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On the Air: Oz (Season 4)

By Bill Roundy and Gerald Bartell
The Washington Blade

Reading over an early script for Oz -- the HBO drama set in an upstate New York prison whose new season began July 12 [2000] -- actor Lee Tergesen said, "Whoa!"

Tergesen had spotted a scene in which his character, Tobias Beecher, turns to another prisoner, Keller (Chris Meloni), tells him he loves him, and then kisses him.

Confronting the scene was liberating for the actor, just as it was for his confined character.

"Chris and I got together," Tergesen recalls, "and it was challenging. We thought, we’re going to try and just get right through this. But then I suggested we go toward it, make it loving. I feel we gave the relationship much more depth."

Tergesen feels that the ongoing relationship between Tobias and Keller has forced Tobias to confront the core of his being. Before he was sent to prison for running over a child while driving drunk, Tobias was married and the father of two.

"Now," Tergesen says, "he may think, ‘Yeah, anything’s possible.’ Prison makes the issue of being gay stronger. Does it mean he’s not a man? He’s engaging in homosexual activity. What the struggle is doesn’t matter. Where it comes from does."

Working on the scene, Tergesen himself dug into "all that reactionary stuff about men" that he experienced in his own life.

"When you’re a young, vulnerable, pubescent kid, the kids on the playground call you a ‘faggot,’" Tergesen says. "As an adult, I don’t have to defend myself. Who you sleep with, who you love is a small part of who you are. If you can love somebody, you’re lucky."

The possibility exists, Tergesen adds, that the relationship between Tobias and Keller may be transitory. When he began work on his role, Tergesen talked to a former convict, an alcoholic who beat his girlfriend to death. In jail the man became sexually involved with his cellmate. Out of jail, the man resumed having sex with women.

"Are these men homosexual, or just pragmatic?" Tergesen asks.

For series creator, head writer and co-producer Tom Fontana, the men’s relationship is one of two types of male sex the show depicts. "There’s the brutal, sex-as-power-and-domination aspect, which has nothing to do with one’s orientation," Fontana said in a Blade interview two years ago. "And then there’s genuine homosexual love."

The possibility of love is what seems to matter to the many people who come up to Tergesen on the street.

"So often they ask, ‘Is there love there?’" Tergesen says. As to whether the characters are gay, Tergesen says his response is usually, "Do you care?"

Tergesen also notes that reaction to the characters from his gay friends has been extremely favorable. He hopes the portrayal of the two men will mark a step forward in the evolution of gay characters in media.

"Where I would like to see the characters fit in is as an inclusion of homosexuals in a story in which the major story point is not homosexuality," he says. "It can just be the way it is."


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