'Oz' creator frees himself from prison drama

Sunday, January 12, 2003

NEW YORK -- Tom Fontana is free! Six years after bringing "Oz" to life, he has sprung himself from his jailhouse drama.

"I'm thrilled that HBO let me conceive of the idea, produce and write it," he says. "And now I'm thrilled they're letting me stop it."

Many of the show's most devout fans share Fontana's mixed feelings. "Oz" is like that. It's a show you don't want to miss, yet a show you don't always want to watch.

From its first episode in July 1997, "Oz" came on strong: Vern Schillinger, an Aryan supremacist serving time at Oswald State Correctional Facility for aggravated assault, forcibly "branded" his just-arrived bunkmate on the buttock with a swastika.

Suffice it to say, viewers had never seen such a thing depicted on TV. They have since found scant relief.

Factions collide

In Oz's splintered, dread universe, every faction -- Italian wiseguys, Muslims, neo-Nazis, Irish gangsters, gays, Latinos -- collides with the others. On "Oz," no manner of language or behavior is taboo. Even full frontal nudity happens when it happens.

Tonight at 8 p.m., "Oz" will air the second of eight episodes in this, its final season. As the end approaches, Fontana has kept the pressure on, with no apologies at this late date.

"In terms of violence or sex, I don't regret anything I've done on 'Oz,'" he says, "because I know absolutely why I did it. It wasn't to be salacious and provocative. It was meant to be repulsive and brutal.

"I wanted to give the audience an honest sense of what it's like to be in a place like that, as opposed to giving them the 'television version.'"

Fontana, 51, was already a television veteran when he brought the idea for "Oz" to HBO. He had the acclaimed "Homicide: Life on the Street" airing on NBC, and among his past credits was the groundbreaking medical show, "St. Elsewhere."

"But I don't know who I thought was ever gonna watch this," he says, recalling what a long shot "Oz" represented.

For starters, prison dramas weren't exactly a hot genre. The only one before "Oz" was a television version of prison called "Mariah," which debuted on ABC in April 1987 and was canceled a month later.

First original drama

Adding to the uncertainty: "Oz" would be the first original dramatic series HBO had ever presented. (The second, which "Oz" paved the way for: a crime-family show called "The Sopranos.")

And while "Oz" featured familiar names like Ernie Hudson, B.D. Wong, Terry Kinney and Rita Moreno, its huge, churning cast was mostly populated with unknowns.

Nonetheless, "Oz" found an audience for its gritty, often shocking storytelling, which fulfilled the promise of premium cable as no drama series had before.

But sooner or later everybody leaves prison, and that includes Fontana (albeit with a lasting mark on his right shoulder: the "Oz" tattoo seen being applied in the series' opening titles).

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