privacy, you force them to become part of a community," Fontana says, explaining the philosophy behind the state-of-the-art design. "And if you can make them work in a community, then maybe when they get out, they'll actually be able to function in society."

Even today Fontana is still culling elements from the real prison world for Oz. This season the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary becomes the Oswald State Correctional Facility: Level Four after Fontana heard about a real prison switching identities.

"This is just so typical of what goes on in this country -- semantics," he observes. "Somehow we've improved the penal system by changing the name of it to 'correctional facility.'" Augustus Hill, Oz's prison narrator, wonders in the first episode if it's because officials have finally realized that the prisoners are anything but penitent.

The boxing program McManus implements came about through research indicating that prison sports programs can effect a decline in violence. Fontana says he chose boxing over another sport because several cast members, including Kirk Acevedo, Scott Winters and newcomer Ernie Hudson Jr., have experience in the ring.

But the 47-year-old Buffalo, N.Y., native sees his role as that of storyteller, not political advocate. To that end, he employs an array of technical advisors for Oz. "That way, there's no agenda," he says. "I think it's my job to always balance points of view. When we dealt with capital punishment, we had two people executed in one episode. I wrote one so that the audience would go, 'Oh, this is a terrible thing,' and the other one, 'Kill the [expletive].'" He adds that story lines always originate with a character rather than an issue.

Although the Columbine High School shootings have sparked copious debate in the entertainment industry about the impact of violent programs on viewers, Fontana vows he won't alter his approach to Oz because violence is an inherent part of prison life.

"I've never done anything that wasn't to me the logical thing that would happen in the story," he maintains. "I think television is guilty of encouraging violence when it makes violence palatable. When you see somebody on TV shoot somebody and they don't bleed ... that's when you create an image for children that I think is wrong. But if you take violence and say, 'This is what violence really costs,' then I think you are doing something that is worthwhile."

Asked about the most challenging scene he has had to write, Fontana mulls it over. He picks two moments from the first season involving neo-Nazi Schillinger and Beecher, the prisoner he forced into becoming his "girlfriend": when Beecher had to lick Schillinger's boots and ask Schillinger's permission to make love to his own wife.

"It really was laying bare the brutality that men are capable of, and when you get to that place, it's such a dark place to dwell as a writer that you want to get out of there as fast as possible." But if the opportunity arose to expand Oz to a 13-episode season, as The Sopranos is, Fontana says his pen and his psyche would be ready.

He enlisted the help of writer Bradford Winters with some of this season's episodes. Winters is the brother of Oz stars Dean and Scott Winters, who play brothers Ryan and Cyril O'Reily. Glance and the credits and you'll find other familiar names. Ernie Hudson Jr., whose father play Warden Glynn, joins Oz this season as inmate Hamid Khan, and Chris Tergesen, brother of Lee Tergesen (Beecher), has been the music supervisor of Oz and Homicide, a show on which Lee and other Oz actors, such as Zeljko Ivanek and Edie Falco, have appeared.

Clearly, family isn't just the theme onscreen.

"It's a Sicilian thing -- keep the family together," Fontana quips. "I've never hired anybody because they were related to anybody, but on the other hand, it makes the working environment all the more joyful because it becomes a bigger family."

Speaking of family, will the Homicide clan be reuniting any time soon? Fontana has said that he's in talks with NBC about shooting a TV movie to wrap up the canceled series.

"Right now, I'm talking to the cast to see who's available and who's interested in coming back. And then based on that, I've got to come up with an idea I'm really excited about. I only want to do it if it can be as fresh and compelling as the series was. And that's a tall order."

Fontana says the loss of Homicide hasn't affected his feelings toward network TV. He's currently casting the cop drama The Beat, a midseason replacement for UPN; Levinson will direct the pilot. Another Fontana-Levinson production, The Hoop Life, premiered on Showtime this month, and Fontana says he's talking to HBO about another series. He's enthralled with the support HBO has showered on Oz, because one of his beefs with NBC involved what he felt was their failure to promote Homicide.

"I would call up and go, 'OK, it's Tuesday night. I just saw an ad for Law & Order and then one for ER and then one for Profiler. We're on Fridays, Profiler's on Saturday -- how come we didn't get a promo. They would say, 'You're getting promos,' and I would never see them. That was frustrating."

Fontana adds that he doesn't think Homicide would have lasted another season even if Andre Braugher, the Emmy-winning actor who played Det. Frank Pembleton and whom many considered the nucleus of the show, hadn't left after the sixth season.

Although Homicide constantly faced the death penalty during its seven-season run, Fontana maintains that he and Levinson never made a move based on network pressure, although some decisions and cast changes angered many fans.

"Everything we did, we did with enthusiasm," he says. "There are always things you regret and things that you wish you'd done better, but overall I would say I feel good about it. We tried a lot of things, and some of them worked and some of them didn't.

"I don't regret trying and failing because if you didn't have a couple that didn't work, you wouldn't get an episode like 'The Subway,'" which won the Peabody Award.


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