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The Inmates of Oz move into a new Emerald City

By Lauren David Peden
The New York Times
July 15, 2001

BAYONNE, N.J.-- TOM FONTANA, creator of the HBO prison drama "Oz," had no choice but to end the series' fourth season in February with a bang, blowing up the fictitious Oswald Correctional Facility. The show was being booted from the 60,000-square-foot space in Chelsea Market where its annual eight episodes had always been filmed, and viewers would need to know why the set looked different when they tune in next year.

The landlord at Chelsea Market on Ninth Avenue, Mr. Fontana said, had not given the show's producers the option of renegotiating their lease. "It was a lot of space, and he rented it to New York 1 " the cable news station " for 10 years because we could only do a yearly lease," he said. "He didn't even tell me. I found out by reading about it in The Villager."

With HBO committed to a fifth season for the series, the "Oz" team scrambled to find a suitably large space in a location convenient for the mostly New York-based cast and crew. They found it across the harbor at the Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne, a 437- acre Army base that closed in 1998. Its massive industrial buildings and tons of undeveloped land were just the thing for "Oz," which with upward of 30 recurring characters, countless guest spots and hundreds of tough-guy extras has one of the largest casts in the history of series television.

"Our locations guy called and said, `Come over and look at this place,' and I was like: `Bayonne? There's a tunnel involved; I can't go somewhere there's a tunnel,' " Mr. Fontana said. "But he sent me a plan and some photographs, and one of the photographs was of a place in Bayonne called Fontana's Pizza. I was like, well, it can't be that bad."

In April, after several months of round- the-clock construction, Building 73, a 120,000-square-foot warehouse-turned-maximum security prison, was ready to be occupied by the men and women of "Oz" (Mr. Fontana signed a three-year lease at $570,360 a year). And on May 23, Mayor Joseph V. Doria Jr. announced that Bayonne planned to develop a large portion of the terminal into a film and television production facility a kind of Hollywood on the Hudson. Ron Howard has already shot the feature "A Beautiful Mind," starring Russell Crowe, on a neighboring sound stage.

"This place was a godsend," Mr. Fontana said. "It's not like there was that much space sitting undeveloped two blocks from the Chelsea Market."

The new-and-improved location boasts enlarged and revamped gymnasium and cafeteria sets, a bigger Emerald City the experimental prison-within-a-prison where much of the show's action takes place with 15 more glass-walled pods, and linked sets that allow for longer establishing shots and more complex camera angles. But getting there was something of an adventure for the cast and crew during the filming of the new season's episodes, which ended late last month.

Dean Winters, who plays the scheming inmate Ryan O'Reily, used to jump on his bike and ride to the old set from his home in SoHo. Lee Tergesen (the fallen lawyer Tobias Beecher) was able to walk the 14 blocks from his apartment. This year, Mr. Tergesen commuted by motorcycle, and Mr. Winters, along with most of the other cast members, caught a ride in the "Oz" van, which shuttled between Manhattan and Bayonne several times a day. (Residents of the West Village might have noticed a group of familiar-looking felons loitering on a corner at 6 in the morning, five days a week.)

There was one unexpected benefit of spending 12 hours a day (from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) stuck out in what seemed like the middle of nowhere: the already tight cast became even closer. Lauren Velez (Dr. Gloria Nathan) used to go shopping or run errands on her lunch hour; J. K. Simmons (the neo-Nazi inmate Vern Schillinger, and the voice of the yellow M&M in commercials) would run to voiceover auditions; Eamonn Walker (the Muslim leader Kareem Said) would head downstairs for ice cream. This time the series regulars hung out on the lot or in their trailers, talking, eating and playing video games.

"I've been here five years with these guys and still didn't really know them," said Mums, who plays the inmate Poet. "Everybody would go their own way. Now we go outside and throw a football or softball around, and we're bonding more."

The camaraderie on "Oz" was readily apparent to a visitor. The prison factions Muslims, Aryans, Latinos, black gang members may mix it up on-screen with bloody consequences, but off-screen there was a jovial, laid-back vibe rare in the ego-driven entertainment industry. Between takes, Robert Clohessy (Officer Murphy) got a friendly back rub from a transvestite, while the pigtailed, pink-sweatered daughter of Michael Wright (Omar White) scampered among the enormous, tattooed extras. Dean Winters's mother, Penelope, watched from the sidelines. (Her son Scott, Dean's brother, plays O'Reily's brother Cyril.)

It felt like "take your family to `Oz' day," but cast members said it was par for the course. "We're so horrible to each other on the screen that we have to be really nice to each other off," Mr. Walker said. Cast and crew credited Mr. Fontana for the familial atmosphere, and for keeping the show fresh after five years.

"Tom has a million story lines in him," said Terry Kinney, who plays the prison administrator Tim McManus. "He keeps bringing in stuff that we're all surprised by, so it's not become repetitive in any way, and that has been a blessing for all of us."

Rita Moreno, who plays Sister Peter Marie, said: "Most writers don't want to hear from you, it's just, `Do your lines, collect your check and get out of here.' Tom is very accessible and he's always interested. If you have an idea and Tom likes it and can utilize it, he will. We have a wonderful kind of intimacy that is very rare between an actor and a writer."

The collaborative and mutually trusting atmosphere has made it easier for "Oz," which is HBO's longest-running dramatic series, to tackle highly charged issues like the death penalty and society's attitude toward criminals, to explore taboos like the sexual fantasies of a nun (an idea conceived by Ms. Moreno) and to offer realistically complex portrayals of same-sex relationships. "Oz" was dealing frankly with promiscuity and homosexuality before shows like "Sex and the City" or "Queer as Folk" existed, and its graphic depictions of the consequences of crime and violence pre- date "The Sopranos."

"We've done things that nobody else is doing," Mr. Tergesen said. His character, an upper-crust lawyer convicted of vehicular manslaughter, has fallen in love with a man for the first time; had a swastika tattooed on his rear by a savage cellmate; dealt with his son's murder and his wife's suicide; and bitten off the tip of a fellow prisoner's penis when forced to perform oral sex.

The violence of "Oz" can be hard to stomach, and its characters difficult or impossible to like. But "the show causes people to look at themselves," Mr. Tergesen said. "Whereas `The Sopranos' and `Queer as Folk' are more like, `That's not what I'm about.' You can look at it and feel separated from it. You know, `Oh, those gay guys!' or `Look at those gangsters aren't they quirky?' "

"There are lessons and there are morals to the stories" in "Oz," he said. "It's like, look at what we do to each other. I mean, it's really about the world; it just happens to take place in a prison."

The fifth season, which is to begin in January, will find Mr. Fontana in a more tender mood. He has introduced story arcs about prisoners training seeing-eye dogs and continuing inmate "interactions" led by Sister Peter. "There are genuine moments of redemption, several of them involving major characters," he said.

He is also trying to inject more estrogen into the show's testosterone-fueled atmosphere, with subplots involving the prisoners' female relatives and a new jailhouse music program overseen by Betty Buckley, playing O'Reily's biological mother. "This female element is going to be echoed throughout the whole season," Mr. Fontana said. "For me, it's just a matter of going, O.K., let's take this testosterone vat and let's see what a wife or a mother or just a friendly face would do to change the equation."

That doesn't mean that the show is done taking on tough topics, or that buckets of blood will not be shed in the name of realism. "I open up The New York Times any given day of the week, and there is another article about the prison system that's just fascinating, and I go, `That's a great story!' " Mr. Fontana said. "There are so many real stories out there that are fodder for a series, and I'm the only guy in the game.

"When we were doing `Homicide,' it was hard because I'd say, `Let's do a story about this' and one of the writers would go, `Oh, they did that on "Law and Order" last week.' So it got kind of frustrating. With this, nobody else is doing it. It's not like I go, `Oh, what are they doing on "Walker, Texas Ranger?" ' "

The fact that, even now, nobody else is doing quite what "Oz" does may account for its growing cachet among entertainers of all stripes. Actors from Steve Buscemi and Charles Busch to Uta Hagen and Elaine Stritch have performed on or directed the show, and rappers like Trech, Master P and Method Man have walked the prison's halls. Among the new season's guest stars are the Kiss drummer Peter Criss and the writer and actor Malachy McCourt.

Mr. Fontana said that recently, within the same week, he had been told that Kid Rock was interested in appearing on the show and that the writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak was a fan. "I thought, `From Kid Rock to Maurice Sendak that's the universe, as far as I can see.' "


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