As much as the greater public can be obsessed with law enforcement in terms of police procedurals, there are few creators willing to go the extra step and focus their television drama at a penitentiary. While the current generation was able to get a glimpse at what prison life can do to women in Jenji Kohan's Orange is the New Black on Netflix, Tom Fontana created Oz for HBO near the turn of the millennium in 1997 showing the lives of the incarcerated at a men's institution tackling various subjects considered then more taboo than currently. At the ATX Television Festival (via Deadline Hollywood), Fontana along with stars Terry Kinney, Lee Tergesen, Dean Winters, Harold Perrineau, and Kirk Acevedo talked about the groundbreaking series.
Before Oz, Fontana was already a creative force with his contributions in the medical drama St. Elsewhere and the police procedural series Homicide: Life on the Street. The three aforementioned Fontana series along with the short-lived The Beat share the same universe with creator Dick Wolf's Law & Order and Chicago franchises. "HBO trusted me, as the writer and producer, to make the show I wanted, as opposed to the show they thought they wanted. I thought that gave permission to do [shows like] Sopranos and Six Feet Under," he said. "I think…we took a chance, and it has allowed other people to make TV shows that take a chance."
Tergesen played Tobias Beecher, a person forced to be hardened by the prison system due to his lengthy sentence for his DUI manslaughter from his judge. "Nobody knew how people were going to take it," he recalled. "We were all out there going, 'Let's see what happens.'" Tobias was constantly terrorized by Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons), leader of the Neo-Nazis at the Oswald Correctional Facility. Winters, who played the incarcerated and vengeful Ryan O'Reilly, recalled a compliment that validated their work on the series. "I was with Lee at an event," he recalled. "We were in the bathroom and Chuck D from Public Enemy came in and saw us. He looked around and very quietly goes, 'You guys got it right,' and walked out."
Winters, who's also worked on Wolf shows, discussed how inspirational Fontana's work became. "I did a show seven years ago called Battle Creek," he said. "I was sitting on the set with Vince Gilligan and he told me he…became a writer because of seeing Tom Fontana's work in Homicide and made Breaking Bad because he thought he could get away with it after watching Oz." Winters added that Fontana broke down more barriers than anyone and claims he opened the floodgates. Kinney, who played warden assistant Tim McManus, lamented how Oz created layers of its incarcerated characters. "One of the things this show pioneered was creating full people that have a great range of ugliness in them," he said. "We always were able to access the risk-taking and bloodshed that American theater could have [because] Tom brought that to television." On top of humanizing its prison population Perrineau, who played prisoner and narrator Augustus Hill, added the series opened new doors with its commentary of the criminal justice system. "I think Oz really is one of those pieces that shed a light. I think it was really impactful to our consideration of what we're doing with prisons and led to lots of ideas about prison reform."
Not only did the actors benefit from being on a well-written series, Acevedo, who played prisoner Miguel Alvarez, complimented Fontana's invaluable empathy. "Showrunners don't ask us what we'd like to do differently. They don't ask at all," he said. "Tom is one of the only guys who cares so I appreciate that so much." Among the series regulars, it also starred Ernie Hudson, Eamonn Walker, Rita Moreno, Edie Falco, Christopher Meloni, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. To read more on the series including the invaluable lessons on set and the continued camaraderie among the cast, you can go to Deadline. The series is available to stream on HBO Max.