Escape to Oz
brilliance of HBO's prison drama 'Oz' makes it TV's most intense
By Marc Allan
July 2, 2000
-- Take the slow, rickety elevator to the sixth floor of the
nondescript office building at 15th Street and Ninth Avenue, and
you'll be in the only prison where you actually might want to spend
Oswald State Correctional Facility -- Oz -- home to some of the most
violent offenders ever to appear on your TV screen. Simon Adebisi
infected another prisoner with AIDS-tainted blood and spiked an
inmate's food with ground glass, causing the internal bleeding that
slowly killed him. Ryan O'Reily instructed his brain-damaged brother
to kill the prison doctor's husband after she rejected his advances.
Kareem Said, head of the black Muslims, instigated a riot that left
several people dead. And so on.
For three seasons (the fourth begins July 12), HBO has put this
brutality on display in Oz, easily the best, most intense drama on
television. Oz is ugly, frightening, an unflinching demonstration of
the evil men do.
And on a glorious day back in mid-March, I visited the Oz set, where
the cast was shooting a scene that neatly summarizes the series'
dark brilliance. A new inmate has been buying large amounts of
drugs. The prisoners suspect he may be an undercover cop, so they
put him to the test by forcing him to snort heroin -- something an
undercover cop wouldn't be allowed to do. They lay out four lines on
the floor of the weight room. After each line goes up his nose, he
looks up to hear an ominous command from the prisoners who surround
him: "More." It's like a Greek chorus of doom. The scene is shot
over and over -- for more than an hour, from perhaps a dozen angles
-- to capture the terror of the suspected officer and the satisfied
glee of his antagonists. When it's wrapped up, there are smiles and
laughter all around.
If anything is jarring about being on this set, it's not the size of
the glass-and-chrome "Emerald City" area, which looks more spacious
on TV. No, it's the abrupt way the atmosphere changes. Prisoners who
inflict the worst physical and psychological damage on each other
one minute revert to what they are -- actors who like each other and
appreciate the chance to work with great material.
"It's a dream role," says Dean Winters, who plays the conniving
O'Reily, standing on the roof of the building for a cigarette break,
speaking with the same nervous energy as his character. "Every day I
come to work, I get to be so nasty and I get to really exorcise my
dark demons. "I was talking to someone the other day and they said,
'Do you find yourself starting to act like Ryan O'Reily in real
life?' First of all, if I did that, I'd be in a lot of trouble. But
I said no, it's just the opposite. I get to come here and be (a
jerk) and get my ya-ya's out. Then, when I leave the set, I'm like
the nicest person in the world."
That doesn't stop people from being scared. Winters tells the story
of being recognized on a subway early this year. He says the woman
who saw him started whimpering. His response: "I was like, 'Relax,
it's just a TV show, lady.' "
But Oz has that effect. The show isn't real, but it feels that way.
Every cast member has a story about viewers who've forgotten they're
watching scripted drama. Lee Tergesen plays Tobias Beecher, an
alcoholic lawyer sentenced to Oz after he killed a little girl in a
drunken-driving accident. Beecher is Everyman in prison -- small,
scared and vulnerable. Over three seasons, he has been raped,
branded with a swastika tattoo and had his arms and legs broken. He
also has learned to survive. Tergesen was in a New York pizza place
when a man walked up and said he hated Beecher. "What he hated,"
Tergesen says, "was the things I did. When Beecher would be abused,
the crew guys were always, 'Why don't you just kick his ass?' And I
was like, 'It's a scene.' "
He surmises that people who watch Oz put themselves in the
characters' places and wonder whether they could survive. "The rules
that apply on the outside don't apply in here," says Eamonn Walker,
the British actor who plays the powerful, focused and distinctly
American Minister Said (pronounced SI-eed). "The strongest survive,
or the smartest. Those are the rules. So when you call somebody evil
because they did something or they do something or they manipulate
to get their way, they don't really have any other options."
Consider the scene where the inmates force heroin on the suspected
undercover cop. Walker has been watching on a monitor in the prison
cafeteria (which is directly outside the prison gym/basketball
court) as the prisoners impose their will. "In jail, there are all
sorts of tests that you can put somebody through to see where they
stand," he says. "That's a test. It's not evil. They don't have any
other way of knowing. If they're wrong, he's got a bit of a problem,
and they'll get him off it. If they make a big mistake, they've got
so much too lose."
Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje agrees. He plays Adebisi, perhaps the
toughest prisoner in Oz and one of the ones commanding "more." "I
see him as a guy who's just doing his daily business, trying to
survive before they knock him off," says Akinnouye-Agbaje, who knows
something about people like the one he plays. He grew up in London
and Lagos, Nigeria, which he describes as "more vibrant, more
energetic, more ruthless than any city I've ever come across." A
trained lawyer, model, actor and musician, he came to the United
States seven years ago with the intention of making music inspired
by his heroes, the great African musician Fela Kuti and the father
of reggae, Bob Marley. Instead, he ended up in a Mary J. Blige music
video and movies including Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Sitting
in his dressing room, Adewale -- pronounced Ad-eh-wah-lay -- picks
up a trumpet and blows a short, soulful solo. This is not what
anyone would expect from Adebisi, who'd be more likely to use the
instrument to crush someone's skull.
Casting against type is something that appeals to Oz
creator/executive producer Tom Fontana, which is why he hired
venerable actress Rita Moreno -- the first person to win an Oscar,
Tony, Emmy and Grammy -- to play Sister Peter Marie. She calls it
"Tom's perverse notion of casting." As "Sister Pete," Moreno plays a
small but meaty role trying to counsel the prisoners. Having made
her fame as Anita in West Side Story, she's acquainted with
theatrical violence. But Oz goes places the Sharks and Jets would
have never talked about. Sometimes, that makes Moreno cringe. "I
think some of it's excessive, I really do," she says. "Very likely,
Tom may think so, too. But that's what he wants. I don't know what
demons he's trying to exorcise, but I can't help feeling there's
something that's very personal about the way he writes." That said,
she finds his writing "innovative and bold in the best sense."
Moreno tells what she calls a "delicious" story about Fontana
calling her with an idea about how to stage the prison riot that
ended Oz's first season. She said Fontana wanted to put on West Side
Story with Beecher in drag as Anita. The simulated violence in the
play would turn real, and the riot would be on. Unfortunately,
Moreno says with a laugh, the rights to the play were unavailable.
But that bit of mischief gives some insight into how Fontana thinks.
Ernie Hudson, who plays warden Leo Glynn, says: "I don't know how
people get through the stuff that goes on in Tom Fontana's head. And
I hope to never find out. Hudson's career has included roles in
everything from Roots: The Next Generation to Ghostbusters, and he
smiles when he talks about the demons Fontana lets out through Oz.
He also marvels at Fontana's ability to take the audience to prison,
a place they don't necessarily want to go, and explore subjects
they'd rather not face. "When I was a kid," Hudson says, "we thought
the military was a place to grow up. With my sons, college was the
place to grow up. It's that space between being a kid at home and
being an adult on your own. . . . But unfortunately for a lot of
young African-Americans, prison becomes that initiation period. I
hate to think what that implies."
While Oz deals with a heightened version of daily prison life, its
subplots have gone to other corners of society -- male breast
cancer, old people in prison, notorious inmates selling their
belongings through computer auction services. And, this being a show
about prison, Oz has delved into homosexual relationships. Among the
more intriguing and talked-about story lines is the ongoing
relationship between Beecher and Chris Keller (played by Chris
Meloni). "When it started, we were really nervous about it," says
Tergesen, who takes on the subject with characteristic good humor.
"Obviously, just because it was something we hadn't really dealt
with, especially at work. Because, let's face it, it wasn't like I
hadn't kissed men before. But it was weird when we first got that
script because we talked about it and we really wanted to go towards
it rather than shy away from it. And I think it paid off."
Before Oz, Tergesen's best-known role may have been as Terry, one of
Wayne and Garth's headbanging friends in the Wayne's World movies.
"I was the guy who said, 'I love you, Wayne. I love you, Garth.' Now
when I say 'I love you' to men, it's a little different," he jokes.
"But basically, the love theme is there in all my work." Tergesen
also has a serious psychological take on what has happened to
Beecher. "The greatest thing humans can do is assimilate," he says.
"The abused child can see the abuse as love. So it's the same sort
of thing -- you start to interpret things in a way that keeps you
from losing your mind."
Exactly right, says Winters, whose Ryan O'Reily keeps his sanity
(and the breath in his body) by playing his fellow prisoners against
one another. Winters grew up in New York City, which gives him a leg
up on survival instincts. Seven years ago, he and his brother Scott
(who plays his brother Cyril on Oz) met Fontana when they were
bartending. Both made appearances on Fontana's acclaimed NBC show,
Homicide: Life on the Street, before getting their roles on Oz. In
the spring, Winters thought Oz would finish its 11 weeks of taping
and he'd be out looking for work. But HBO ordered eight more
episodes, which gave the cast and crew double the work. The second
batch of episodes will begin airing in January, leading up to the
next season of HBO's The Sopranos. The stories of Tony Soprano and
the New Jersey mob have garnered their share of acclaim -- and then
some. Oz hasn't gotten nearly that amount of recognition, and cast
members speculate it's because of the grimness.
"People know it's quality TV," Walker says. "They just wish it
wasn't so real. When you explain that it has to be that harsh, it
has to be that real, the violence has to be that bad because we're
used to westerns where people go bang, bang, bang and John Wayne
gets up again two seconds later and you watch him in the second
matinee. "We've become conditioned to think that it's all right to
watch all that violence and, therefore, we can watch it over and
over again. The whole point of Oz is, yeah, it's harsh. Don't go
outside and play with this stuff. You bleed. You die."
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