For the series’ 20th anniversary, the actor who played Tobias Beecher looks back on the show’s violence, intrigue and fundamental truths. Spoilers follow.
HBO: Looking back to when the first episode was released, can you remember what drew you personally to the show?
Lee Tergesen: Working on Oz was like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. We were able to go to places other people couldn’t. HBO was just like, “Go ahead.” I remember the fear right before it was going to air and thinking, “What are people going to think when they see this show?” To go to the places Oz went was terrifying but exciting.
HBO: Were you wary of anything about the show? At the time, the nudity and language featured in Oz was uncharted territory for TV.
Lee Tergesen: Tom Fontana [the show creator] and I would talk at the beginning of every year about what was going to happen with the character. The fear wasn’t until we were done and it was about to come out. I had to trust the material and say let’s do it and see what happens. The funny thing is, when I was in my early 20s, I used to get drunk and get naked in bars all the time, and now all of a sudden I was going to be paid to get naked -- I was like, alright.
HBO: Tom Fontana described the process behind writing Oz as a “slow decline into madness.” Do you feel similarly about playing Beecher?
Lee Tergesen: I feel like that is the story of Beecher. He’s somebody that has everything stripped away. He has a very successful life on the outside and, all of a sudden through a mistake, ends up learning stuff about himself and going to a place that is terrifying. When everything externally is stripped away, who are you truly? One of the things I used to say is, “Beecher’s a nice guy, but he is a lawyer.”
HBO: How do you see violence factoring into the characters and plot?
Lee Tergesen: As heightened and as scary as the show was -- sometimes it was like a horror movie, sometimes like a romance novel -- there was truth. Another thing I loved about it was the more you learned about these people, you would start to laugh at scary characters like Vern Schillinger [played by J.K. Simmons], because you understood him and knew why he was doing what he’s doing. He becomes human. That’s what’s important about the show. People do things because there’s a reason. If you can take the time, you see where each character is coming from.
HBO: You and Christopher Meloni have an intense on-screen relationship as Tobias Beecher and Chris Keller. Looking back on it now, what about their relationship stands out to you?
Lee Tergesen: I loved that storyline and the fact that it was never about, “Am I gay?” It was just two people who fall in love. Back in the ‘90s there was nothing like that. There were no stories about two men just being intimate with each other. So many people have said to me that relationship, as twisted and weird as it was, gave them courage to be truthful about who they were. To have that kind of impact on somebody means a lot. Also, I got propositioned. I couldn’t tell you how many people wanted to have sex with me.
HBO: Considering the intensity and violence on screen, what was the atmosphere like on set?
Lee Tergesen: We would laugh our heads off -- you had to. That’s what I remember the most; it being hilarious and people being totally committed to the work. We had so much fun after we were done filming. We worked 7 am to 7 pm and had a blast after. Initially, we thought we might be “one and done” after the first season.
HBO: How did you and the other actors handle the more shocking parts of the show?
Lee Tergesen: After a few years there were people who came onto the show and were like, “What? I have to get naked?” And I’d be like, “Have you seen the show?” All of a sudden people would have religious beliefs that kept them from showing their penis. Chris Meloni and I were always trying to do the thing that hadn’t been done. There was excitement, like, “I’m the one who gets to bite the d**k off.”
HBO: Let’s talk about that scene…
Lee Tergesen: I got to do that at the beginning of the second season. Every year we had a wrap party where they’d show the first episode. So I’m in the middle of this crowd at a restaurant and there were 600 or 700 people. The scene started and I realize I’m about to get on my knees and blow this guy on screen -- I gotta get out of here now. I start to make my way out and just as I’m getting to the door, I hear the scene play and the crowd goes apes**t.
HBO: What do you think Oz has to offer 20 years later?
Lee Tergesen: I think the reason to watch the show is because it’s a roller coaster; it’s exciting. It doesn’t feel dated to me: because of how it’s shot and where it’s shot; because there is barely any “fashion” in it; because it’s the truth. There’s so much truth in it. If you haven’t seen it yet, it will blow your mind. It’s unbelievably good acting, not just because I’m in it. You will learn something about humanity.