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by David R. Guarino

This article shared 4309 times since Wed Feb 5, 2003
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It is not surprising that the creator of HBO's prison drama, OZ, refers to the word 'faithful' in talking about his amazing success. For Tom Fontana, the concept of faith is a recurring theme that seems to be reflected in both his real life and the sinister land of the Oswald State Correctional Facility. 'Faithfulness' is obviously in part what prompted Fontana to act on his instincts and hire an ensemble of actors and actresses for OZ, (many of whom he had individually grown to know, trust and believe in) based on his 'faith' in them. Fontana remains 'faithful' to the individual cast members not only of OZ, but other Fontana mainstays such as Homicide: Life on the Street, Homicide: The Movie, and St. Elsewhere. Members of the OZ cast that I got to know while in NYC refer to 'The Fontana Umbrella,' and the inherent closeness of cast, crew and staff. It is apparent that the virtues of loyalty, trust and faith are recurring themes in the life of the creator of HBO's critically acclaimed prison drama.

Fontana's success seems all the sweeter when one considers his rather humble beginnings. It was the late Bruce Paltrow who took a chance on the struggling young writer from Buffalo, NY, and taught his protegee the business of writing and producing for television. Fontana's natural talents came to the fore from day one, and soon he found himself charged with writing one of the early episodes of the acclaimed TV drama, St. Elsewhere. Eventually his duties expanded to writer/producer, and his stories garnered him the Peabody Award and two Emmy Awards. He was also honored with both the Writers' Guild Award and the Humanitas Prize.

Tom went on to write the drama series, Homicide: Life On The Street, for NBC. The critically acclaimed series ran for seven years and netted Fontana an Emmy Award for 'Outstanding Individual Writing for A Drama Series.' Homicide also earned three Peabody Awards, two Writers' Guild Awards and four Television Critics Awards. Fontana won another Emmy for Homicide: The Movie.

Fontana also was the executive producer of the independent film, Jean, and the stirring documentary The Press Secretary, both for PBS. He also served as writer and producer on the series Tattinger's, Home Fires and The Beat. He wrote FireHouse: The Movie, a pilot for CBS, and Homicide: Life Everlasting, a movie-of-the-week for NBC. Fontana was the executive producer of CBS' American Tragedy, and the HBO Films production of Shot In the Heart, an epic about convicted murderer Gary Gilmore which featured Lee Tergesen. Tom penned The Fourth Wiseman (starring Martin Sheen) for ABC. His second ABC special, Judas and Jesus, premiered in 2002 as Judas at Canisius High School in Buffalo. The premier honored Fontana's fellow classmate Sean Rooney who died in the 9/11/01 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Fontana also contributed several pieces to America: A Tribute to Heroes.

Fontana's prison saga OZ has won three Cable Ace Awards, including Best Drama and the prize for Outstanding Series from The Cinema Tout Ecran Festival in France.

As for life 'after OZ,' Fontana and his partner, Barry Levinson, have already developed the brand new vehicle, Baseball Wives, which will make its premiere on HBO in 2003. The offices of The Levinson/ Fontana Company are located in The Village in NYC; New York is also where Tom Fontana makes his home.

DG: What would you say the message of OZ is in a couple of sentences?

TF: Well I think the ultimate message of the series is that it's easy to dismiss people; to put them in categories and negate their humanity. And I think what we've been trying to do over the last six years is to put a human face on the prison population in this country. Now, when I say a human face, I don't mean an idealistic face. I mean a face in all its humanity, good and bad.

So that when you read in the paper, oh there was a riot in the prison, it isn't just, 'Those prisoners, they're always rioting or whatever…' You will hopefully stop and think, 'Wait a minute. I wonder what the real reasons were.' And I also think that in my head the prison is a microcosm of society in general. So that even though things are played out to an extreme on the show because these are men of extreme action, it still relates to very basic things that confront all of us on a day-to-day basis. Whether its racism or ageism or greed or whatever. There's an equal amount of all of those things outside of a prison as well as inside of a prison.

DG: That's a message that came through for me early on because I think it's amazing how a viewer can empathize with a character like Ryan O'Reily, who commits some of the most despicable acts imaginable. And yet his humanity comes through especially in his love for his brother Cyril.

TF: Well I appreciate that, because my whole attitude from the beginning was, to kind of start with the stereotype and then keep revealing more layers (both positive and negative layers) as the series went on. And Ryan O'Reily is a perfect example of that. I mean, he was this Irish punk when he came in the door and over the course of time you should be as surprised by his heart as you are by his capacity for violence.

DG: I wanted to ask you about the recent death of Bruce Paltrow. This man was an important force in your life.

TF: He was my mentor. He was the guy who took an enormous chance with a struggling young writer and said, 'I'm going to let you write for me.' I wrote the third episode of St. Elsewhere. And he took a huge chance and he taught me everything I know about writing for television, producing for television. And also in terms of just being an overall good person, he was an extraordinary man. And I'm very close to his wife, he's married to (actress) Blythe Danner, and he has two children, Gwyneth and Jake. I'm very close to the whole family so it was a very traumatic time for them as well as for me.

DG: You maintain close relationships with the cast and crew of OZ. The praise (they have) for you ... these people really admire and respect you.

TF: I feel the same way about them. I have always said about OZ … and I have been very blessed in my career … St. Elsewhere, Homicide, etc., to work with really excellent actors. The whole cast of OZ comprises actors and actresses who are not only extremely talented, (but who are) courageous in a way that inspired me as a writer. You can't write a show like OZ if you are going to face resistance on the set. And these actors were incredibly supportive and adventurous. You know a lot of actors will say, 'Oh, I can't do that. My public won't allow that; they don't want to see me that way … .' Not from these actors. They're just … and that includes Rita (Moreno) and Ernie (Hudson), Terry (Kinney), everybody. They've got balls for days. (laughs)

DG: Terry Kinney, being one of the founders of Steppenwolf (Theater in Chicago), has a Chicago connection. And Rita Moreno has got to be one of the all-time greats of theater, film ...

TF: She is one of the Seven Wonders of the World! The energy and the passion that she goes into every scene with is just awesome.

DG: When did you first envision OZ?

TF: It kind of came in stages. When I was in my early 20s was when the Attica riots happened. And I was born in Buffalo, which is very close to Attica. And I remember at the time being very surprised by everything that happened over the course of the riots. You know, the prisoners taking over the prison. And then the state's response: sending in an armed force and killing a number of people, both prisoners and guards. Granted, it was the sixties … (Tom laughs) … it was a time to have impressions, but in one's head, I think. In any case, that kind of sat sallow in the back of my brain for a long time. And then doing Homicide, where we would send murderers away to prison … at the end of every good broadcast television cop show … the great moment is—the bad guy gets sent to prison. That's considered a wonderful thing, and we never think about that person again. I kept thinking, 'What happens to these people once we send them away?' And we actually shot a couple of episodes inside the prison in Baltimore. Once I was in there (the prison), I started going, 'Well, what's around that corner?' So it all really started to intrigue me from a writer's point of view. Then I started to pitch ideas to broadcast networks—at this time, HBO wasn't in our drama business. I pitched juvenile detention, medium security, boot camp, etc., and kind of got chased out of every executive's office. None of them wanted any part of it, they thought I was insane, which I don't deny, but … . Then I heard HBO was looking to do a drama series, their first. They were particularly interested in something related to prison. I talked to them about it and over a two-year period we developed the show. And I did a lot of research in and out of prisons and talking to ex-cons, cons and correctional officers, wardens and everybody. We started in 1997, so I actually went to HBO with the idea in 1995.

DG: What I really love about OZ is its realism. You can write the most beautiful prose in the world, but if an audience doesn't 'get it,' you lose them.

TF: What's funny about OZ for me and probably for most of the cast is that when we were first shooting it … we were having a great time making the first season, but we kept thinking, who's going to watch this? And over the course of the six years, it's been remarkable to see the diversity in the audience. One of the things that makes me proudest is that OZ doesn't have a niche audience. It's really an across-the-board American audience. It's Blacks, middle-aged housewives, gays, nuns, district attorneys. What I really hope is that the humanity we talked about is touching people, as you say. I'm very proud of that.

DG: I have heard that you said at one time that in OZ 'the horrendous is made mundane.' Was that your objective?

TF: My point is that violence happens with so much regularity in prison that it becomes commonplace. My attitude was that I needed the audience to experience (if they're going to understand why people behave the way that they do) prison life. It was important for the audience to feel the kind of edginess that a prisoner feels on a day-to-day basis. So what I was really attempting to do was to say, when the violence erupts it is often unexpected and quick, which most violence is. The violence isn't there for the sake of sensationalism; it is there to keep the audience leaning forward in their chair.


It is easy to forget about the downtrodden, the homeless and especially the incarcerated. It's far easier to concentrate on the pleasantries of life or, at the very least, life's simpler, more sublime elements.

Tom Fontana understands. And with enough faith to encompass an entire cast and crew, he captured his vision of the oft-discounted failing penal system with a fictitious cell block called Emerald City in the 'fairy tale' land of OZ. It has opened many eyes and has shattered many an illusion. Although OZ and its environs are but a manifestation of a brilliantly clever imagination, the faces, the stories and the plights of the inhabitants of Em City have made a mark, have left an indelible image. Indeed, Tom Fontana's gritty fairy tale has brought the never-ending struggles of the frequently forgotten real-life prison population back into our consciousness. Perhaps now it can become a focus for us as well.

Special thanks to Amanda B. at Gersh Talent Agency, NYC.


This article shared 4309 times since Wed Feb 5, 2003
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