Oz Actors Reflect on 20 Years of Breaking the Rules
by Robert Silva
“It was the cast that really inspired me,” said Oz creator Tom Fontana at PaleyFest New York, reflecting on the show’s 20th anniversary. Set in Oswald Correctional Institution, the series rewrote the rules of TV when it premiered in 1997, chronicling the violent lives — and violent ends — of inmates, guards and prison officials.
In a raucous reunion frequently broken up by laughter, cast members Lee Tergesen, Dean Winters, Edie Falco, Eamonn Walker, Terry Kinney and Craig muMs Grant recalled navigating the show’s dangerous dramatic territory — offscreen and on — with Fontana and moderator David Simon (The Wire, The Deuce). It was a wild ride.
Late to Set? You’re Dead.
“The first thing we did when we’d go through a script was see if we died,” said Terry Kinney, who played prison unit manager Tim McManus.
The show regularly shocked viewers by killing off main characters — a new thing in 1997. While the show’s ghastly deaths might come off as sudden and unexpected to the viewer, the cast revealed there was often a method to the madness.
“A surefire way to be dead was to show up late,” Kinney said. Case in point, a guest star who was repeatedly late was crucified on a gym floor.
David Simon, who got his start as a TV writer with Fontana, wryly noted his characters’ endings also have a gruesome, metaphorical (Fontana-esque?) quality.
Tony Soprano Got Edie Falco Out of Jail
“I believe you found some other work in television. Something in… New Jersey?” David Simon teased Falco. Falco, who played prison guard Diane Whittlesey for four seasons, left the show to join the cast of a new series called The Sopranos.
Was it hard to be a woman in the masculine hothouse of Oz? “I felt very much at home. I had to remind myself that I was one of very few women on the show,” Falco said.
After assessing that the new role was an important one — “and well-paid!” — Fontana wrote Falco off the show with an uncharacteristic lack of gore. Her character was whisked off to England where she got “engaged to someone else.”
“I was just wishing her well in her marriage to Tony Soprano,” Fontana explained. (Falco would go on to win three Emmys for her work as Carmela Soprano.)
Texting with J.K. Simmons
The twisted relationship between middle-class drunk driver Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) and Aryan cellmate Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons) took the actors to strange places not seen before on American TV. Getting branded with a swastika in the first episode, Tergesen said, set the tone, but was just the start.
“I texted J.K. Simmons when he won the Oscar [for Whiplash]. I said, ‘Hey man, I just realized I licked the boots of an Oscar winner!’ He texted me back: ‘If memory serves, you also s**t in my face.’”
The Legacy of Oz
“Somebody’s actually going to put this on the air?” Simon recalls thinking after he was shown the pilot of Oz. Greenlit by HBO, the groundbreaking drama became a reality and, according to Simon, pushed boundaries that made The Wire possible. “The universe upended itself. Suddenly you could write a dark story, and you could have endings that weren’t redemptive.”
“We tried to break every single rule of network television and wanted to keep pushing boundaries and going past them as much as we could,” Kinney recalled.
Dean Winters, who played master manipulator Ryan O'Reily, called out the show’s diversity. “Our lead actor was a Muslim. We had a gay relationship on the show. We were ringing all those bells before people were even thinking about talking about them.”
“I think it opened the doors for a lot of the great television we have now,” said Fontana on the red carpet, but he also saw Oz as still unsettlingly relevant for the world of 2017. “On a social justice level, I think the penal system still sucks.”
Prison as a “Perfect Dramatic Laboratory”
What does the prison drama say to viewers 20 years later? Simon, in looking back on the show, saw the prison setting as “a perfect dramatic laboratory.” “You created a self-contained universe where you could address all the moral arguments and quandaries,” Simon observed to Fontana.
And it’s one that still resonates for the actors. “It was a metaphor for society,” said Kinney. You do the show now, and it’s just a reflection of everyday. There is no more metaphor. We live in this place.”
“I do remember thinking, I can take the [prison] and examine the world in small. That’s why the show is claustrophobic,” Fontana said.
Craig muMs Grant, an actor who often recited his poems into the show, closed out the night with a spoken word piece, told from the perspective of a prisoner whose accumulated sense of injustice explodes — hilariously, terrifyingly — in a fight over a stolen cigarette:
Take that for me even being in this place
Take that for that C.O.’s baton across my face
Feel this for that lawyer that didn’t give two s**ts about me
Take that for me being enslaved in poverty
Gimme them goddamn cigarettes…
Oh these are Marlboros, I don’t smoke those.
Every season of Oz is available on HBO.