10 Hardcore Facts About HBO's Oz

HBO
HBO

When HBO was looking to expand its programming to include hour-long dramas in the late 1990s, the network was intrigued by writer/producer Tom Fontana’s pitch about a maximum security prison and a specific area, dubbed Emerald City, where prisoners could have more leeway in the hopes it would allow for their rehabilitation. Fontana came up with the idea following his work on Homicide: Life on the Street, where murderers were sent away: He wanted to explore what happened next.

Before The Sopranos or The Wire, television’s golden age arguably began on HBO on July 12, 1997, when the premium network premiered Fontana's prison drama Oz. As HBO’s first attempt at an hour-long dramatic series, it laid the groundwork for the dozens of risk-taking, novel, and novelistic shows to follow. On the series' 20th anniversary, check out some facts on the cast, the gore, and the alternate series finale idea that was never filmed.

1. THAT’S THE SERIES CREATOR GETTING TATTOOED IN THE INTRO.

A former playwright, Fontana got his big break in television with the 1980s NBC hospital drama St. Elsewhere. In an impressive display of commitment to Oz—especially since he didn’t know if the show would even last beyond a season—Fontana volunteered his arm to get an “Oz” tattoo for the opening credits montage. The tattoo artist kept retracing his needle work so the crew could get the best take. Eventually, the artist stopped, saying that he “can’t let this guy bleed anymore.”

2. THE GREEK CHORUS MONOLOGUES WERE A NECESSITY.

Viewers who tuned in to Oz were in for a shock—the show featured the kind of graphic violence and casual nudity you’d find in an actual prison. But they were also sometimes puzzled by Fontana’s narrative habit of putting one of the prisoners, Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), in front of the camera for fourth-wall-breaking soliloquies. Fontana said he chose this approach because “in prison, guys aren’t that forthcoming about what they think and what they feel because that leaves them open and vulnerable to attack ... so my thought was just to let someone articulate what all this craziness meant.”

3. IT WAS FILMED IN A CRACKER FACTORY.


Max Aguillera-Hellweg - © HBO

To house the sprawling, 60,000-square foot prison set, HBO commandeered an abandoned National Biscuit Company (a.k.a. Nabisco) factory in Manhattan. (The building had been the first to mass-produce Oreo cookies for the company.) The space was obtained after Fontana couldn’t find any empty prisons in which to shoot.

4. PLAYING A NEO-NAZI MADE J.K. SIMMONS DEPRESSED.

Oz is probably best remembered for its sprawling ensemble cast, with actors like Chris Meloni, J.K. Simmons, and Perrineau all going on to successful careers; others, like Ernie Hudson and Rita Moreno, were already well-established. At the time, Simmons appeared to be having particular trouble inhabiting the repugnant skin of Vern Schillinger, the head of the prison’s Aryan population. Simmons referred to Schillinger in the third person and told The New York Times in 1999 that he became “depressed” as a result of the role. In an interview with NPR, Simmons also shared that fans would occasionally stop him in the street to let him know they endorsed Schillinger’s viewpoints.

5. REAL EX-CONS WORKED ON THE SHOW.

For realism’s sake, Fontana instructed his casting director to hire ex-cons as extras whenever he could. Not all of them were relegated to the margins: Chuck Zito, who had a recurring role as Italian mafia heavy Chucky Pancamo, was a then-member of the Hells Angels and had served six years in prison for various offenses. More notably, he received press coverage for allegedly knocking out Jean-Claude Van Damme at a strip club in 1998.

6. FONTANA DIDN’T WANT TO KILL SIMON ADEBESI.


HBO

From the first episode, Fontana made sure viewers didn’t grow too fond of any single character: One of the ostensible leads of the show, Dino Ortolani (Jon Seda), was murdered at the conclusion of the pilot episode, and the series picked prisoners off with regularity from that point on. But Fontana wasn’t trigger-happy when it came to killing off Simon Adebisi, the scheming, toothpick-munching inmate with a tiny hat sitting precipitously on the side of his head, who was played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. “I didn't want to kill that character, but it was a necessity due to the actor's wanting to move on,” Fontana told CNN in 2003, “rather than me saying, 'This is the end of the story.'”

7. ADEWALE AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE EXPOSED HIMSELF AT RANDOM.

Like many of the performers on Oz, Akinnuoye-Agbaje was expected to be comfortable with frontal male nudity—both his own and that of his castmates. According to Fontana, the actor didn’t appear to have many inhibitions about it. “If in a scene it said, ‘Adebisi takes out his penis,’ he would go, ‘I don’t take out my penis in this scene. There’s no reason for me to do that,’” Fontana told The Toast in 2015. “And I’d say ok, Adewale, don’t take out your penis. I don’t care. The next scene he’d take out the penis. It wasn’t scripted for that, but suddenly there was the penis.”

8. IT PREDICTED SPECIAL MUSICAL EPISODES.

Remember the musical episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer? Or Scrubs? Oz did it first. With a cast taken in large part from the New York theater scene, the series was able to assemble an impressive all-song-and-dance episode in 2002. The highlight: Nazi Schillinger (Simmons) and nemesis Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) in a duet.

9. THERE WAS A DIFFERENT ENDING PLANNED.

After six seasons, Oz ended in 2003 with the surviving cast members being—spoiler alert—evacuated from Oswald State following a chemical attack. But Fontana originally wanted to do something else. He recalled reading about a prison town that once flooded, forcing inmates to work side-by-side with citizens to build sandbag barriers to protect the entire community. It was deemed too expensive to shoot.

10. FONTANA WOULDN’T LET HIS MOM WATCH THE SHOW.

Despite her expressed desire to see her son’s work, Fontana told the press he was adamant that his then-75-year-old mother not watch Oz. “She said, 'I know a lot about what goes on in the world,’” Fontana said in 1997. “I said, 'You don't know about this.' This isn't a place I want my 75-year-old mother to go."

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can pre-order your copy from Amazon now for $20 before its August 27 release date.

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