Windy City Media Group Frontpage News


home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2022-06-08



by David R. Guarino

This article shared 4367 times since Wed Feb 5, 2003
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

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 4367 times since Wed Feb 5, 2003
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email


Gay News

Cubs win 'Field of Dreams' game; White Sox, Sky lose
In the "Field of Dreams" game on Aug. 11, the Chicago Cubs (46-65) defeated the Cincinnati Reds (44-67) 4-2 in Dyersville, Iowa. True to the nature of the classic 1989 movie, the game was played by ...

Gay News

Monkeypox vaccine events being held Aug. 13-14
The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH), along with City Colleges, will be holding monkeypox (MPV) vaccination events. The two events will be held at Malcolm X College on the West Side and Kennedy-King College on ...

Gay News

THEATER Kokandy's 'Sweeney Todd' running Sept. 8-Nov. 6
Kokandy Productions will continue its 10th-anniversary season with a revival of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street that will run Sept. 8-Nov. 6. The production will feature music and lyrics by Sondheim, ...

Gay News

Young LGBQ adults experience more psychological distress than older LGBQ people
-- From a Williams Institute press release - A new study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law finds younger LGBQ adults are physically healthier but have worse psychological distress than older LGBQ people. Researchers examined a representative sample of LGBQ people ...

Gay News

Howard Brown Health employees win union election
More than 470 employees at Chicago-based Howard Brown Health clinics, Broadway Youth Center and Brown Elephant retail locations announced Aug. 10 that they have won their union election, with 97% of the votes cast. This is ...

Gay News

StoryStudio Chicago's LGBTQ+ nonfiction writing class starting Aug. 17
StoryStudio Chicago is offering a unique writing class titled "June Is Not Enough: An LGBTQ+ Nonfiction Writing Class." The idea behind the class is to promote and foster the work of LGBTQ+ people. Writers who register ...

Gay News

Big Cities Health Coalition holds monkeypox virus briefing
Big Cities Health Coalition (BCHC) held a virtual monkeypox virus briefing Aug. 10 fthat ocused on local public health activities in Chicago. Speakers included BCHC Executive Director Chrissie Juliano and BCHC member and Chicago Department of ...

Gay News

COMEDY Talking with 'World' traveler Annick Adelle
Bay Area attorney Annick Adelle has decided to face one of her biggest fears: stand-up comedy. After starting in 2016, she is releasing her own album and touring throughout the United States. ...

Gay News

Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom names first queer woman to state supreme court
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his intention to appoint Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kelli Evans to serve as an associate justice of the California Supreme Court to fill the vacancy created by Justice Guerrero's elevation ...

Gay News

NYC Black Pride to mark 25th anniversary with events
New York City Black Pride is returning this month—and celebrating its 25th anniversary—with a days-long slate of engaging events, including an awards ceremony, discussions and other activities, according to Gay ...

Gay News

Center on Halsted hosting monkeypox vaccine clinics
Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St., continues its monkeypox vaccine clinics through August. These clinics are for first-dose vaccinations only. Online registration for each clinic opens at 10 a.m. each Wednesday prior to that respective ...

Gay News

Congo Square Theatre's 'What to Send Up When It Goes Down' at Lookingglass on Sept. 24-Oct. 16
-- From a press release - CHICAGO (Aug. 10, 2022)—Congo Square Theatre Company, one of the nation's premier African American ensemble theater companies, and Lookingglass Theatre Company announce that single tickets are now on sale for ...

Gay News

Another queer candidate is part of Chicago mayoral race
In addition to incumbent Lori Lightfoot as well as Ald. Raymond Lopez and media figure DJ Doran, there is a new LGBTQ+ candidate in the race for Chicago mayor. According to their website, J Saxon "is ...

Gay News

Sky lose historic game; Cubs fall; White Sox split
In what was openly lesbian WNBA legend Sue Bird's final regular-season game against the Chicago Sky (25-9), things certainly were memorable for her and the Seattle Storm (21-13). The Storm defeated the Sky 111-100 at Wintrust ...

Gay News

Chicago Ald. Sophia King enters mayoral race
Chicago Ald. Sophia King (4th Ward) has officially entered the Chicago mayoral race. "I love this city. We need a Chicago that's safer AND stronger," King says in the video, according to NBC Chicago. "Let's put ...


Copyright © 2022 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.







About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Advanced Search     
Windy City Queercast      Queercast Archives     
Press  Releases      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast      Blogs     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam     
Privacy Policy     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.