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Profiles in Oz: Lee Tergesen

By David R. Guarino
Windy City Times
Jan. 15, 2003

How much can one human being take before breaking? What, ultimately, are the triggers that cause an individual to disengage from what we know and understand to be the civilized world? How much of life is negotiable before animal instinct takes over and brute survival is seen as the last and only perceivable goal?

These queries into the human condition are certainly nothing new. Philosophers and psychologists have examined them for years.

But for one Tobias Beecher, Prisoner # 97 N 909, in the fictional world of HBO TV’s Oswald State Penitentiary (“OZ”), the descent into the basest levels of human functioning is both rapid and devastating. The fictional former Harvard graduate and attorney soon finds that aggressive, often violent knee-jerk reactions become a guide to survival in a world of unspeakable horrors and omnipresent danger.

Convicted of vehicular manslaughter while driving drunk and sentenced to 15 years in OZ, the complacent world of Tobias Beecher becomes a waking nightmare that changes his life forever. Beecher’s reality soon becomes a race against both time and perceived weakness. Soon after his incarceration, he becomes a “bitch,” or prag, of Aryan leader Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons). Subjected to repeated rape, mutilation (a swastika is burned on Beecher’s bare ass to signify his ‘belonging’ to Schillinger), Beecher somehow survives having both his arms and legs broken by nemesis Schillinger and his perceived lover, Chris Keller; having his murdered child’s severed hand mailed to him via the prison mail system; being given the news of his wife’s suicide; being forced to dress and perform in drag and full makeup for his master, Schillinger and other inmates; even being denied parole. Along the way, Beecher falls in love with podmate Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni) and begins a love affair with him only to suffer Keller’s betrayal and future abandonment.

Amidst this abysmal life of never-ending debasement and uncertainty, Beecher gradually evolves into a drug-using, sometimes sadistic, conniving aggressor. But amazingly, for all of the grisly acts that Beecher commits, whether under the influence of heroin, alcohol or other assorted mind-altering drugs or simply in his efforts to stay alive and appear strong (including biting off the tip of another inmate’s penis when forced to perform fellatio on him), Beecher finds out what he is truly made of. Yet somehow he manages to retain his core of compassion and his innate abilities to trust and even to love despite the indignities and demoralization he has suffered.

Lee Tergesen has masterfully taken the challenging role of Tobias Beecher and polished him into a sparkling jewel of discovery. Tergesen has oh-so carefully peeled away the layers of Beecher’s humanity in a continuing performance that hits so close to home it can be downright scary. As Toby makes one self-discovery after another aided by Tergesen’s deft interpretations, the viewer can relate to both conflict and resolution in a remarkably intimate way. The result is a portrayal by Tergesen that is nothing short of brilliant in its brutal honesty, depth of vision, explosions of raw emotion, and technical precision. Tergesen stretches the boundaries of his character to enable Beecher to go places where many mere mortals have feared to tread. We see Beecher at his strongest and at his most pitiful. Tergesen offers no apologies for the gore, the shocks or the pain. Beecher is allowed to experience everything he has to endure to survive; the good, the bad and most definitely the ugly.

Tergesen’s talents were well documented even before he was spotted by writer/producer/creator Tom Fontana while working in Los Angeles. Born in Ivoryton, Conn., the witty, likable and good-natured Tergesen is a graduate of Manhattan’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Lee is not an unfamiliar face on the NYC stage by any means. An early appearance on NBC’s Law and Order in 1990 preceded Tergesen’s relocation to Los Angeles. In 1991, Lee found himself cast in the “surfers as bank robbers” adventure flick, Point Break. A role in the Lifetime film, A Killing Mind, was followed by Tergesen’s appearance in HBO’s Cast a Deadly Spell.

In 1993, Lee starred with OZ castmate Edie Falco (they played husband and wife) in NBC’s widely popular series, Homicide: Life on the Street. But Tergesen has always had a flair for comedy, as attested to by one of his most recognizable roles, that of “Terry” alongside Mike Myers and Dana Carvey in the hugely popular Wayne’s World and its sequel. Tergesen can rightfully be credited for elevating the phrase “I love you, man” to immortalization in modern pop culture. A role as the sadistic older brother Chett in the USA/Sci-Fi series, Weird Science, was followed by Tergesen’s roles in many independent films, including 1994’s The Shot, George B from 1996, Diamonds (1999), Shot In The Dark (2001), and his memorable though short-lived role as a firefighter in the UPN police drama, The Beat. In 2001, Tergesen starred with Academy Award-nominee Laura Linney in Showtime’s original movie, Black Iris. He also found himself cast with Paul Sorvino, Coolio, and Sonia Braga in Perfume.

I found Tergesen to be warm, extremely candid, and hilarious when I had the good fortune to interview him in both Chicago and New York this past year.

DAVID GUARINO: Tobias Beecher is my favorite character on OZ and you are doing such a fantastic job of portraying him.

LEE TERGESEN: Well, you’re sounding like a pretty intelligent guy already. (laughs)

DG: How did you come to play this role? I know that you knew Tom Fontana (creator and lead writer), so did you audition for the part?

LT: I was living out in LA, and I’d been working on a show called Weird Science, and I’d been coming back east … I worked on seven episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street, and I actually have known Tom (Fontana) since 1989. And so when I did what was the last episode of Homicide, which was filmed in Baltimore, Tom had to come up to New York; I think that was in January. And he talked to me about the fact that they were going to be doing this show for HBO about a prison. And we discussed a couple of ideas about characters, one was a guard and one was a guy who turned out to be Tobias Beecher. And at the end of that conversation, he was like, “Well, you know, let me think about it.” And he called me back a few days later and said basically that I would be playing Beecher.

DG: I think your character is the one that most people can identify with and perhaps relate to. Beecher strikes me as just a normal guy who was driving drunk, had an accident, accidentally kills a young girl, and all of a sudden he’s caught up in this hell which is OZ. Many of the inmates living in OZ had lived lives of crime up to their incarcerations. Wouldn’t you agree?

LT: I would actually hesitate. First of all, that he (Beecher) was a normal guy. I don’t necessarily know that Beecher was “changed” by coming into OZ, but I think who he truly was, you know, came to be. ... That’s not the best way of putting it, but I think he was in some pain long before he got in there (into OZ). And, you know what, I’m sure that from what was divulged in the show, it wasn’t the first time he had been drunk driving. So he had been breaking the law; he’d been living outside the law. And actually as a lawyer, I mean, lawyers are not known for their scruples or their ethics, you know what I mean?

I know that people perceive it as, “Oh my God, this is just your average guy!” But what I think about it is that there’s not really any such thing as an average guy. We all carry something that we struggle with. And suffering is a part of life from the beginning. On the surface, I think that what’s great about the show is that the first time you watch it (and I think this is why a lot of people can’t watch it) is, the first time you watch it, it’s like, “WHAT THE FUCK!”

DG: Absolutely!

LT: But if you watch it more than once; you watch it a couple times, all of a sudden you start to understand these people, what motivates them. And all of a sudden all the stuff that seems to shock drops down a little bit, because you understand why they’re (the inmates) lashing out. And I think that’s the power of the show.

DG: OZ definitely pushes the envelope in terms of graphic portrayals. I don’t consider myself a person who shocks easily, but there have been a number of scenes on OZ which have made me cringe. Like the one where Sippel (a young priest convicted of fondling a young boy) is literally crucified …

LT: Yeah. Right. That’s the same episode where a guard got his eyes gouged out and Beecher’s arms and legs were broken in the gym. (Lee laughs) It was a tough ending. (To Season Two)

DG: Not to mention the scene in which you get your revenge on Schillinger …

LT: Right, exactly.

DG: Was that a tough scene to play?

LT: No! After the episodes that we had done; after the things we had done together, I was feeling pretty good about lashing out. (We both laugh) But I think it was totally uncomfortable for him.

DG: I can imagine, yes. Tell me this, Lee, do you have a close rapport with your fellow castmates on ‘OZ?’ Is it a tight crew?

LT: Yeah. Extremely so, David. We all have a lot of respect for each other. The people who I have worked most with, Chris Meloni (Chris Keller), Eamonn Walker (Kareem Said), Rita Moreno (Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) … you know, I was actually just talking to Rita the other day. I can’t tell you, I did a scene with her the other day and I got home and I was walking my dog and I was like, overwhelmed with, “Jesus Christ, I was just working with Rita Moreno!” Well, I’ve been working with her for years, but I just so appreciate the people I work with. We all have a lot of love for each other.

DG: Rita Moreno is an icon …

LT: At 70, she’s still, you know, finding things. She’s excited about the work, she’s open to learning, and it’s amazing…

DG: I’ve never really seen anything quite like OZ. I have to admire Tom Fontana for not only his vision, but also for the courage to do this show. I’m sure that things happen in real prisons that we couldn’t even imagine …

LT: Yeah. And we had some guards come once to the set and basically what they said was that they loved the show, and there was nothing in the show that, to them, rang false. Any of the things portrayed on OZ could happen if they haven’t already happened. And, they said, (in actual prison life) there will be a couple months where nothing happens (and on OZ shit is going on all the time) and it’s just real quiet. And then one thing happens which sparks a couple of months of violence. And what we said to them is, “Well the show is only on for two months at a time, so we can’t show the two months where nothing happens.”

DG: I wanted to ask you about a scene you played in the first season when you were first under Schillinger’s control, you were his prag …

LT: Yeah, his bitch.

DG: I’m talking about the scene in which you had to sing on stage in drag.

LT: How could I forget? (laughs)

DG: You had to sing “I’ve Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” Was that a really difficult scene? Did you have the support of your fellow cast members?

LT: Umm. Well, I have to say that the first year … I think that (the drag song) happens in the same episode in which I break the glass to Schillinger’s pod, right? ... So that episode was actually a turning point, David. It was really interesting, because up to that point, it’s not that I was ignored, but people were very confronted by what my character had to go through, from cast to crew. There was one scene a couple episodes before where Schillinger and I were in his cell … I think it’s the one where I’m collecting laundry and he’s playing with my nipples with his toes .. he was doing something horrible like that to me.

Well, I come out and I was between setups and they’re putting the camera somewhere else, and this crew guy, like a grip, sits down next to me. And I’m sort of like thinking about the scene, and he says to me, “What the fuck is this bullshit?” (I start laughing) “You should try to kick his ass!” First of all, how inappropriate is that? I didn’t say that to the guy, I just sort of looked at him and then he walked away. Actually I did say to him, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Initially, your thought is “Save yourself” and it’s not really clear what that means. But when everything (in your life) is different from what you thought the world was and Adebisi is all over you the first couple of days, and all of a sudden you’re like, “My God, I have to stay alive,” maybe it means this. And I think what was going on with the cast and crew was that each was thinking, “What would I do? Would I kick ass? Would I be the guy I think I am and just beat the shit out of the guy and maybe risk getting killed? Or, do I get fucked in the ass? You know, am I actually a bitch?” That’s what it comes down to, right? As soon as I threw the shit through the window and cursed Vern (Schillinger) out, everybody’s yelling, “Yeah, Beecher!” They were terrified and before everything was “Oh, poor Beecher.”

DG: So singing on stage was …

LT: Singing on stage was right before that happened. And you know what, the most humiliating part about it was that I was in terrible drag! You know, give me sexy shoes at least! (more laughter) I had these horrible gold shoes … that’s humiliation! Make me look good for fuck’s sake!

DG: Yeah, it wasn’t the most flattering ensemble, I’ll admit that to you…

LT: The dress was like two ripped-up red t-shirts! God! Even your best fashion model can’t look good in that … . Seriously, though, it was tough. Good thing you can’t hear the things they were screaming at me ... . It was pretty intense.

DG: That’s why I think it’s safe to say that you have masterfully portrayed this character of Tobias Beecher, the ups and downs, never compromising his true self.

LT: Thank you. And that’s the thing that Tom (Fontana) said at the beginning. You know he and I had been hanging out for quite a while and he knew that I had that side of me, that “wild man” side of me. And he said, “When the viewer sees the first episodes of Beecher, nobody’s going to expect that you’re going to make this turn.”

DG: Absolutely. It’s pretty shocking. And effective, too. Which brings me to your onscreen romance with Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni). What did it feel like when you and Chris had your first kiss in front of the cameras?

LT: When Chris and I started talking about when we were going to enact that first kiss, I said to him, “You know our tendency is going to be to try to shy away from this stuff. We don’t know how long the show is going to last and where it’s going to go, but this is going to be a part of what is our relationship, and if we pull away from it, that’s not the show. OZ doesn’t pull away from things, it looks right at them. But we both agreed to try and be there with it. And I think that’s what’s powerful about his and my onscreen relationship, which is completely fucked up as a relationship. People still root for it. Because they know the love is fucked up, and they know the love is hard. And they know that people do things that don’t have anything to do with the person they’re having a relationship with, it’s about something that happened when they were five. And to forgive as a lover unconditionally is the best we can hope for. If an actor is concentrating on what they won’t do, that’s ego-tripping. It’s about “I don’t want to be seen doing this.” And then what you’re talking about is you, not the character. I choose to find out how I can do it (when I’m interpreting a character) and see what’s there. And I’ll tell you, David, some of the scenes I’ve had with Chris (Meloni), what happens inside your head when you’re doing scenes like this and you’re putting yourself there fully … it’s really a very interesting landscape.

DG: The individual scenes and in fact the whole story line with you and Keller come across as genuine and believable.

LT: Chris (Meloni) and I took a couple trips together, things like that, to build a relationship. When you do things like that off-screen, you’re either going to be like (the characters at) the end of Deliverance, “Hey, I don’t think I’m going to see you for a while,” or you’re going to become close. He and I are very tight; we have a strong relationship because of this show.

DG: How would you characterize the sexuality of Tobias Beecher? Is he heterosexual, bisexual, gay? Or is he simply a lost soul searching for love wherever he can find it? Here’s a married man who finds himself in prison. His wife commits suicide and he’s got this relationship going with another man ...

LT: (Lee hesitates) You know, I think that Beecher does what he does out of love. Kierkegaard said, “If you label me, you negate me.” And I think that this goes back to what we were talking about earlier. Beecher had everything stripped away. His wife, his family; he’s separated from everything that he knows. He is demoralized in a way far beyond anything that he could have done to himself. And then he finds himself feeling something for Chris Keller. He is at a point where he has shut himself down. When Keller comes into the pod, Beecher’s gone crazy. He has created a persona that doesn’t let anybody in. He’s completely hardened and gone into a shell. And then Beecher hears that his wife has died. And Keller (even though he’s conning him), is there for him. You know what, I think that questions like, “Is he gay, is he heterosexual, is he bisexual” is something for you to decide. Not something for the character to proclaim.

DG: Lee, you have played a transsexual or transgendered character, have you not?

LT: Yeah.

DG: In New York City, a law was recently passed which guarantees full civil rights and freedom from discrimination to transgendered persons.

LT: I feel and I am committed to people being able to express themselves however that may be. Except when it comes to hurting other people. I have always felt an admiration for the entire transgender community. Because of the balls that it takes in this society to say, “This is who I am,” and to be so bold. I don’t understand why anybody would be discriminated against for any reason. I don’t care what you wear, it’s who you are that’s important.

Come on, please, I have friends who are transgendered. These people are just people. If you want to get scared, it’s like what I was saying about OZ. People watch the first episode, they go (Lee raises his voice to a squeak) “Oh my God I can’t watch that!” You know, you can’t watch it because you can’t look inside to see that in yourself. What I have found to be true is that when I have a problem with somebody, it’s because something in me is that. You know what I mean?

DG: Yeah. It’s kind of like a mirror of yourself.

LT: Mirroring! We’re all mirroring. See, I can let something be because I can let it be in myself. If I’m afraid of something that’s in me, then I don’t want to see it in the world, because the next thing then becomes, “Oh, my God, I might have to do that!”

DG: How do you feel about love?

LT: If you can express love in this world in any way to anyone that’s great. And there’s also nonphysical love. A lot of people cannot express themselves in that way. And that’s part of the reason the world has the troubles it has…

DG: What has playing the character of Tobias Beecher taught you about yourself?

LT: Ah, God! It’s a long list. I remember reading somewhere that when we expose ourselves or our self-image over and over again to annihilation, that which is truly “us” ends up rising to the surface. So that when you can do away with your preconceived notions of who you are or who you want to be perceived as, when you can let those drift away, then you can truly “be.” And I think that that’s sort of what Beecher has gone through. You know he reincarnated himself and now (especially in the last couple of seasons), since he started working with (Kareem) Said (Muslim leader in OZ) ... Said got him in touch with something he was previously not tapping into. And I have to say that as an actor, you bring yourself to the part, and there’s no way around that. It’s not, “that’s Tobias Beecher and I’m Lee Tergesen” and they’re completely separate.

The powerful thing that has happened for me from playing this character was letting go of who I think I am or what I am supposed to do. For example, concerning the story line with Chris Meloni (their homosexual love affair within OZ), I had heard a lot of stories in the industry about actors saying to other actors, “Never kiss a man,” all these sorts of things that you shouldn’t do. Which I’ve done most of. (We both laugh) I think this show has really taught me something which I have always known down deep, and that is that courage and fearlessness (doing something in the face of fear and not “without” fear) are rewarded. There’s no reason to stop yourself. If something’s in front of you to do, do it. And if it scares you, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. There’s just something that needs to be sanded down and smoothed over.


Copyright 2003 by David R. Guarino


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