During the lively, foul-mouthed conversation, moderator Eric Deggans of NPR noted that the prison drama was the first one-hour drama series ever to air on HBO, paving the way toward a Golden Age in small-screen storytelling.
In Fontana’s opinion, Oz was groundbreaking in just one way. “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.”
On the panel, Fontana was joined by actor-director Terry Kinney, as well as cast members Lee Tergesen, Dean Winters, Harold Perrineau and Kirk Acevedo, who of course, weren’t going to allow him to get away with being humble.
His one-time collaborators started out by praising the risk-taking Fontana mentioned, offering up their recollection of just how disruptive the show was in its time. Tergesen, who played Tobias Beecher, noted “the balls” Fontana had to write a show like Oz, at a time when there was nothing else like it on TV. “Nobody knew how people were going to take it,” he recalled. “We were all out there going, ‘Lets see what happens.’”
Winters then shared an anecdote speaking to how resonant Oz was while it was on the air. “I was with Lee at an event. We were in the bathroom and Chuck D from Public Enemy came in and saw us,” he recalled. “He looked around and very quietly goes, ‘You guys got it right,’ and walked out.”
The actor, who played Ryan O’Reilly, also shared a fond memory, suggesting that the legacy of Oz continues to unfold. “I did a show seven years ago called Battle Creek. 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,” Winters shared, “and made Breaking Bad because he thought he could get away with it after watching Oz.”
Of course, the show was a game-changer in TV for a number of reasons, including on-screen representation that was ahead of its time. “Tom’s broken down more barriers than anyone,” said Winters. “I think everyone in Hollywood needs to take a pause for one second and literally just pay attention to Tom Fontana, who opened the floodgates.”
From the perspective of Kinney, who played Tim McManus, the show had a radical impact on television because of its focus on humanizing each of its characters—even those who have committed heinous crimes—something which subsequent anti-hero dramas have put into practice, as well. “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.”
Then, there’s the impact Oz had on the real world, given its nuanced take on subjects like addiction and prison reform, which America wrestles with to this day. “I think Oz really is one of those pieces that shed a light,” said Perrineau, who played Augustus Hill. “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.”
While making a lasting impact on television and on America, as a whole, the show also changed the lives of each actor involved. One takeaway from the conversation was how great Fontana was in working with actors, and how much he welcomed their input, as far as the trajectories of their characters. “Showrunners don’t ask us what we’d like to do differently. They don’t ask at all,” said Acevedo, who played Miguel Alvarez. “Tom is one of the only guys who cares, so I appreciate that so much.”
For Winters, the show provided lessons in craft. “Oz was really my first series. It taught me how to be a professional actor,” he said. “Also…Oz taught me the importance of collaboration, that it’s not about you.”
For Kinney, one takeaway was a set of lasting relationships with the cast and crew. “Our friendships are very much intact, as you can see. We keep up with each other, we genuinely love each other and that came from all this compacted drama every week,” he said. “What it taught me was that you can first make a family, and then you can create something great.”
Then, there’s Acevedo, who seemed to sum up what everyone was feeling. “To this day, I tell everyone, ‘If you ever have the opportunity to work for Tom Fontana, you run,” he said. “It was the best 5 or 6 years of my life working on this show, bar none, and I look forward to the day I get to work with that motherf**ker again.”
Airing for six seasons between 1997 and 2003, Oz centered on the unusual prison, known as the Oswald State Correctional Facility (aka Oz), chronicling the daily activities of its criminal inhabitants. Also starring Ernie Hudson, Eamonn Walker, Rita Moreno, J.K. Simmons, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and many more, its executive producers were Fontana, Barry Levinson and Jim Finnerty.