Elon Green’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
I got obsessed with Oz a few a months ago, when I rewatched the entire show as I was unpacking the house. If you don’t know it—I pity you—Oz, produced by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, is the fictional depiction of a prison and its inmates. It got decent reviews, but many critics were put off by the violence. “I am starting to think that some of the violence is excessive,” wrote the Baltimore Sun‘s David Zurawik. “[A]re its sociological themes anything more than window dressing for lurid prison scenes?” asked Caryn James for the New York Times. “The show is as dehumanizing as the prison system it attacks,” said USA Today‘s Dinitia Smith.
Seeing Oz 12 years after it went off the air, however, I was struck by two things. First, how unexaggerated it seems now — it’s brutal and violent, sure, but no more so than an actual supermax. But also, how remarkable it was that one of the main characters is a strong, proud Muslim man, who is unapologetically faithful and is, for the most part, not mocked for it.
After a little prodding, Tom Fontana, who also wrote and produced Homicide: Life on the Streets, invited me to his Manhattan office to talk about Oz and its legacy.
ELON GREEN: I went back and watched the show again, and it was a strange experience. Some it really seemed like a documentary. Particularly the stuff with the Aryan Brotherhood. I just read David Grann’s New Yorker story on them, which was published years after the show began. Everything just seemed way ahead of its time.
TOM FONTANA: Well, I did a couple of years of research before I started really figuring out what the show was. I went to a lot of prisons—maximum security, medium security—and what I began to see was the populations, and how segregated they were. It really was, in a way, reporting. Because all I did was form the characters, not out of any individuals that I met, but out of this sort of, oh, this the world, not only in small, but in extremis. It is the world that we live in, but literally all the walls are torn down. These people have to exist with each other, you know, or die in the trying.
Which prisons did you visit?
Oh god, I have a terrible memory. They were Tri-state area ones, one in Colorado.
Was Emerald City based on a program you’d actually seen?
No, it wasn’t. It was a compilation of various places that I saw, but the actual program itself was a complete creation, out of me taking bits and pieces of things. All the modern prisons that I visited were not connected to an older prison in the way that we had the two buildings side by side [on Oz]. So you were literally going from the new building into the old building. That didn’t exist anywhere that I saw.
I read that, at some point, you guys were getting tips from Amnesty International. But I assume that, originally, the violent episodes didn’t come purely from imagination.
No, what was created from imagination was the concept of Em City. But the actual incidents, a lot of them were based on things. I interviewed a lot of men in prison and also COs. I was always hesitant to use something that an actual prisoner told me, only because I was like, What if they get out and see the show? They’d go, “Wait a minute, you fuck!” So I had to vary things. But there were certain things—the tattooing of the ass, I have to admit, was my idea. You know, [Vern] Schillinger tattooing [Tobias] Beecher’s ass. But there’s a lot of tattoo art going on in prisons.
The feeding of the glass—[Ryan] O’Reily feeding glass to [Nino] Schibetta, whatever his name was—that was something I was told. And I said, naively, to this prisoner who told me this, “Well, didn’t that take a lot of time?” And he said, “What else have I got?” You know what I mean? And the COs throwing the rat in solitary. And even the spoon—the spoon up the guy’s ass was something I was told about. And it was just so horrific that I was like, Oh my god.
Some of the early reviews and critiques of the show that claimed the violence was exaggerated must’ve really irritated you. Because you knew what it was based on.
Yeah. My favorite one was the TV Guide critic who said something to the effect of, “This show is an offense against God.” I actually called the editor of TV Guide and said, “Look. I can take criticism. This show takes risks. I’m more than happy to take my lumps. But where does a TV Guide critic get off saying that he knows the mind of God?” And the TV Guide editor says, “I have to apologize.” Because we premiered in the summer, the critic was on vacation. “And he took it out on you.” And I said, Yeah, but even so! God speaks to TV Guide and TV Guide tells the world!
What an extraordinary criticism, too, because one striking thing about the show is how much it’s about religion and the faith of the prisoners.
Absolutely! My goal was to do redemption versus retribution. I was constantly saying to the actors and the other writers, If you can find God in a prison, then He must exist. Because you can find Him in a cathedral—that’s not hard. That takes no brains whatsoever. To find God in a prison is really extraordinary. So I wanted to explore that. But I didn’t want to do polemics, and I didn’t want to preach, because I’m not a preacher. I’m a dramatist. So my attitude was, let’s examine the faith various characters, and see how it applies under these extreme rules of engagement that they’re now forced to be in.
You mentioned the tattoos. Do you still have yours?
Oh, my God.
You know who asked to have a photo with it? Dr. Oz, which is absolutely hilarious.
I bled for the tape.
That was in the opening credits of the first episode. You had a huge amount of confidence…
[laughter] No! I honestly had no expectation whatsoever. But I did know, for myself, that this was sort of next-level in my career and my writing, you know what I mean? Because of HBO. I knew this was a significant thing. I joked to people later that I was going to get all my shows tattooed on my body. I won’t even tell you where Homicide: Life on the Street was going to go.
One of the extraordinary things about the show is the depiction of the Muslim characters who, like, just exist. Nobody mocks their faith. They’re just religious the way everyone else was religious. And I can’t think of a series before Oz where that happened, and I’m not sure it’s happened since.
[Kareem] Said was the first Muslim character as a regular on a television series. Where that came from was, if you study the populations, you can’t not include Black Muslims in the storytelling. It would be completely bullshit.
What I was trying to do, initially, was to get the audience comfortable with the Black Muslim character. And the way I did that was, I actually sat and read the Koran and took out whatever pieces of wisdom in it that are the same as the ones that are in the Bible. Honor thy father and thy mother, you know, Thou shalt not steal—the basics. And that’s what he talks about in those first few episodes. No one says in the show, Oh, that’s just like Christians. I just wanted you, if you were watching it, to go, “What a minute…Honor thy father and thy mother. I know what that is!” Because I was trying to break a barrier, while still maintaining this incredibly powerful force, you know, that Said needed to be.
I can’t imagine the show being made after September 11, 2001.
You know, we were still shooting after September 11. One of the things that I had to do, personally—because I lost a lot of friends on September 11; firefighters, a guy I went to high school with, a couple of television friends—I had to say to myself, “Am I going to make this an issue of the series, from this point on?” And I really struggled with it. And I decided not to for two reasons. One is, I wasn’t ready to write about September 11. I saw the second tower fall with my own eyes, so I could not emotionally go there. And I didn’t want to trivialize it. I didn’t want to exploit it. The other reason was simply that I thought it would take over the show, that if I introduced it, it would be all that we could really deal with. Because it was such a monumental event, at the moment. So I decided that in this unknown place where Oz exists—I never name the state, on purpose; I didn’t want it to be New York or Colorado or any place—September 11 didn’t happen.
Have you seen Orange is the New Black? One of the show’s narrative tropes are the Oz-like character flashbacks, showing how they ended up in prison.
I haven’t seen it, on purpose, I have to admit. And I’m a little nervous to because I’ve heard that…
One thing I appreciate now is how nuanced the characters are. With a few exceptions, like Adebisi, I wouldn’t characterize any of them as unambiguously good or bad people. It was, I think, an achievement to have morally ambiguous characters in an extreme setting.
What I wanted to do was disarm people, like with Said. I wanted them to go in with a prejudice and them disarm them of that prejudice. You think this guy is evil, but now I’m going have him do something that makes you care about him. And then have him to something worse than he’d done before—because I wanted to keep the audience off balance. It was important to me that the audience not sit back in their chair watching the show. That they not feel comfortable, if that makes any sense. If they were gonna experience being in a prison, I felt like they should be constantly going, ‘Whoa! What’s that? What’s that?’ So that’s why, with the characters, I wanted to keep shifting the good and the bad, the good and the bad. Because even Schillinger had this thing with his son. He fucked it up, but he was trying. You saw at least he could be a father. He wanted to be a father. Adebisi, it was harder, because it was just so much fun to write that character.
It was hard to take your eyes off him.
And you could not, on the set, predict what he was going to do. If in a scene it said, “Adebisi takes out his penis,” he would go, “I don’t take out my penis in this scene. There’s no reason for me to do that.” And I’d say ok, Adewale [Akinnuoye-Agbaje], don’t take out your penis. I don’t care. The next scene he’d take out the penis. It wasn’t scripted for that, but suddenly there was the penis.
How much leeway did you give the actors to ad-lib?
There are a lot of actors who don’t want to play something ugly. Because they don’t want the audience to perceive them as—they have this thing, “oh, my fans won’t accept me for that.” The Oz actors were all willing to try anything. And more times than not, whatever I wanted them to do, they would take it one step beyond that, to something even more extraordinary. We really tried to create an environment where it was a collaboration. But ultimately everybody knew I was the final conscience of the show, and I would have the final edits.
It’s been interesting to see actors from Oz, many of whom have gone on to have great careers, in other roles. It’s particularly difficult to see J.K. as anything other than a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.
[looks over my shoulder] Hey! This is Dean Winters of Oz.
DEAN WINTERS: I heard this was going on and I wanted to stop by. Does that freak you out?
A little bit. It’s a little surreal. You should stick around. I was just telling Mr. Fontana that it’s hard to accept the actors from Oz in subsequent roles. They had been so well developed. J.K. Simmons as a white supremacist is so branded in my brain.
FONTANA: Barry had a very funny line about Dean and J.K. Because, you know, Dean’s Mayhem commercials and J.K.’s Farmers Insurance commercials. “I wanna know who thought that two guys, the two worst behaved criminals on Oz, would be the guy you’d buy insurance from?”
But I’ll say one thing about Dean. I mean, he was so different—as Dennis—and Mayhem is so different. Even the show he just finished doing, Battle Creek, it’s so different. I think it shows, it sort of breaks the serious-guy-from-Oz thing. Whereas with J.K. what’s fun is seeing him in these other parts and then seeing Whiplash…
WINTERS: And Whiplash is just an extension of Oz. Those characters could be cousins.
FONTANA: Yeah, absolutely. But he took it up a notch.
On the flipside, you took actors who had well established roles and you made us forget them. Luke Perry, for example. By the end of his first episode, Beverly Hills 90210 was a distant memory.
FONTANA: And God love Luke. Luke loved the show and he’s good friends with Dean. And he said, “I really want to do this show,” and I was like, “Ehhhhhh.” I don’t know how to make that happen yet. I have to really think about it.
WINTERS: And when Luke came in, it was so brave, because he had had the stigma of 90210. And when Luke showed up, he played this evangelical minister. He had a beard. I think it was his first or second day, he had to do a scene where he walked through Emerald City buck naked. It was great for the story, but it was also a bit of Luke shedding that image.
FONTANA: We started getting calls from all these rappers. All these people. Literally, Mike Tyson’s manager called to say he wants to be on the show. And I was like, ‘He just got out of prison!’ I mean, does he really want to be on Oz? I would have to have a conversation with whoever wanted to be on the show and say, Look, it’s not just about you getting to do these scenes. When we’re in Em City, you have to be an extra. Because my attitude from the beginning was: the reality is you’re following someone and there’s O’Reily having a conversation with Beecher. It’s only texture. And Luke totally embraced that to the point where he would create his little Bible study group. They’d create little dramas, you know what I mean? I thought that was so great.
WINTERS: It was amazing. If you really pay attention to what’s going on in the background, it’s not just a bunch of people moving their mouths. Like, the Muslims. Eamonn [Walker] was leading them in Muslim rituals. Luke was doing Bible studies. The Hells Angels were probably doing their Hells Angels business. Because a lot of the bikers were actually Hells Angels. So you had these factions of people that knew that they were extras, but they weren’t just your typical extras in the background. They were actually doing something that you’d see being done in prison.
FONTANA: I’ll tell you a funny story. A director who said to two extras—$99 a day guys—”You and you, watch TV. You and you sit over here.” And they go, “No.” And he goes, “What do you mean, no?” And he says, “I’d kill him if I had to sit next to him. I hate his character.” And they literally did 20 minutes about how, in season one, he said this about my grandmother… And the director is like, “OK, OK. Forget it.”
WINTERS: Everyone took their job seriously. Every single person on that show.
There’s always something going on. There’s nothing wasted in the frame.
FONTANA: In terms of the rhythm of the show, it was purposely noisy, so that when it was quiet you would listen more intently.
How did playing the character affect you? Ian McKellen famously downplayed the extent to which an actor inhabits a role, but I don’t know. I find it hard to imagine it didn’t affect you on some level.
WINTERS: It really affected me the first year. It was the first time I’d ever gone to work and brought a character home everyday, and I didn’t really know how to let it go. It was intense. I think it did something to me, in a positive way. It gave me a little more confidence. But I was having a hard time.
Terry Kinney, who played McManus, gave me some great advice. He said, “When they say you’re done, don’t leave the set. Go to room and relax and have a glass of wine. Do whatever you gotta do. Leave it there. Because if you walk out of the building with what you’re doing with that day, it can be a big challenge.” He gave me that advice the second year. The first year, I was on my own.
FONTANA: The other thing that was interesting, they would go bowling together, they’d go out. During the day, it was like, “I’m gonna kill you, you motherfucking cocksucker.” And then at night, it would be like, “Let’s go get pizza.”
WINTERS: We were a pack of roaming, wild dogs, from like ’97 to 2003. And people knew, “Oh, there are the Oz guys.” There was a band of us: myself, Lee Tergesen, Eamonn Walker, Kirk Acevedo… We ran around the city like inmates who, well, just got out of prison.
Where was it shot?
WINTERS: Sixteenth and ninth.
FONTANA: And then we moved over the Bayonne, to an old Army terminal.
WINTERS: Navy base.
Your character more or less keeps his hands clean, but he probably facilitates more horrible shit than any other character on the show. And yet he’s impossible not to like.
WINTERS: Tom wrote the part of Ryan O’Reily by watching me bartend. When I was a bartender, especially the last place I worked at, which was a real rock ‘n’ roll bar on 15th Street, I was like the maestro. If you left my bar with cab fare, I felt like I failed. I was constantly hustling people out of money. I was facilitating this deal, that deal. I would do anything to make a buck.
The relationship to Cyril is heartbreaking.
WINTERS: You know that he’s my real brother, right?
Yes, but just because two actors have a real relationship, it doesn’t always translate into chemistry. Look at Eyes Wide Shut…
WINTERS: Well, that was a gift that Tom had given me. And Tom also brought my brother Brad in as a writer. Just to be able to act with one brother and to look over towards the director’s chair and seeing my other brother, it made for a real safe haven. I felt like I could go anywhere. Scott [Winters] and I had a shorthand and we’re very close. It was interesting because, you know, growing up Scott had always—even though I was older—Scott had always been the older brother. So it was a real testament to Tom’s love for me and for the writing of the character that Tom gave me the opportunity to be a big brother to Scott for the first time. And it just happened to be in the form of the character Ryan O’Reily. It was a beautiful ride, you know?
Anyway, I’ll let you guys get back to it. Thomas? Give you a call later?
I guess I’ll only be half-surprised if J.K. Simmons walks in.
FONTANA: And my next guest…
I think the times have caught up with the show. Even though I’m pretty sure Oz couldn’t get made today, it would probably be more accepted.
Television matured in the years since Oz. The audience, which got so used to the same old, same old television shows, developed an appetite, not just for one thing but for a lot of different kinds of meals. Television’s greatest sin is if there’s a successful show, they make five of them. What I think has happened now is, we have an audience that is so vast and so willing anywhere they might be taken, that I’d say that’s true. I’m just grateful the show exists because once upon a time, when I was doing St. Elsewhere, it ran twice. And that was it. You never saw it again.
You said HBO was pretty hands off. Did they ever say you’d crossed a line?
In six seasons, I maybe got three notes from HBO. One of them was a flashback of a guy in a house who shoots the husband, the wife, and then points the gun on the children. HBO said, “Could the gun be pointed for less time?” They weren’t gonna say don’t point the gun at children. They were just saying, perhaps it could be less. When you only get three notes in six years, you tend to do the note.
It was the pioneer days. They [HBO] were insecure. It was only when Sopranos and Six Feet Under came out that they started to go, “Oh! We know drama.” So I got away with things that probably I shouldn’t’ve.
For a violent show, it also seemed like the greatest argument against the death penalty. Whether it’s the scenes with Cyril or Shirley Bellinger on the scaffold…
It’s funny you say that, because I think I’m a typical American in this regard. I am against the death penalty, unless somebody does something that I think they should be killed for. And then I’m for the death penalty. I think I should be able to decide who lives and who dies.
But I’m really against the death penalty. Every year I wanted to do a death penalty story, culminating with Cyril. Because that one I really wanted to make as painful as possible. The length of time that he went through, the two executions. So I wanted to do it every year. And one of the good things about not naming the state is I could do different forms of execution that really exist. For example, Utah still had a firing squad. I was like, “Firing squad? I love firing squad!” Hanging!
I’d read that Kristin Rohde was originally supposed to have a bit part, but she was so good that you kept her on.
That happened a lot. It happened with muMs. I’d try people out who didn’t necessarily have a lot of film experience. In fact, the first time that muMs shot, he was doing the poem on the stage. He kept being told, “Don’t look at the camera,” and he would look at the camera. And then we’d cut and say, “Don’t look at the camera.” He’d look at the camera. Over the course of time, I gave him more dialogue to do until he was really confident in his acting.
With Kristin, I knew her from theater work. She hadn’t done much television. After I let Edie [Falco] go to do Sopranos, I wanted to have another woman CO. But until you find the right actress, then it’s just an actress with a gun belt. It seems like a stunt. But with Kristin, I was like, she can really kick ass with this part.
Did you ever get feedback from prisoners?
God, yes. First of all, I was stunned that they allowed them to watch the show in prison. I’m like, who’s the warden? Get him on the phone! I would get letters, because this is way before email, from prisoners who saw the show. They’d say, “This case is just like my case. But I’m innocent. And I’m filing an appeal and I’d like to send you my file.” This happened, like, every couple of months. And I’d always have to write back and go, Look, I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know anything about anything. I’m just a guy who tells stories. I can’t help you.
One time, we were out to dinner, a bunch of us, and there was a group of women sitting having dinner at the next table. And they saw the Oz guys and they got all, like, crazy. They said, “We love the show,” and we said, ugh, okay, thanks. What you do? And they go, “We’re correctional officers!”
The two old guys [Agamemnon Busmalis and Bob Rebadow]. They’re so important to the show, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because they’re on their own wavelength? It keeps things from getting bogged down in the darkness. Because they’re not trying to kill people. And they’re not being bothered. At the same time, it’s also heartbreaking, to be elderly in prison.
That’s really where it came from. We’re so used to seeing young guys. Both those actors I knew very well. I’d worked with them both numerous times and wrote the parts specifically for them. I thought aging in prison was something no one ever talked about.
Over the six seasons, it’s remarkable how many different aspects of the prison system are touched upon. Not just aging, but recidivism.
The joy of doing a series is you really can explore all those different pieces of the puzzle and assemble a part larger picture than if you were doing a two-hour movie.
Why did you end the show?
It was a very hard decision. I knew I had another season in me, but I didn’t know if I had more than that. And I was worried that the show would start to turn into a parody of itself. How many times can you put this set of characters in a jackpot situation? In terms of the main characters, I didn’t want to start bringing in new actors and have people die or leave—the core people, like Dean or Lee or Terry or Eamonn.
How did the casting of Rick Fox come about?
I had the idea for the character. And I said to the casting director, “I’d like to get a real basketball player, a real NBA guy.” And the playoffs were happening. As teams got eliminated, the players were showing up because they were out of contention. They’d be sitting outside my office with a script. And the actors and crew would walk by and say, Holy shit, that’s so and so. And they’d come to me and say, You’re gonna pick so and so, come on. And I’m like, I’m not actually picking him for his ball playing.
Is there anything that you couldn’t do on the show that you wish you had?
For the last episode, my original idea was to do something I’d read about. There was a flood in a prison town. The river was overflowing so they removed the prisoners. The prisoners worked side by side with the townspeople to put up the sandbags and protect the town.
I thought that would be the ideal way to end this series. Just this image of all the guys next to someone who would normally be terrified of them. Handing each other sandbags, people getting hurt, whatever. And it was just too expensive. We couldn’t figure out the logistics. We’d have to get a river, we’d have to have it overflow.
So the ending that we have I’m happy with. But I would have been happier. Symbolically, what I was trying to say was these are people, too. They have faces, too. And in moments they have a shared humanity with all of us. That, to me, would have been the perfect ending.
Elon Green is a freelance writer. He's on Twitter and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.