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Tom Fontana's Imagination and Cable Television are Made for Each Other.

Executive producer and writer, Tom Fontana of HBO's, "Oz," the realistic drama about life in an experimental unit of a maximum security prison. Fontana also created "Homicide: Life on the Street" and the 1980s drama set in a city hospital, "St. Elsewhere."




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on July 28, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 28, 1999: Interview with Tom Fontana; Review of Moby's album "Play."


Date: JULY 28, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072801NP.217
Head: Interview with Tom Fontana
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:40

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

When Tom Fontana was in college, he planned to be a playwright. Instead, he ended up in television writing and producing some of the most innovative TV dramas of the '80s and '90s. His first job was working for producer Bruce Paltrow on the groundbreaking medical series "St. Elsewhere." After that, he teamed up with film director Barry Levinson making the Baltimore police drama "Homicide: Life on the Street" for NBC and the brutally frank prison series "Oz" for HBO.

Even though NBC recently canceled "Homicide," Fontana and Levinson haven't given up on broadcast network TV. They've even agreed to create a series next year for the lowly rated UPN network. It's clear, though, that the imagination of Tom Fontana and the freedom of cable TV are made for each other.

Here's a scene from "Oz" in which a white supremacist named Schillinger played by J.K. Simmons, baits another prisoner, the spiritual leader of the Muslim inmates played by Eamonn Walker.


J.K. SIMMONS, ACTOR, PORTRAYING "VERN SCHILLINGER": It's called miscegenation -- mixing of the races. That's M-I-S-C-E-G-E-N-A-T-I-O-N.
You get that spelling right?

EAMONN WALKER, ACTOR, PORTRAYING "KAREEM SAID": What exactly are you after, Schillinger?

SIMMONS: Oh, it's not about what I'm after, your holiness. It's you. I saw you in the visiting room with that piece of trailer park trash.

WALKER: That was a business meeting.

SIMMONS: What kind of business? Monkey business? Oh (EXPLETIVE DELETED). Sorry. Forgot I'm not supposed to call you people monkeys.

WALKER: Everybody sit down.

SIMMONS: Yes, sit boys. Ask you minister how come he's making goo-goo eyes at a white gal.

WALKER: That is not true.

SIMMONS: Go ahead and deny it. I know what I saw.


BIANCULLI: I started my conversation with Tom Fontana by asking him if the freedom provided by cable TV had, in a sense, spoiled him.

TOM FONTANA, TELEVISION WRITER AND PRODUCER: Well, I think definitely HBO is a very, very great home for me, not only in terms of "Oz," but I'm talking about developing another series over there. And what I find -- it's funny because yesterday Barry Levinson and I went over to talk to Chris Albrecht (ph) and Carolyn Strauss (ph) about this new idea we have, which I really can't talk too much about. But it was -- we walked out and Barry turned to me and he said, "God, they're so smart."

And you know, we're both so used to dealing with people whose -- whose comments have little to do with what they believe for themselves or what they find attractive or appealing for themselves. It's fitted into a box that they are only partially committed to. They have to say what they have to say to you. They have to give you a note based on the fact that that's what their network is telling them to say, as opposed to they have some kind of enlightened idea in relationship to what the show should be.

And at HBO, it's the total opposite. It's just, you know, let's cause as much trouble as we possibly can. And I love that kind of environment.

BIANCULLI: Well, what can you tell us about this new idea that you're doing in terms of size of cast, genre -- anything at all that's nice and general?

FONTANA: It's really hard to talk about it because it's so different from anything I've ever written, and I think it will be different than anything that's ever been on either cable or broadcast. It's very hard to even articulate it because it's so much in my head. I mean, the thing about -- that's the other thing about HBO that's great is that when I went in to talk about "Oz," so much of it was in my head that I couldn't really articulate.

You know, being a writer, I'm not necessarily the most articulate speaker in the world. And when you go into a room and you kind of flutter (ph) around and go: "Well, it's kind of about this and it's a little like that and I think there will be, like, a giraffe in it, but I'm not really sure." And they go: "OK, yes, no -- we get it. We get enough of it to say let's keep working on it."

And so that gets very exciting, whereas other places you would have to go in and say: "And she is fourteen and a half years old. She has golden hair." You know what I mean?


FONTANA: And you have to be so specific to fit into what they're looking for.

BIANCULLI: Well, talk about how you got into television in the first place. What I know about your bio, I guess, is that you went to Buffalo State College.


BIANCULLI: You majored in speech and theater arts.


BIANCULLI: And I presume at the end of that, you had some ideas of just being a playwright; that TV wasn't really part of the grand plan.

FONTANA: Not at all. I came to New York to be a playwright, and I was wildly unsuccessful at that. I starved for many, many years. And I got very lucky in that I was -- had a play done up at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, and it was seen by Blythe Danner and her two children, and they encouraged...

BIANCULLI: One of whom, we should say, is now sort of well-known on her own...


FONTANA: That's right -- Gwyneth Paltrow.

BIANCULLI: ... as -- yes.

FONTANA: She has this trophy I heard that she got for something she did.

But in any case, they kind of forced Bruce to go and see the play, but he never actually went to see it. That's the great joke of all of this is that they kept saying: "Bruce, you've got to go see the play. You've got to go see the play." And he never went. And at the end of the summer, he said to me, "I feel real guilty about not coming to see your play."

And I was like, well that's OK. I mean, I don't care. Because at that point, I had no interest in writing for television. And he was like kind of feeling guilty and I guess Blythe had been beating him up about it. And he said...

BIANCULLI: And he at that time -- was he at that time producing "White Shadow"?

FONTANA: They just finished "White Shadow" and he was about to do this new show. He said: "Well, I'm doing this new show for NBC and it's a medical thing and maybe you should come and write an episode -- come out to LA and write an episode of it." And that was "St. Elsewhere." And I'm convinced to this day that if Bruce had actually seen my play, I'd still be up in the Berkshires somewhere looking for walnuts to eat or something.

My entire career is based on his guilt and my incredible lack of ambition. That's why I've gotten to today.

BIANCULLI: But did you send a script out to him? Did you just go out to LA immediately?

FONTANA: No -- yes -- no, he basically the last day at Williamstown said: "I feel so badly that I didn't go see your play. I'm going to have to hire you for this episode." And off I went to LA. So he never read anything of mine. He took it all on basically Blythe and Gwyneth and Jake's word.

And then what was great about it was Paltrow really took me under his wing and really taught me the craft of television. He really taught me how to write for television, which is very different from writing, obviously, for the theater.

But more importantly than that, he was the one who said to me, "We can do anything we want. Why do something that's been done? We're doing a medical show, but we don't have to do the same medical show that everybody else has done. Let's try to do something different."

And he so instilled that in all of his writers that it's something I carry on to this day, obviously, and try to impart on my young writers is that we have the opportunity to do anything we want, so why do something that you've seen a thousand times before?

BIANCULLI: So what was it like when you went to -- you went out to LA. You reported for work at "St. Elsewhere."


BIANCULLI: If I remember correctly, that series was created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey...


BIANCULLI: ... who didn't stay around very long.

FONTANA: No, they didn't. It -- you know, and for me it was, having never been involved in a television production before, you kind of go -- you know, going well, this must be the way people behave. It was very confused and there was a lot of stuff going on -- backstage politics. I didn't understand it. I basically hid under my desk as much as I could possibly -- I never left my office except to go home, because I was just so, like, I don't know why everybody's, like, so unhappy and yelling at each other.


What happened was is the show -- the show got bought off of the fact that it was supposed to be "Hill Street Blues" in a hospital. And then we didn't know what that meant. So we kept trying to figure out in the first season what that was, you know, because obviously "Hill Street Blues" is -- you can't do "Hill Street Blues" in a hospital. It's a whole different animal.


FONTANA: And so there was a lot of kind of people falling over each other trying to figure out what the show should be. And you know, that first year of "St. Elsewhere," I think -- I mean, I don't -- I can't really watch shows that I made, so I never look back and see a show. But my memory of it is is that there was a lot of confusion and that basically Bruce said: "OK, I'm going to lay down the law here and this is what I want." And off of that, the show started to take a kind of a focus and a vision.

BIANCULLI: And the vision was largely that of yours and John Masius, was it not?

FONTANA: Well, what I think we did was we focused in on not just the medical drama part of it, but I think we were also able to focus in on a kind of a sense of humor that helped define the show. And that appealed to NBC and to Bruce. And so yes, in that regard, John and I led -- we were the pied pipers of "St. Elsewhere" for a long time.

BIANCULLI: Well how did you link up with him as a writing partner if you went in as an individual?

FONTANA: He was hiding under his desk as well.


And you know, it's like people in the middle of a war, you suddenly look for somebody who has some kind of sanity involved. So I -- what happened was I read his first script that he wrote, which was called "Samuels and the Kid," and there were like five -- no like six or eight scripts, you know, being passed around. We'd all written scripts at that point. And I just thought his script was absolutely brilliant. It was devastating and funny and the characters just leapt off the page.

And I told him that and he was very grateful that I liked it, because I don't know if he was getting a lot of encouragement from Falsey and Brand. So we kind of bonded in that kind of war mentality thing.

But we were like -- it was great. We were great writing partners together, and we had so much fun. And the best thing about writing with John was no idea was too stupid. You could -- either of us could say anything to the other, and it was never insulted. You know what I mean? It was never, like "that's the worst idea I've ever heard." It was always like: "Hmmm, OK, let's play with that for a little while."

BIANCULLI: Well, I wonder how some of the episodes from "St. Elsewhere" could have been generated in any other way. I mean, you did a show that was set in limbo. You did one that was like an MTV style. You did this ambitious flashback thing that went all the way back several generations.

FONTANA: Yes, five decades. Yes.

BIANCULLI: Was it that loose in the writers' rooms that you were able to throw those sorts of ideas out?

FONTANA: Absolutely. Well, the thing about "St. Elsewhere," and I guess this is something -- I guess this is the pattern of my career that I should finally accept. I've always seemed to do these shows that are ready to be canceled. You know what I mean? That every year is our last year.


FONTANA: So what we developed with "St. Elsewhere" was a kind of a kamikaze attitude, which was: "Well, nobody's watching and the network doesn't care anymore, so why don't we just write whatever we want and it doesn't really matter. We'll be canceled this year."

And then we would get picked up and then we'd be like, oh my God, now what do we do?


BIANCULLI: Let me ask you some more questions about you and writing with John Masius on "St. Elsewhere," because now -- I mean, that series was so dark and did so many strange things and was so off the wall. I mean, you guys did basically anything and everything on "St. Elsewhere."


BIANCULLI: And since then, you've gone and you've done "Homicide" and "Oz," which are two of the darker shows on TV.


And you know where I'm going with this. He's now doing "Providence," which is ironic enough except that "Providence" is more popular than either of your programs in terms of reaching mass appeal.


BIANCULLI: How does that dynamic work? Did you call John when "Providence" came out?

FONTANA: Well, he sent me the pilot, like, I would say six months before the show actually aired. And I watched it and I thought it was terrific. I thought -- first of all, I think she's great -- Melina. I think she just is mesmerizing to watch and you really care about her and you get involved in her. But also what John had done was, in the pilot, is he had put about 10 in-jokes that only I would get.


FONTANA: Well, references to "St. Elsewhere" episodes; you know, lines about things. There was one I remember was a direct line from "St. Elsewhere" -- Terry White -- I mean Terry Knox's character Peter White...

BIANCULLI: Peter White.

FONTANA: ... had a scene in the locker room with his wife, and they had met in Rhode Island. And he turned to her at one point and very moving touching scene, and he said: "God, I miss Providence." And in the pilot of "Providence," Melina says when she's in LA, "God, I miss Providence."


Little things like that that absolutely no one else would get but me. So I was just roaring.


But I actually thought -- I mean, you know, it's easy to piss on a show like "Providence," but I think -- I think that it's quite telling that the show is popular. I mean, that Friday at 8:00 slot has been a dead zone for so long that I think it's great that they found something that works there. I just wish -- I wish they had not canceled "Homicide" and put it someplace else.

You know, I understand their impulse to try to turn Friday into some kind of, you know, Lifetime-ish evening.


But I wish they had found another place for "Homicide."

BIANCULLI: My guest is Tom Fontana. We'll be back after a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: My guest is Tom Fontana. Back in the early and mid-80s, when "St. Elsewhere" was on the air, it tackled many sensitive medical subjects. I asked Fontana if any one topic was particularly tricky to present on NBC.

FONTANA: Well, one off the toughest things we ever did on "St. Elsewhere" was the one about testicular cancer, which not surprising, had never been done -- never been mentioned on network television before. And Magus (ph) and I -- most of the stories that we developed for "Homicide" -- I mean, for -- I'm sorry -- for "St. Elsewhere" came out of our own aches and pains. I'd come in and I'd go, "oh, my foot's bothering me. Let's find out what that means." And then we would build a whole story around, you know, a foot problem.

Well, we got into a conversation one day because one of us had read about testicular cancer. I think it was me, and I came in and I said: "John, have you ever heard this testicular cancer? What is that?" And we did all this research on it, and we decided it would make a great episode. And immediately -- and it primarily affects college-age guys. And so we wrote about this college-age kid who found a lump in his testicle and now had to have a testicle removed. Well, we wrote it and we wrote it both using the word "testicle" and using, like, words like "balls" and euphemisms for testicles.

Well, the network just imploded. They couldn't believe that we had the balls ...


... to do a subject like that. And I mean basically they didn't -- they didn't want us to -- not only did they have a problem with the words, but they had a problem with the subject matter, until Bruce pointed out to them that the week before we had done a story about a mastectomy. And he said to them: "Are you telling me that NBC, it's OK to lop off a woman's breast, but it's not OK to lop off a guy's ball?" At which point that pretty much shut down the fact that we couldn't do the story.

And then we had to negotiate which words we could use. And they immediately eliminated all euphemisms and didn't want us to say the word "testicle." And so we were in danger of having a scene where the doctor had to come in and go to the patient: "Well you have a lump down there." You know?


FONTANA: We were trying to write it like, you know, just looking down at -- you know. And finally we won and we got to say the word "testicle" twice on national television. It was a first time ever. And instead of a flood of angry phone calls and letters to NBC the night it aired, what happened, ironically enough, was a lot of people like myself who had never heard of testicular cancer actually -- and we talked about the self-exam that men can do and blah, blah, blah -- and a number of people contacted us and said that they had seen the show, done the self-exam, found a lump, and gotten to the doctor and were alive as a result of this little "St. Elsewhere" episode.

So in the most bizarre twist of events was that the AMA asked us to do a public service announcement -- to shoot a public service announcement about testicular cancer. And here was a subject that NBC was completely horrified that we were even going close to.

BIANCULLI: That's amazing. Well, I remember ...

FONTANA: Yes, it was ...

BIANCULLI: ... "St. Elsewhere" was also the first show to mention AIDS in a dramatic context.

FONTANA: Yes, we did -- we did, and it was funny, my brother, who was living in New York at the time, sent me an article that was in like page 155 of the New York Times, and it was a teeny little article that he cut out. And he -- my family was always doing that -- was always sending me little ideas for stories and stuff.


FONTANA: And he circled this thing and he said: You should check this out. And we did and it was the first time in television that anyone had done an AIDS story. And we continued to do AIDS stories over the whole life of the series because, as we learned more about the disease, we felt it was important to get the information out there.

BIANCULLI: One last question I have to ask you about "St. Elsewhere." With Bruce Paltrow bringing you in without much experience, and sort of pulling you over and giving you a chance, and now it seems to be that that's something you aggressively do in all of your shows, in reaching for actors being first-time directors; people who have never done television before coming in to both write and act -- I mean, it really does seem to be a theme in what you're trying to do.

FONTANA: Well, I think it's important to -- I mean, the danger of episodic television is that you get into a rhythm and you get comfortable and the formula kind of settles in and you know the show too well and you know the characters too well. And what I've found over the course of time is that if you bring in somebody who has talent, even though it may not be, you know, an actor who may not have ever directed before -- if you bring them in, they're going to shake things up. They're going to make you -- you and the other -- and the actors and the writers and everybody -- the crew -- they're going to just make you not let the dust settle on what you've been doing for 15 episodes or 20 episodes.

A perfect example of that was Kathy Bates when she -- when I asked her, because I've known Kathy a thousand years, when I asked her to come in and do an episode of "Homicide." I just called her one day and I said: "You know, have you ever thought about directing?" And she was like: "Well, yeah, actually I have been thinking about directing." I said: "Why don't you come and play with us here?"

And it was great because the actors on the show, all who had kind of by that point in the year settled into a kind of a rhythm, you know -- she got in and she was "oh, why are you doing that?" And she -- they couldn't get away with any of their tricks. You know what I mean?

BIANCULLI: Oh, because as an actor she was looking at it ...

FONTANA: Because she knew -- she knew all the tricks. You know what I mean? And so it stimulated them. And in the same way this year with "Oz," with bringing Matt Dillon and Chas Palmontieri (ph), Steven Bouchemi (ph) and Terry Kinney (ph), who's a member of the cast -- it just -- it gives it a kind of a -- just it breaks the kind of rhythm of it. And I think that's when the best work comes out, at least I hope it is.

BIANCULLI: Tom Fontana is the creator of "Oz." We'll continue our conversation with Tom Fontana in the second half of our show.

I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, and my guest is TV writer-producer Tom Fontana.

During the first season of "Homicide: Life on the Street," Fontana won an Emmy Award for writing an episode called "Three Men and Adina." (ph). The episode was about a lengthy interrogation session in which a murder suspect, played by Moses Gunn (ph), is questioned by the two detectives working the case of a dead little girl. Frank Pembleton, played by Andre Brauer (ph) and Tim Bayliss, played by Kyle Secor approach the case and the suspect very differently.

Listen to the rhythms in this scene and you'll hear why "Three Men and Adina" is considered among TV's finest dramatic hours.


KYLE SECOR, ACTOR, PORTRAYING TIM BAYLESS: What do you think about Adina? I mean, Frank and I here, we didn't really know her that well. What would you say about her personality? Was she feisty, outgoing, energetic?


SECOR: So she worked for you how long, doing what?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Taking care of Magdalene.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Her horse. Clean out Magadalene's coat with a curacomb (ph) -- untangling the mane and the tail.

SECOR: That sounds like a great job for a girl. Why did she stop working for you?


SECOR: Is there any other reason?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: My barn burned down.

SECOR: That's the only other reason?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I stopped being the arabber (ph).

SECOR: Any other reason?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: There was no more job.

SECOR: Adina's mother didn't make her stop working for you? Huh? Isn't it true that Mrs. Watson was afraid for her daughter because you were getting a little too friendly with her?

BRAUER: Is being an arabber a good job. I mean, are you respected in the community?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Most people think of us as vagrants. But since the economy gone south, you see a lot of people selling on the street.

BRAUER: Your whole family are arabbers?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: All the way back to my great-grandfather.

SECOR: When was the last time you saw Adina?


SECOR: Yeah, when was the last time that you saw Adina alive?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: On Sunday at the barn.

SECOR: On the Sunday before the Wednesday that she disappeared.

BRAUER: Is it cold in here? Either of you cold?


BIANCULLI: I asked Fontana if he knew when he was writing that script how good the actors cast by producer Barry Levinson were capable of being.

FONTANA: We had been shooting the first episode, so I had seen Andre in the interrogation scene in the very first episode that Barry directed. And he -- we were -- I was sitting with Barry while we were filming it, and when we finished the take we -- Barry and I turned to each other and went: OK...


... this is going to work. And -- because it was in the back of my head, but, you know, you're always a little nervous when he's going to say: Is this going to be three-acters. And Kyle I had known because Kyle had played, in the last season of "St. Elsewhere," he had played the AIDS patient that we followed from the, I think it was the second episode until like the 20th episode.

BIANCULLI: This is Kyle Secor.

FONTANA: Kyle Secor, yes. So I had known Kyle's work, so I pretty much knew that I could write for him. And we figured we'd get somebody, you know, some good, solid guest star to play the arabber. So I kind of jumped in, you know, thinking, well, I'll just -- I'll just write it and we'll see what happens -- all the time assuming, once again, you know, kamikaze television, assuming, well, we've made -- we will have made six episodes and we will be canceled by this point, so it's not like -- it's not like anyone's ever going to see this, you know.


And, you know, and so I wrote it and Martin Campbell directed it, who later went on to direct the James Bond film which -- the first one with Pierce Brosnan.


FONTANA: And he just shot it -- he did an amazing job of shooting it. Never shot -- here you're in this -- in the interrogation room for the entire hour, and he never shot it from the same angle twice, which you never really notice it until you know that. And then when you watch it and you see that he's -- you're never in the same place twice. Each section he shot from a different angle, so that the room never got kind of sedentary, you know.

And then we found, you know, Moses Gunn (ph) came down to play the arabber and just nailed it completely. I mean, it was just extraordinary in what he did. And they rehearsed it, they actually rehearsed it like a play first. And, you know, we shot it and off we went, and...

BIANCULLI: Well, Tom, this may seem to be a dumb question, but where does something like this come from as a writer?

FONTANA: Well, it comes from two places. One, it came from actually a commerce aspect, which was I was terrified having -- shooting a show in Baltimore, which had never had a TV show shot there, with a crew that had never shot a television show before, with all these feature directors, because Barry wanted to hire feature directors. I thought we were going to be so over budget by the sixth episode that all I could afford was a table and three chairs.


I thought I won't -- they'll, you know, NBC will have carted away everything else by this point. So on one hand it was a kind of an, all right, I've got to be able to write something that we can afford to shoot.

On the other hand, what it was was I thought when I started doing research about homicide investigations it seemed to me that this interrogation process or this, at least this interview process, had a lot of drama to it, inherently in it, that no one had ever done an hour's worth of before. You always see little bits and pieces and, you know, somebody slaps somebody on the head and the guy goes: All right, I confess, I confess. And my thought...

BIANCULLI: They're still doing that, by the way.


FONTANA: My thought was is that if we could really explore how everyone in the room manipulates everyone else in the room that it would tell us not just about homicide investigations, but about the nature of how men deal with each other in these kind of situations.

BIANCULLI: I don't really know how you linked up with Barry Levinson.

FONTANA: Well, actually it's -- I got a call. I was going to go to Europe and like rent a villa in Italy and write epic poetry and kind of -- not that I was leaving television, I just was thinking: Oh, it'd be nice to kind of do something else for a while.

BIANCULLI: You saw an urgent need that needed to be filled in the epic poetry department.

FONTANA: In the epic poetry department, exactly. There just weren't enough books starting with: Oh (ph) Ulysses (ph).

So I had all these plans. And I got this call from John Tinker (ph), actually, who said to me that he had talked -- he had been talked to -- that Barry Levinson had talked to him about doing "Homicide," this show "Homicide," and that he had decided he wasn't going to do it. He and Masius (ph) actually had decided to go do "LA Law," that year. And it was an East Coast-based thing, he wanted to shoot in Baltimore.

And I was kind of really not very interested, only in the sense of that, you know, in my mind "Hill Street Blues" was the best cop show ever, you know, and I couldn't think of how you would do it better than that. But being a, you know, as much of a whore as anybody else, I went out to LA to meet Barry Levinson.

And he said to me: I want to do a show, a cop show, with no gun battles and no car chases. And I said: This man is crazy, I have to do it, I have to work with him, he's gone completely insane. And off of that we started working.

He had already hired Paul Attanasio to write the first episode, and so I kind of jumped in in the middle of it. And we had David Simon's book, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," as a launching pad. And that's really how it came about.

I went down to Baltimore, which had never had a television series shot there before, really not sure was there enough acting talent down there, what were the locations like, how could you get around. I mean, I'd shot in New York, I'd shot in LA, but Baltimore was to me, you know, the end of the Earth. And as it turned out, Baltimore was just -- became a major character in the show and a wonderful place to film. And the acting pool and the crew was extraordinary.

So for seven years we got a chance to do that. And I'm very grateful.

BIANCULLI: Let me ask you another question about writing, because, again, it seems to be a theme in what you do. In "St. Elsewhere," in "Homicide," and, again, in "Oz," people can die, leave, do just about anything at any time and it's a lot less secure, the TV viewing experience, than most of them. And is that something you just firmly believe in?

FONTANA: Yes, I do, because from a creative level I think it's important so that nobody gets, again, nobody gets kind of -- rests on their laurels. I think it's good when actors come and go, I think it forces the writers and the other actors to, you know, recharge the batteries, to really reexamine why we're doing this again, you know.

But I also think that if you're going to do a show about an institution, whether it's a hospital or a homicide unit or a prison, it's the institution that is the constant. It's the -- the institution stays.

People come and go, you know, in life. I mean, at some point, hopefully in the way, way in the future, there'll be two other people having this conversation on FRESH AIR. Our time here will have been our time here, and then somebody else will step in. And I just think that's, to me, that helps root the show in a kind of credibility, it gives it a credibility and a life force that, you know -- I mean it always bothered me when I was a kid and I would watch and, you know, they'd switch Darrin Stephens or...


... you know, Bea Benaderet died on "Petticoat Junction" but they never said anything, they just: Oh, oh, Kate's on a trip. You know, what I mean?


FONTANA: Just: Oh, yes, you know, she's on a trip.

BIANCULLI: Yes, it ruins that verisimilitude that was so crucial to "Petticoat Junction."

FONTANA: "Petticoat Junction."


BIANCULLI: My guest is Tom Fontana. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: We're talking with Tom Fontana, whose new drama series "Oz" airs Wednesday nights on HBO. It's a series filled with strong language and brutal confrontations.

Sometimes the confrontations are physical and sometimes, as in this scene featuring Lee Tergesen as Tobias Beecher, the confrontation is sinister but implied. Another prisoner, a former lover names Keller, has come to Beecher to apologize for betraying him by helping two other prisoners to break Beecher's spirit, his arms and his legs. Throughout the conversation the sound you hear is that of Beecher filing his talon-sharp nails.



CHRIS MELONI, ACTOR, PORTRAYING "CHRIS KELLER": Look, what I did was wrong. I've been trying to figure out a way to prove to you that I'm truly sorry. And I do love you.


How 'bout you break my arm.

LEE TERGESEN, ACTOR, PORTRAYING "TOBIAS BEECHER": I'm going to do a (expletive deleted) more than that.

MELONI: Break my arm. Break both my arms. And my legs. Break every (expletive deleted) bone in my body. I'm not going to tell the Hex (ph) nothin'.

TERGESEN: How stupid do you think I am? You let me break your legs and then you snitch on me.

MELONI: I won't, I swear.

TERGESEN: Swear. Promise. Take an oath. Make a vow. And go (expletive deleted) yourself.

MELONI: Look, there's got to be something I can do.

TERGESEN: There is. There is one thing you can do that'll make me believe that you are truly sorry.

MELONI: What's that?

TERGESEN: Confess.


BIANCULLI: I asked Fontana why, since this was the first TV series he ever created from scratch, he chose to set it in prison.

FONTANA: The fact that no one has ever been able to do a drama series about a prison aside -- meaning that all those stories are fresh, which is a huge reason to do the show in a sense of if you want to explore new stories, that's you know, one of the reasons. But the other thing is I'm fascinated by, I think it was Dostoevsky who said: a society is known by the prisoners it keeps.

And I'm fascinated by people who act in extreme and then are placed in an environment in which they are -- all of their freedom is taken away -- what happens, you know what I mean. It just seemed to me to be a place that was just right for drama. And, you know, thank God for HBO that they've let me go in any direction that I felt compelled to go in.

BIANCULLI: And every direction. I'll bet that there's not a single character in "Oz" -- which has how many regular characters, is it 21, 25?

FONTANA: Yes, it's a lot. It's like, yes, there's a lot.

BIANCULLI: It's a lot.

FONTANA: I lose count because they die. They come in and, you know, I -- it's like I have to keep a census every episode.

BIANCULLI: It's very -- but, I mean, I think that right now there isn't a single character that I could point to that is in the same place mentally, if even alive, that they were in episode one of the first year.


BIANCULLI: I mean, there have been so many changes and twists in that show.


BIANCULLI: And you've written every word of the first season...


BIANCULLI: ... and most words of everything else, haven't you?

FONTANA: Yes. Yes. I've written about 90 percent of the second and third seasons.

BIANCULLI: So what is that like as a writer? Is this like the world's biggest novel? I mean, is TV, when you get to write it yourself, week after week, with all these characters, and keep exploring themes week after week, is it more of a novelistic and serialistic kind of thing?

FONTANA: Well, I've never written a novel, so I don't know that. I know that it does feel like reading a Dickens book to me sometimes, you know. I mean, it has that kind of size of -- and the society and people just spilling in and out of a story.

I also, without sounding too egotistical, you know, I'm fascinated by writers like Dennis Potter (ph) who...

BIANCULLI: Bless your soul.


FONTANA: Who can create a world in which you are just completely sucked into and don't want to be there. I mean, you don't want to watch that guy in that bed with that skin disease.

BIANCULLI: "The Singing Detective."


BIANCULLI: I'm so...


BIANCULLI: I'm so -- I not -- I shouldn't be surprised at all, but I'm so glad to know that you're a fan of that.

FONTANA: Oh, completely. I just -- I mean, so that for me it's -- I have never -- and I have been blessed to work on "St. Elsewhere" and I have been blessed to work on "Homicide," but I have never in my life experienced from a writing point of view the intensity of writing a show like "Oz."

I literally cannot let it go for about a month or so after I stop writing the last episode. I -- these characters just keep yelling at me and want more, they want more, you know what I mean? And it's a dark and terrible place to go sometimes, but from a writing point of view it is so exhilarating.

You know, as I said, I get up at 5:30 to write and I write for about five hours before I go into the office. And there are times I go into the office and I'm sure that my staff must think I am completely lunatic, because I like babble and I don't -- I can't focus on things. And they're saying: Well, what about this and what about that? And I'm like: I don't know, yeah, what do you think, I don't know, you know. It's so intense.

And it's hard to say it's joyful, because the subject matter is so not joyful, but from a writing point of view it is just -- I'm as interested to find out what's going to happen to these people as anybody else could be, you know, what I mean, because sometimes I go, "All right, you're going to go over here," and they go, "Naw, I'm not going there, you can't tell me what to do," and they go another direction.

BIANCULLI: It must be as much fun for you as it is for viewers to see characters not only come to life, but the actors do things in them that weren't on the page ...

FONTANA: Oh, completely.

BIANCULLI: ... and just ...

FONTANA: It's ...

BIANCULLI: Go ahead.

FONTANA: No, it is. It's so exciting. And, again, I've been blessed in the course of my career, from "St. Elsewhere" to "Homicide" to "Oz," to have such incredibly courageous actors.

The actors on "Oz" particularly I find they are awe inspiring for me. They give me courage to go further because they are so courageous in their choices.

You know, you take people like Adewale, who plays Adebisi, when I originally wrote that part it was -- he was just another kind of, you know, gangster. He was, you know -- and he came in and he's from Nigeria and he started, you know, and he did it with this Nigerian accent. And I suddenly -- the character just exploded in front of me. And the hat, when he came in, the hat was his thing and I was like, what the hell is that hat, you know.

Or people like Lee Tergesen who just, I mean, I have just done every conceivably horrifying thing to this guy and he just embraces...

BIANCULLI: Well, let's list a couple of the things that you've done to this character.

FONTANA: Well, right off the bat he had a swastika burned onto his butt. He then had to lick the boots of the head of the Aryan Brotherhood. He had his arms and legs broken.

BIANCULLI: And in the episodes that are just about to be shown that I've seen he actually takes a measure of revenge...


BIANCULLI: ... by literally embracing the son of this Aryan guy who has been sent to the same prison.

FONTANA: Yes, yes.

BIANCULLI: So these sorts of things, as you build them, I mean "Oz" has sex, drugs, violence in measures...

FONTANA: Cooking recipes.

BIANCULLI: Well -- right, cooking recipes. I mean, I don't see how this series could have been done at all on network television.

FONTANA: Never. Never in a hundred million -- I mean, it possibly could have maybe been done in the time we were doing "St. Elsewhere," "Hill Street," when things on broadcast television were a little riskier.

BIANCULLI: You think they're less risky now?

FONTANA: I think stylistically they're more risky. I think subject matter-wise they're -- it's completely repressed on broadcast television, completely repressed.

BIANCULLI: And yet aren't you going to be doing another series for broadcast television next season?

FONTANA: Well, remember I mentioned I was a whore?


I'm very proud of that. Because, you know, as Shaw said: It's not whether you're going to sell your body, it's how much you get for selling your body.

No, no, I mean, the thing is is that I -- you can pick a show to do on broadcast that doesn't have the demands that a show like "Oz" would have...


FONTANA: ... you know, what I mean? It all is a -- it's a matter of the environment and also the point of view you're taking on that environment.

BIANCULLI: Like "Frasier" is a terrific comedy and there's no reason why it can't be on broadcast TV.

FONTANA: Exactly. It's brilliant and it's brilliant because it plays within those rules.

BIANCULLI: But "Larry Sanders," equally brilliant, couldn't go...

FONTANA: Would have been stupid on NBC.

BIANCULLI: Another question about writing and then watching your stuff show up on the screen. Religion is another huge theme of yours.

FONTANA: Yes, oddly enough, you know, my younger brother pointed that out to me once. He said he was going to do his dissertation on the -- on religion in the shows of Tom Fontana, and it was the first time I actually went what do -- I mean, because I don't -- you don't think about those things, I mean, you don't sit there and go: I'm going to write a religious thing. It's just a part of the character or it's not a part of the character, you know what I mean, it either -- what people believe or don't believe informs how they act.

And to me that's the only reason to bring religion -- or spirituality, I should say -- into the mix, you know. You, you know -- for me to find out what the prisoners of "Oz" think about God, how they relate to God on an individual basis, that's something I go: Oh, gee, that's kind of interesting to explore, based on the fact that they have to act in such horrendous ways toward each other.

BIANCULLI: Tom Fontana. He's a writer and producer of the TV series "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "St. Elsewhere." "Oz," his latest and most controversial work, can be seen Wednesday nights on HBO.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new CD from Moby. This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: David Bianculli
Guest: Tom Fontana
High: Even though NBC recently canceled "Homicide," Fontana and Levinson haven't given up on broadcast network TV. They've even agreed to create a series next year for the lowly rated UPN network. It's clear, though, that the imagination of Tom Fontana and the freedom of cable TV are made for each other.
Spec: Media; Television; Entertainment

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Tom Fontana

Date: JULY 28, 1999
Time: 12:50
Tran: 072802NP.217
Head: Review of new Moby release
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: Richard Hall calls himself Moby because his family is descended from Herman Melville's. Moby has been America most visible maker of techno dance music for most of this decade and has made hit remixes for acts ranging from Brian Eno to Aerosmith to Smashing Pumpkins.

Moby's newest release is called "Play." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.



My head got wet in midnight dew
(Unintelligible) down on my bended knees
Talkin' to a man from Galilee

(Unintelligible) spoke and it sound so sweet
I thought I heard the shuffle of angels' feet
He put one hand upon my head
(Unintelligible) let me tell you what he said

KEN TUCKER, ROCK CRITIC: That's not Moby singing on that song "Run On," it's a vocal sample he's taken from a gospel record cut in the '40s by Bill Lanford and the Landfordaires (ph).

Throughout this new CD "Play," Moby regularly uses gospel music to provide the vocals and melodic hooks which he then cuts up, layers, and rearranges to his own dance music purposes. This often results in terrifically lively music, such as this cut called "Honey."



(Unintelligible) my honey come back sometime
(Unintelligible) sometime
(Unintelligible) in my back sometime
I'm going over here sometime

(Unintelligible) my honey come back sometime
(Unintelligible) sometime
(Unintelligible) in my back sometime
I'm going over here sometime

(Unintelligible) my honey come back sometime
(Unintelligible) sometime
(Unintelligible) in my back sometime
I'm going over here sometime

(Unintelligible) my honey come back sometime
(Unintelligible) sometime
(Unintelligible) in my back sometime
I'm going over here sometime

(Unintelligible) my honey come back sometime
(Unintelligible) sometime
(Unintelligible) in my back sometime
I'm going over here sometime

TUCKER: Again, that's not Moby singing, it's a tape loop of the gospel singer Bessie Jones taken from field recordings made decades ago musicologist Alan Lomax (ph), particularly the box set "Sounds of the South."

Everything else is Moby, however, playing keyboards and drums and bass, shifting the tempo of the original to turn Jones's originally sanctified phrases into a sexy vamp.

Here's what Moby sounds like when he's using his own slight conversational voice.



See the storm has broken
In the middle of the night
Nothing left here for me
It's washed away

The rain pushes the buildings aside
The sky turns black
A sky (unintelligible) in fog
Push it out to sea
There's nothing left here for me

TUCKER: There's a certain coldness to much of the music here, a quality it shares with most techno music, which, after all, is a mechanistic genre designed to get you all hot and elated on the dance floor.

Moby has in the past been reasonably successful in forcing this music to contain content, specifically about his Christian faith and his vegetarianism.

"Play," despite its title, is about the work of love. It's best songs, whether sung by the artist himself or through the songs he chooses to sample, talk about the difficulties of nurturing romance and ongoing relationships.

In expanding his music to accommodate such melancholy, Moby has given his armchair admirers sometime to admire intellectually as well as viscerally.

BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly.

Dateline: David Bianculli
Guest: Ken Tucker
High: Moby has been America most visible maker of techno dance music for most of this decade and has made hit remixes for acts ranging from Brian Eno to Aerosmith to Smashing Pumpkins.
Spec: Music Industry; Media; Entertainment

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Review of new Moby release
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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