NEW YORK -- Two guys dressed like prison inmates are standing on the corner of 15th Street and Ninth Avenue in the Chelsea district of Manhattan smoking cigarettes. They look familiar.
"Excuse me, can you guys tell me where they're filming the new HBO series, 'Oz?' " I ask.
They look me over.
"You want to go to Oz?" one asks back. "You ain't from Kansas by any chance, are you?"
This kills both of them.
I smile, reminding myself that when God gave actors all that attitude and good looks, he sometimes skimped on brains.
"OK, OK, through this door behind me here and up the elevator straight to the sixth floor -- the Land of Oz," says one finally.
"Hey," his friend yells, just as I'm stepping on the elevator, "You ain't off to see the wizard, are you?"
The doors close on an explosion of laughter.
Actually, I am off to see the wizard behind "Oz."
Only this one, who presides over 60,000 square feet of working soundstages and prison sets in a refurbished warehouse near the Hudson River, is the real deal, one of the most influential and celebrated writer-producers in television.
Tom Fontana, who won two writing Emmys for helping create the mythical universe of St. Eligius Hospital in "St. Elsewhere," and another writing Emmy for the tales he now tells on "Homicide: Life on the Street," has imagined a new television world called "Oz" that will debut Saturday night on HBO. He wrote all the scripts himself; he and Barry Levinson are the executive producers, just as they are on "Homicide."
"Oz" is a drama series about life inside the fictional Oswald Maximum Security Prison, specifically, an experimental unit of it called Emerald City. It is the first weekly drama series in HBO's 25-year history, and, in terms of quality, adult drama, it is the television event of the summer.
Emerald City is a clean, modern, well-lighted place with panes of Plexiglas instead of iron bars, and an idealistic administrator who seems genuinely interested in rehabilitation of the prisoners. But appearances are nothing here. As the pilot reveals in the very first minutes, violence is sudden and death can happen any time.
The large ensemble cast of "Oz" includes a number of actors who carry big-time stage credentials: Terry Kinney, one of the founders of the acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre repertory company; B. D. Wong, who won a Tony for "M. Butterfly"; Tony Musante, from "Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune"; and Rita Moreno, who has won not only a Tony but an Emmy, Oscar and Grammy as well.
Other key players include: Leon ("Waiting to Exhale"), Ernie Hudson ("Ghostbusters"), Harold Perrineau ("Smoke") and Eamonn Walker ("Shopping"). Directors for the eight episodes airing this year range from Darnell Martin ("I Like It Like That") and Alan Taylor ("Palookaville") to Jean de Segonzac ("Homicide").
But as strong as they are, it is neither the acting nor the direction that is going to have viewers buzzing. It's the in-your-face intensity, graphic subject matter, anger, rage, sadism, fear and the way Fontana burns it all into your brain until you feel as if you have just spent an hour in hell.
And, as unsettling as that hour is, you'll want to go back and see more. The pilot of "Oz" is simply a brilliant piece of television storytelling.
"Oz" opens with a white attorney (Lee Tergesen) arriving at the prison after being convicted of killing a young girl while driving drunk. Tergesen is our point of entry, someone middle-class viewers can identify with and use as a reference in this strange land as he learns the prison routine. Think Dorothy without the dog.
But the people he meets and the horror he finds are so grotesque, he is quickly overwhelmed. Some viewers will be, too.
You will see things Saturday night in "Oz" that you will not see anywhere else on television -- not on "NYPD Blue" or "Homicide," for all the critics' talk about how "gritty" and "realistic" those series are.
Things like the lawyer being branded with a swastika on his buttocks by his new cellmate, a sadistic white supremacist (JK Simmons). As the Nazi sits astride the lawyer methodically heating his branding tool with a lighter, he hums a Brahms lullaby.
But that is only Fontana-the-storyteller warming up. In the second episode, which premieres July 14, a prisoner who has been beaten, drugged and strapped to a gurney by prison authorities is doused with lighter fluid and set on fire by one of his rival inmates.
Viewers see the match descending from the victim's point of view. It looks soft, blue and warm as it slowly falls. What's left of the victim is described as looking like a "burnt chicken" by an inmate named Groves (Sean Whitesell), who is in Emerald City for having killed his parents and then eaten them.
Remember this is cable -- the premium cable channel that makes the most powerful movies on television -- and even HBO is stressing the word "adult" in its promotions for the series.
Fontana says he knows he's pushing the boundaries with such scenes, but that's what he needs to do.
"I think part of my job, because I love television and I love writing for television, is to be one of those guys who is always causing trouble.
"I mean, I find myself quite by accident to be in a great position in television: I'm expected to be one of those people who challenges. There's like five of us who are on that list. And I really feel the responsibility of that," the 45-year-old writer says.
As for the branding and immolation scenes in the first two episodes, Fontana says, they were necessary to communicate the violence and madness of life and death in a maximum security prison.
"Life in prison is about constantly being on your guard and constantly being aware of the fact that life is very temporary," Fontana says. "And what I'm hoping we create is that same sensibility for the audience.
"They should turn off the TV set feeling -- I don't want to say uncomfortable, necessarily -- but they should feel a little bit jarred by the experience.
"So, with the branding scene, what I wanted to do was demonstrate the physical and psychological violence without actually showing the act of [anal sex].
"I mean, you can't do reality on TV. The best you can do is approximate truth while telling good stories, and I need these kinds of visual scenes to approximate the truth, to get viewers to say, 'God, I've just been in prison for an hour and I'm so glad I turned off the TV,' " he says.
The little joke about some viewers tuning out "Oz" is typical Fontana-doing-an-interview. As soon as he hears himself sounding too serious, he'll undercut himself with a joke.
A Fontana interview also often includes a bit of performance. As befits his theater background -- a B.A. in theater arts from Buffalo State College in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., and playwright-in-residence at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts when he was invited to write his first script for "St. Elsewhere" in 1981 -- he'll stop himself in mid-sentence to act out a point when the spirit moves him.
For example, in talking about getting up at 5: 30 a.m. every day and writing (in longhand) until about noon, Fontana says, "I need to write every day of my life Wait, I shouldn't say that. You know, we Sicilians believe in never saying anything out loud, because God is listening and he'll take it away.
"So," and now he's standing behind the desk and shouting toward the ceiling, "I don't need to write, God. I just like to write. OK, God? I don't really need it."
Yet, as casual as Fontana seems in his purple gym shorts, white T-shirt, running shoes and earring, our conversation in the "Oz" production office during the last week of filming there is mainly serious and keeps returning to the theme of challenges -- both those posed by and those facing his new series.
They start with the very notion of doing a weekly drama series about prison life on prime-time television. Fontana says he had other ideas for doing a prison series over the years and shopped them unsuccessfully to the networks.
"Their feeling was that television is always in search of the hero and heroism, and there would be none of that in a show about a prison. They said these men are unredeemable and, therefore, unworthy of examination in a drama series," Fontana remembers.
But then an associate told him that HBO might be interested in doing something on prison life. The cable network had made two successful prison documentaries and several made-for-television movies about life inside the walls.
"When I met with HBO, Chris Albrecht, [president of original programming], said to me, 'I don't care if any of the characters are likable, they just have to be compelling.' It was like a license to kill. I was given permission to write anything I wanted, which is a tremendous gift," Fontana says.
But the biggest challenge was how to tell stories from the point of view of the bad guys -- a radical notion for prime-time television.
Series like "NYPD Blue," "Homicide," and "Law & Order" deal with the down and dirty of crime, but mainly from the point of view of a Sipowicz, Pembleton or Briscoe -- our middle-class surrogates beating back the forces of anarchy and darkness on the urban frontier.
And while there are law-enforcement roles in "Oz" -- Hudson as the warden of Oswald, Kinney as the chief of Emerald City, Moreno as a nun and psychiatric nurse -- it's the inmates' point of view that Fontana wants dominant.
One way he tries to accomplish that is through Augustus Hill (Perrineau), a wheelchair-bound inmate who's paralyzed from the waist down but totally alive from the neck up. Hill regularly addresses the camera, talking directly to the viewer, explaining the action from an inmate's point of view.
"He is kind of like the stage manager from 'Our Town,' guiding us along in this thing," Fontana says. An "Our Town" where the "f" word and its many variations are used often and with much aggression. A stage manager with a criminal mind.
"I think Harold Perrineau is tremendous, and it's been great fun learning to write for him. But how much he's kidding us and how much he's telling the truth, I'm not even sure. And, furthermore, I'm not sure Harold's even sure," Fontana says.
As for the challenge of a 45-year-old, affluent, white producer writing for a 30-ish black inmate, "I always start with each character as an individual human being, and then I add elements like color, religion, educational background," Fontana says.
"As opposed to saying, 'All right, I'm going to write a black Muslim, so therefore he has to be this and this,' I said, 'This is the soul of the man, and what do I put around him to fill that out.' I start with his universal humanity."
Still, to make the series work, Fontana has to get inside the heads of black Muslims, white supremacists, Mafia wise guys and various other prison subcultures. Multiculturalism is alive and well in Emerald City, and its culture wars are fought with homemade knives, branding irons and torches.
One final challenge. With no history of television prison dramas, what models does Fontana draw on? "Well, I said I always wanted to be Dennis Potter -- but alive," Fontana says.
Potter, a British screenwriter who died in 1994, wrote "Pennies From Heaven" and "The Singing Detective" among other television productions. "The Singing Detective" -- a rich melange of fantasy, memory, longing and bits of 1940s' pop music -- is considered by some critics to be the best miniseries of all time. If the eight episodes of "Oz" that HBO will air this year are thought of as a miniseries, Fontana is definitely playing in Potter's league.
"I think 'The Godfather' movies and 'I, Claudius,' in an odd kind of way, were models in terms of storytelling for 'Oz.' They're both such addictive storytelling -- storytelling that just carries you along. And that's kind of my inspiration," Fontana says. He adds that he avoided watching any feature films about prison, like "The Shawshank Redemption," for fear they might subconsciously affect his vision.
"The terrible thing about writing is that you see something or hear something and then forget it. But, like, two years later, you're writing away and thinking what a great thing you're coming up with, only to realize it was in, like, 'Bambi.' When you were 5 years old you saw it, and now you just re-invented 'Bambi.' "
Fontana says, in the end, what made the road to "Oz" so attractive despite all the obstacles was the fact that it had been so little traveled by other television screenwriters.
"When we're doing 'Homicide,' we're always aware of what the other cop shows are doing. So, you're always like, 'Geez, I don't want to do that, because they did that last week on "NYPD Blue," ' or stuff like that."
"With this, though, nobody else is doing it. So, from a writing point of view, it was like walking into a room full of gold and being able to pick out anything I wanted, because it was untouched. There weren't Dick Wolf's [executive producer of 'Law & Order'] and David Milch's [executive producer of 'NYPD Blue'] fingerprints on the stories."
Robert J. Thompson, professor of television at Syracuse University and author of "Television's Second Golden Age: From 'Hill Street Blues' to 'ER,' " says Fontana is "arguably the best dramatic writer working in televison."
Thompson is right about that, and one of the main reasons for Fontana's success is that he takes chances.
Fontana helped come up with that marvelous ending for the final episode of "St. Elsewhere," in which the entire series is revealed to have been the fantasy of an autistic child staring into a glass snowball like the one in "Citizen Kane."
When "Homicide" needed to find a way to pare production costs, Fontana wrote an episode that takes place entirely in one room, the interrogation room known as "the box." It is one of the series' finest moments.
"Oz" is Fontana at his risk-taking best. Will it succeed? Will enough viewers want to live within the world of Oswald for the next eight weeks for the series to win renewal by HBO?
If HBO doesn't renew, television will still be a better place for what Fontana has already accomplished with "Oz." He's
enlarged the canvas of prime-time television through the sensitive and intelligent treatment of new subject matter. He's raised the bar for the other guys on that list of television writers and producers who are expected to challenge -- Milch, Wolf, Steven Bochco and David Kelley.
"Yeah, but it's scary to be on that list," Fontana says, laughing, "because you're always saying to yourself, 'Next I'm going to do like a puppet show or something [really lame], and everybody's going to get real [peeved].'
"The God's honest truth, after this, I just want to write a love story. So many demons have already been exorcised because of writing this series for me, that I just want to write about a nice heterosexual couple who have a dog and a kid and live in a nice house -- a nice love story."
Pub Date: 7/06/97