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Prison Uprising

By Virginia Rohan
The Bergen Record
July 9, 2000

He's been branded, raped, relentlessly humiliated, and had both his arms and his legs broken.

There are 8 million ghastly stories in Tom Fontana's Emerald City, but none is more disturbing than the tale of Tobias Beecher.

When the critically acclaimed, excruciatingly brutal drama "Oz" debuted three years ago, Beecher was a new arrival at Oz (the Oswald State Correctional Facility). A successful lawyer, he had just been sentenced to 15 years for killing a child while driving drunk.

"Beecher was supposed to be the guy any of us could be, because his crime was a crime that any of us is capable of doing," Fontana says.

Over time, Beecher -- magnificently played by Lee Tergesen, an actor previously known for much lighter work in the "Wayne's World" movies and the series "Weird Science" -- has undergone an amazing screen transformation.

"When I talked to Tom about the first season, we talked about the character as a guy who has no skills whatsoever when it comes to this, and what he goes through to survive," Tergesen says.

As "Oz" begins its fourth season, Beecher's a completely different animal. Fontana, in fact, created this role as a showcase metamorphosis for Tergesen, a longtime pal.

"He had just finished doing 'Weird Science,' and even though I thought he was very funny in that, I thought America doesn't know he can do a lot of stuff beyond that," Fontana says. "I wanted to say, 'You ain't see nothing yet.' This guy's going to start out as normal a guy as you could possibly imagine, and eventually get madder, and crazier, and more insane as these events unfold."

When Beecher arrived at Emerald City -- the prison's experimental unit -- Aryan Nation inmate Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons) immediately claimed him as his own and branded a swastika on his buttocks -- a sign of many humiliations to come.

"I guess the first episode, where I had to do the branding, in some ways probably was the hardest to do," Tergesen says.

During that first season, he recalls, members of the crew were sometimes so disturbed by Beecher's abuse at the hands of Schillinger, they'd ask Tergesen why his character didn't fight back. "Why? Because initially what he feels is, 'I've got to save my life,'" the actor says.

As if the degradations weren't enough, Beecher's marriage broke up and his wife subsequently killed herself, leaving their two kids to be raised by grandparents. In time, Beecher went ballistic.

Forced to perform oral sex on another inmate, he bit off the tip of the man's penis. He also slashed the throat of a sadistic prison guard, and seriously injured the eye of his archenemy, Schillinger.

Now, Beecher is seeking forgiveness from his foes -- but further atrocities lie ahead. "Tom Fontana has a bottomless well of horror in his soul," says Rita Moreno, who plays Sister Peter Marie Reimondo, the prison psychologist. "No good deed goes unpunished at Oz."

As the new season opens, Beecher, who would have been up for parole in four years but got an extra year for a transgression, attempts to anonymously atone for his role (albeit, an indirect one) in the overdose death of Schillinger's drug-addicted inmate son.

His plan goes awry, however -- with ghastly consequences for a member of Beecher's family. This turns him anew into "a revenge machine," Tergesen says.

In person, the actor is nothing like his character. Tergesen has an impish look, and laughs easily during a chat on the set in Manhattan's Chelsea Market -- a space so forbidding it makes a visitor feel trapped.

Clearly, he uses comedy as a relief. While posing for photos, the 35-year-old, self-described "big joker," makes faces and quips. He can be very serious, but he also tells lots of humorous anecdotes.

"He is unbelievably funny, and he is fast," says Moreno, who often has scenes with Tergesen, as Beecher works in Reimondo's office. "He can make Tom laugh -- roar -- in a second.

"And yet, he had to call me a terrible cuss word in a scene last week, and he was having a really difficult time doing it. It was a really bad word, and he knows I adore him. He's a sweet man. Very, very special."

Tergesen says that the role's darkness still gets to him.

"Even this year, ... there's been a couple of times where, all of a sudden, I'm like, 'Wow. I can't believe this. I don't want to do it,'" Tergesen says. "But I would never say that."

When actors opine that their characters wouldn't do something, Tergesen says, "I feel that's an ego-driven decision -- that, I, as Lee, don't want to do that, because it's going to embarrass me, or it's going to open me up to humiliation out on the street. And I have to tell you, no one has ever said anything to me in that respect."

Fontana praises Tergesen's approach. "One of the great things about Lee as an actor is he's so courageous. He's willing to risk looking like a fool if he thinks it's really what the material asks for. I laid it out a little bit in the beginning. I wasn't as specific as maybe I should have been about where the character was going. But he has never complained about anything I have asked him to do over the years. ... He inspires me to write better for him, because of how courageous he is."

The two have been friends since Tergesen's early days in New York, when they lived around the corner from each other.

Tergesen, a Connecticut native, graduated from New York's American Musical and Dramatic Academy in 1985, then did plays around town while working at the Empire Diner.

One summer, when he was particularly frustrated with the status of his career, Fontana invited him to come on a road trip to Los Angeles, to help Fontana pack up his belongings and move them East.

On their second day in L.A., a casting director friend of Fontana's met Tergesen and soon after gave him a role in the movie "Point Break."

Tergesen stayed in L.A. He landed a regular gig, as Chett Donnelly, the bossy but dense older brother, on the USA Network series "Weird Science." He also had a recurring role, as a blinded cop, on Fontana's "Homicide: Life on the Street" (Edie Falco, an "Oz" co-star, played his wife), as well as the role of Wayne and Garth's pal Terry (the "I love you, man" guy) on the big screen in "Wayne's World."

"The 'Wayne's World' thing was a riot," Tergesen says. "When I went to the first read-through, I wasn't in the car for the 'Bohemian Rhapsody' scene, and I said to Mike Myers, 'Dude, I've got to be in the car." (Myers wrote him in.)

Nowadays, Tergesen's living in New York again, happily involved with his girlfriend -- a longtime pal, who'd worked with him at the Empire Diner -- and contented with a career that's "gradually growing."

He's currently appearing as a narcotics detective in the movie "Shaft," and he recently played a fireman on Fontana's short-lived UPN series, "The Beat."

"Tom has been such an influence in my life," Tergesen says. "Beecher is a character that is unforgettable."

One fascinating aspect of the Beecher story line is his volatile relationship with Chris Keller -- played by Chris Meloni (NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"). These two characters are the closest thing to a love story that "Oz" offers.

Initially, Schillinger had gotten his pal Keller to woo the lonely, vulnerable Beecher. After their unsuspecting victim fell in love, Keller and Schillinger broke Beecher's arms and legs. Keller was later repentant.

"It's intriguing to see how people care about that relationship," Tergesen says. "When people talk to me, they're like, 'Does he love you?' They're really invested in it."

He has high praise for Meloni -- with whom he has shared some passionate TV kisses.

"We're doing stuff that a lot of people wouldn't want to do, because they'd be afraid," Tergesen says. "We were such a good match, and in some ways, as people, we sort of have really fallen in love with each other in a way, because we have to go to those places."

Tergesen does not believe that Beecher "would identify himself as gay, just as people in prison have relationships of some sort, , and when they come out, they go back to their girlfriends or whatever. It's pragmatic."

The actor is amazed by the range of viewers "Oz" draws.

"In Chelsea, there's a lot of boys who like watching it, who are totally into the Keller-Beecher relationship," he says. "But there's also the 65-year-old woman who stops you on the street and says, 'Hey, you're Beecher.'"

What astonishes Tergesen's colleagues is how the Emmy committee has consistently ignored his character, as well as the series.

Says Tergesen, "I don't know, how do you give an Emmy for this? It scares people. And nobody wants to say, 'for his role as the sodomized prisoner ...' But I'm proud of my work."

* * *

On the docket

What's new in the fourth season of "Oz?"

For one thing, there are twice the usual number of episodes -- 16 -- but the season is airing in two parts. The first eight episodes bow Wednesday. Another eight are slated to begin Jan. 12.

Naturally, the Oswald State Correctional Facility is still a caldron of hatred, retribution, and warring factions. As the season opens, the prison lockdown is ending. Adebisi's got a gun. One longtimer gets rubbed out. And there is one de rigeur horrifying sight.

Here are a few other tidbits:

New regular characters: Reg E. Cathey as Martin Querns, new Emerald City unit manager; Lance Reddick as Desmond Mobay, an undercover cop determined to bust Em City's drug ring.

Old regulars, still at "Oz": Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson), Tim McManus (Terry Kinney), Sister Peter Marie Reimondo (Rita Moreno), Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons), Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen), Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker), Ryan O'Reily (Dean Winters), Miguel Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo), Nat Ginzberg (Charles Busch), Nikolai Stanislofsky (Philip Casnoff), Shirley Bellinger (Kathryn Erbe), Raoul Hernandez (Luis Guzman), Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni), Bob Rebadow (George Morfogen), Claire Howell (Kristin Rohde), Gloria Nathan (Lauren Velez), Kenny Wangler (J.D. Williams), Cyril O'Reily (Scott Winters), Father Ray Mukada (B.D. Wong), and Chucky Pancamo (Chuck Zito).

Note: Edie Falco, who had played guard Diane Wittlesey, is missing in the first eight episodes. There are allusions to Diane being in England -- an inside joke, since Falco had been appearing in the London production of "Side Man."

Guest stars this season: Edward Herrmann plays Beecher's father; Dana Ivey and John McMartin (Gloria Nathan's in-laws); David Johansen and Carlos Leon (prisoners); Gavin MacLeod (a cardinal who visits Oz); Pepa of Salt-N-Pepa (a recurring role as prison guard); and Dana Reeve (the governor's assistant campaign manager).

Will there be a fifth season of "Oz"? That depends not only on HBO, but whether creator Tom Fontana can find another studio space in which to rebuild his prison, which has been in Manhattan's Chelsea Market.

"We're being forced out. The owner gave the place to New York One for a 10-year lease," Fontana says. "Now, I have to go find another space, and this is not like moving the 'Spin City' set. It's a massive undertaking."


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