Kary:

This is the Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why narratives of crime and justice are told.

Today’s podcast is a conversation with Tom Fontana, ground zero in the explosion of this golden age of television. Tom served as executive producer of St. Elsewhere, Executive Producer and Showrunner of Homicide: Life on the Streets, and Creator and Executive Producer of the first prestige drama of the cable television era, Oz. (Tom is currently the Executive Producer and Showrunner of the Showtime crime drama City on a Hill.)

The conversation was recorded as part of a series of classes that I taught at The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Each week I would host an artist for a discussion that would help us better understand their values and aims as storytellers in the world of crime and justice. In this conversation, Tom and I discussed the people and forces that shaped his creative thinking, and we zeroed in on his experiences as a pioneer in expanding the artistic possibilities for the prestige drama as the network era transitioned into the premium cable era. 

One piece of context, before we begin.  Prior to my interview with Tom, the students in the class screened three programs: First, the Subway episode from Homicide — in which a man who is pinned between a subway car and the platform (and is doomed to death within an hour) is questioned by Detective Frank Pembelton (played by Andre Brauer) as a witness to his own murder; Second, a PBS documentary about the making of that episod; and third, the groundbreaking pilot episode of HBO’s Oz, the first one hour drama produced for a commercial free network, in which the apparent lead character of the series Dino Ortolani (played by Jon Seda) shockingly dies at the end of the Pilot episode. 

And so with all that said, here is my interview with Tom Fontana.

Kary: 

Please join me in welcoming Tom Fontana. 

As I was reviewing the material for tonight’s class, it reminded me that Tom is essentially the Adam of the era of television that you guys grew up in. In other words, Homicide in some ways, but then Oz in a very profound way, was the first show, the first dramatic series that was done to live without commercial interruption. And it remains the origin story of prestige drama and of scripted television that’s done more for art than for commerce. 

Kary: 

So one of the central aims of this class is to assess the writer, creator, filmmaker’s values in crafting crime dramas. And I would say you have here one of the most distinctive moral voices in the history of television. And I think that is a key part of why these two shows became catalysts in bringing to television a sense of artistry that had previously been reserved to film and theater. So let’s just start at the beginning, and tell us where you’re from. And what were the forces, both positive and negative, that shaped your value system, what you think is important?

Tom Fontana: 

I was born in Buffalo, New York to Italian-Polish families, immigrant families, Roman Catholic. I went to a Jesuit high school, where I learned a lot about discipline, how to channel my creative energy on a daily basis. And then I went to a public college in the ’60s, where I developed a capacity for drugs, alcohol, and sex that was the opposite of what I learned from the Jesuits. And I truly believe that my life is a balance between this very tough, but useful discipline, and this sort of wild and craziness. I’ve spent my whole life both as a writer and as a human being balancing the two, Apollo and Dionysus, I guess, to create whatever I’ve created for television.

Kary: 

Tell us a bit about your path to becoming a working writer, and then a showrunner of network television.

Tom Fontana: 

Well, this is a rather long story, but I’ll try to tell the shortest version of it. I went to New York to be a playwright. And I was probably the least successful playwright of my generation, something I’m very proud of.  I wrote a play that was being done up at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts in their second company. And in the first company, the main stage, Blythe Danner was doing a play, and was there with her husband, Bruce Paltrow, and their two adorable, very small children, Gwyneth and Jake. And my play was opening. It was in repertory, so it ran all summer, but it ran odd, one day a week, or three days a week, whatever.

Tom Fontana: 

And Blythe brought Gwynnie and Jake to the first night. And they really liked it, and they kept trying to convince Bruce to go see it. And the door to the house that Bruce and Blythe rented to the front door of the theater where my play was being done was about the distance from the back of the theater to here. So every day, Bruce had to drive by the theater where my play was being done. The whole summer goes by, he doesn’t come and see the play. Blythe is furious. Now you have to remember, I’m absolutely broke. I earned that year, as a playwright, I earned $5000. That was my entire income. And Blythe was furious with him that he didn’t see the play. And he calls me up-

Kary: 

Would you just tell the students who Bruce Paltrow was at that moment?

Tom Fontana: 

Yeah. Bruce Paltrow created a show called The White Shadow, and was a mainstay show runner for MTM Enterprises, which was at that particular period of time the Quality Central for television. They did not only Mary Tyler Moore Show and the Bob Newhart Show, they did Hill Street Blues. And they were about to start doing this new series, St. Elsewhere, a medical show. And Bruce called me and he said, “Blythe’s pissed off at me, so I want to give you a script. I’m going to give you the third episode of the series to write.” And I said, “Nah. I don’t want to do it. It’s a medical show. They sort of creep me out.” And he said, “Well, we’ll pay Writer’s Guild minimum,” which at the time was $12,500. Now if you remember, I earned $5000, so I thought I could live for two years on this money from St. Elsewhere.

Tom Fontana: 

And anyway, I wrote this script. It was abysmal. And Bruce was a very gentle, though tough, mentor. And I ended up getting a job first as a staff writer on the series, and then as a producer. But I am convinced to this day that if he had seen my play, he would’ve never hired me, ever. So I owe my entire career to a lack of ambition and a lot of luck.

Kary:

Tell us a bit about the experience of working on St. Elsewhere, and what you learned along the way, and how you grew into the confidence to run a show.

Tom Fontana: 

Well, I was really writing the first draft that I did, I was writing it as if it was a play. And Bruce said to me, he said, “First of all,” he said, “I’m paying retail, not wholesale, so I want the absolute best of you.” And he said, the other thing was, he said, “You’re seeing it like it’s on a proscenium.” And he said, “You have another eye in your head that actually sees the film, sees close ups, sees two shots, sees wide shots.” And he said, “You’ve never used that, but you have to grab it, and you have to turn that into a skillset for yourself to write for television.” So that was enormously helpful.  because I was sort of writing bad … My first script was like a bad version of every medical show I’d ever seen.

Tom Fontana:

And Bruce was very clear that he wanted us to kick ass, that he wanted to blow the doors off of every medical series that had ever come before. And that gave me great courage. And every risk we took, whether it failed or succeeded, gave me more confidence to try things that no one else had tried before.

Kary:

What’s the most memorable risk that Bruce took, or that you collectively took, during that St. Elsewhere period?

Tom Fontana:

There were two. One was: We wanted to do the history of the hospital. The show had been on for a number of years, and we though it’d be interesting to do the history of the hospital from its opening to the present day. And we did it over two episodes. They were called Time Heals. And the risk was that we literally were skipping between five different time periods. And to make the narrative work when you’re zipping, zapping around from one, from 1920 to 1960, that was very hard writing. But it ended up turning out all right.

Tom Fontana: 

And the other thing we did was we had this … The show was never a hit, hit, so we were always on the brink of cancellation. And we would have in the little kitchen area where we had coffee and tea and stuff, we would have a list of bad ideas for the last episode. So in case we thought we were going to get canceled, we’d use one of these ideas. And after the show was on a number of years, the list kept getting longer and longer. And then we were going to get canceled, so my writing partner at the time, John, and I went into Bruce’s office, and we said, “Here’s the list of ideas for the last episode.” And we went through the whole list, and it was like, “No. No. No. No. No.”

Tom Fontana:

And we got to the last one. He went, “That’s the least bad idea, so you can do that one.” And what it was, we ended the episode with the characters, a couple of the characters from the show coming into a living room. I should say the son of the lead character on the show for the whole history of the show had autism. And so now this doctor, that has been the pillar of this series comes in, and he’s a construction worker. And the doctor who was a co doctor was his father. And the boy, who was autistic, is staring at this glass globe. And the father says, “All he does all day is stare at this globe.” And they go, “Okay. Come on, let’s go to dinner.” And they leave the room, the camera pans in, and you see in the globe is the hospital. So the entire series was in the mind of an autistic child, and that’s how we ended the series. And I’m telling you, people went fucking batshit.

Tom Fontana:

This was obviously before emails and all that stuff, so you would get bags of hate mail, bags. Some people liked it, but …

Kary: 

Nice. Tell us about your journey from St. Elsewhere to Homicide: Life on the Street.

Tom Fontana: 

I have never been a huge fan of living in Los Angeles, so I was very anxious to go home to New York. And when I said to everybody, “I’m going back to New York to live,” everybody said, “Well, that’s the end of your career,” because at that time, there were no television series made in New York City except game shows and soap operas. So I said, “Well, that’s okay. I didn’t think my career in television would last this long, so I’m going home.” And they were like, “Well, what are you going to do?” And I said, “You know, I’m going to write epic poetry. Oh, Ulysses, blah, blah, blah.” I thought it would be fun to write some really epic poetry.

Tom Fontana:

And so I’m in New York, and I’m writing this and I’m writing that. And I get a call from my agent, which unto itself was a miracle. And he said, “Barry Levinson wants to do a TV series, and he wants to meet with you.” And I was like, “Well, what’s the series?” And he said, “Well, it’s a cop show.” And I said, echoes of me not wanting to do a medical show, I go, “I don’t want to do a cop show. I mean, there’s never going to be a better cop show than Hill Street Blues. It’s just not possible.” And he said, “Well, at least have the meeting. Barry’s an Oscar winning director.” So I go, “Okay.” So I meet with Barry, and he says to me, “I want to do a cop show without gun battles and without car chases.” And I said, “Well, that’s impossible. I’ll do it,” because it seemed so completely idiotic to try to do a cop show with none of the normal pieces that a cop show relies on.

Tom Fontana: 

And so that’s how I started working with Barry. And he said, also, he wanted to shoot the show in Baltimore, so suddenly, Los Angeles was looking like a really great place to live as opposed to Baltimore. But I ended up loving Baltimore.

Kary:

The series was inspired by the book by David Simon…

Tom Fontana:

Yes.

Kary:

… who you see in the documentary, and who would go on to create The Corner and The Wire for HBO.

Tom Fontana: 

Yeah.

Kary:

And the original pilot was written by Paul…

Tom Fontana:

Paul Attanasio. Yeah.

Kary:

And did you come in after the pilot was written?

Tom Fontana:

No. I came in during, while they were working on the pilot.

Kary:

Got it.

Tom Fontana:

So it’s mostly Paul, a little bit of Barry, a little bit of me. Yeah.

Kary:

And then you shot the pilot.

Tom Fontana:

No, we had an order for nine episodes, which in that day and age was unusual. But they were so desperate to get into business with Barry Levinson because it was the first television series Barry was going to do, which now, it’s so funny too because now it’s like every feature director wants to do a television series as part of their portfolio. Whereas, Barry was really the first to do that. And the reason he wanted to do it as a television series is he read David’s book because it was sent to him, because Barry does Baltimore movies sometimes because he’s from there. And he read the book, and he said “There’s too much here for a two hour feature.” He said, “We really need to do this as a television series.”

16:45

Kary:

And so you developed the pilot. And did you develop the backup script at the same time? Or did you have the pilot?

Tom Fontana:

Yeah. We started working on it right away, yeah.

Kary:

And did you put together a team of writers right away, or was it just the three of you?

Tom Fontana:

Well, no. Attanasio only did the first one, and then he went off to do a feature. Basically, the only other person that I had initially was Jimmy Yoshimura, who wrote the “Subway” episode. And he was a Chicago playwright, who I almost threw off a balcony in Eric Overmyer’s apartment, who was another writer-producer in New York, because we were both drunk out of our minds, and he was going, “Television is shit!” And I was like, “Fuck you!” Anyway. But the next day, we were best friends.

Kary:

And so it was just the three of you crafted the first eight episodes?

Tom Fontana

We used other freelance writers, but Jim was the only staff person at the time.

Kary:

And then tell us about putting the production together, hiring the directors for that first eight, that first block of eight.

Tom Fontana:

Well, Barry’s whole thing was rather than hire television directors, let’s hire feature people. And that of course terrified me because most feature people, feature directors are sort of indulged to just keep shooting until they think it’s perfect. And we don’t have that kind of time or money in television. But the people we came up with were… some of them were recent film school graduates because we’d watched their thesis film, or whatever you all call it. And then we’d go, “Oh, let’s try that person.” Or we had … Now I’m trying to remember who we had, lot of indie people, and a couple of feature people like Steven Gyllenhaal, who’s Jake Gyllenhaal’s father, and the guy who directed Il Postino, whose name is now escaping, Michael…

Kary: Radford? Michael Radford? 

Tom Fontana: Yeah.

Kary:

We saw in the documentary kind of the later stages of your relationship with the network on that show. Take us back to the beginning of it. Obviously, as you said, they were excited to be in business with Barry.

Tom Fontana: 

Until they started seeing film, and then they were less excited.

Kary:

Tell us about that.

Tom Fontana:

Well, Barry, to compensate for the no gun battles, no car chases, Barry said, “The camera’s going to be the energy.” So it was the first series that we never … Everything was handheld. It was the first series where everything was handheld. And Barry’s thing was, we will never do a perfect master because the camera should just be moving around the room, going in this way, going that way. We don’t want to stop and light the other side of the room. We want the energy to keep going. And so the actors were constantly… didn’t know if the camera was on them. You know what I mean? Everybody had to be acting at full tilt because the camera could just suddenly get them for one line, but they had to be doing it for real.

Tom Fontana:

The other thing he wanted to do was the jump cutting. He said, “There’s a way to add energy to this if we jump cut.” And Homicide was the first show to use jump cuts on television. And so we cut the first one together, and the network hated it, just thought it was the worst thing they’d ever seen. They were so incredibly disappointed.

Kary:

And you hired… kind of a documentary camera person.

Tom Fontana:

Right, right. Yeah. The DP was his whole … We only had on the show, we only ever hired DPs from docs. We had three different DPs, and they were all originally from docs because, again, they knew that sort of like, just catch it. Just catch it. Oh, there’s something interesting happening over there. Just get the camera over there, regardless of who’s talking. And oh, by the way, the other thing that Barry wanted to do, he wanted the series to be almost colorless. And so the color correction on the show, we were constantly playing with it over the course of the life of the series. But anyway, NBC hated it. But for some reason, they decided-

Kary:

And why was that? Why did Barry want that? He wanted it to feel the opposite of slick.

Tom Fontana: 

Yes. Yeah. We shot on super 16. And he liked the murkiness of super 16. Yeah. I mean, Barry’s a brilliant director, so every choice he made, you went, “Okay.” So NBC was apoplectic, and they’d ordered all these episodes, so they were really screwed … What we thought was that this was … Because homicide cops are the thinking cops, okay, and so we wanted the show to be a thoughtful series. We didn’t want it just to be a cop show. We wanted it to have a certain kind of thematic edge to it. And so it’s a show you had to listen to, not just watch it go by.

Tom Fontana: 

So NBC hates the show and decides to air it in the most important slot for a premier possible, after the Super Bowl. Okay. So they’re thinking, “We’re geniuses.” And I’m going, “You know, mostly after the Super Bowl, everybody’s drunk. Nobody’s going to want to listen to this television series.” “No, no, no, no, no. It’ll be huge. It’ll be huge,” (the network execs would say). And our numbers initially were huge. We were getting the flotsam and jetsam of Super Bowl numbers. But that very quickly went in the toilet when we got to our regular time slot. And basically, the entire six years we were on, we were on the brink of getting canceled. And I would literally come out here and beg every year. Part of being a show runner is begging. You can’t just be an asshole, you also have to be somebody who begs.

Kary: 

What was distinctive about the way that you set up this show from your experience on St. Elsewhere? What lessons did you learn? What did you want to do in constructing it and setting whatever rules you were setting for it?

[There’s a seven second gap of silence from 21:55 to 22:02 that needs to be closed up.]

Tom Fontana:

Well, with St. Elsewhere, we dabbled in, oh, let’s not just do … When you’re doing a medical show, what you very quickly discover is that one scene you have to have in every episode is the doctor comes into the room and says to the patient, “This is what you have, and you’re going to live, or you’re going to die.” Okay. And you write that scene a million times, and you’re really bored with that scene. So we started throwing in killer bees and all kinds of things because we were bored out of our minds writing that scene. And that sort of fueled what I then tried to do with Homicide, which was what I said to each of the writers was, “Every week, we’re going to make another little independent film.” Sometimes the murder can happen at the beginning of the show. Sometimes it can happen at the end of the show. Sometimes I can happen in the middle of the show.

Tom Fontana: 

We didn’t want to be formulaic. And the other cop show that was on at this time was Law and Order, which is a show that I always liked. But we were the opposite of Law and Order. If they were formula to the max, we were the sloppiest show on television, because Dick Wolf, when we would do the crossover episodes — we would do crossover episodes with Law and Order — and Dick Wolf would always be like, “But you’ve got to have them talk about Madison versus Marlboro.” (sic) And I’d be like, “No. No. We don’t do that.” We talk about the human heart because life is sloppy, death is sloppy. And that’s what the show is.

Tom Fontana:

And so carried from St. Elsewhere to Homicide was this sense of whatever would serve the story best was the approach we would take for that particular episode. And when Jim Yoshimura, as you saw in the documentary, saw this Taxi Cab Confessions on HBO, and he came to me, and he said, “What if we did an episode where the… Pembleton has to interview the murder victim?” And I went, “That sounds extraordinary. I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’ll do it.” And he wrote the script. And just the idea that after all those years of doing the Homicide series, you actually could find the most bizarre aspect to tackle, which is to actually have the murder victim still alive for 45 minutes. And as I was saying, ever since we wrote that episode, when I’m on the subway platform, I stand against the wall because I ain’t going like that, I’ll tell you.

Kary:

So in this case, in this situation, the subway terminal serves as what came to be called the box. Tell us about the development of the interrogation room in the precinct, and how that kind of took on a life of its own, how you used that room.

Tom Fontana:

Well, I will say this. I have been very blessed in my career to work with exceptional actors, Denzel Washington on St. Elsewhere, Andre Braugher on Homicide. And in the first script of Homicide, there was a box scene. There was a male hustler who was accused of murdering his trick. And Pembleton and Bayliss, it was Bayliss’ first day in homicide, and they’re in the room together. And Bayliss is … And Pembleton is just crushing this kid, just crushing him. And Bayliss is like, “What about his rights? And what about his this?” And Barry and I were sitting — Barry directed the first episode — and he and I were sitting at Video Village watching the scene. And we turned and looked at each other and said, “Oh, my God. That’s the series.”

Tom Fontana: 

Up to that point, if it wasn’t for the talent of the actors, where you could watch Andre Braugher and say, “This guy can do anything.” We put him in that room against any obstacle, he will bounce it. You know what I mean? And that’s what I decided to do “Three Men and Adena,” which was an episode we did in this first season that all took place in the box, the whole hour took place in the box.

Kary: 

Tell us a little bit about that episode. I mean, it sounds like it was you going to your playwright roots.

Tom Fontana: 

True.

Kary:

And tell us about the experience of writing that episode, and how it informed the rest of the series.

Tom Fontana:

Well, first of all, the irony of it is that again, as I said, Barry wanted all these featured directors. And so I was terrified being the show runner, and my responsibility was the money, as well as the creative side, that we would be so over budget by the sixth episode that we’d never be able to recover. The show would be a runaway financial train. So I thought, “Well, what can I do to try to just contain the cost if we are crazy out of control?” And I thought, “Oh, well, I’ll go to my theater roots. And I’ll write three men in this room for an hour.”

Tom Fontana: 

But the true inspiration was commerce. Okay? It didn’t start with, I’m going to do something artistic. It started with me. How do I save money? And because I believed in Andre and Kyle Secor, who played Bayliss, that they could carry it. I just thought, “We have to get somebody really good to play the antagonist.” And we were very lucky to get Moses Gunn. And the director was Martin Campbell. Now Martin had directed the first Pierce Brosnan Bond movie and the first Daniel Craig Bond movie. So to go from Bond movies to this one room was a pretty extraordinary thing for him to do. And one little thing that he did, which I was so impressed by, is he spent an entire weekend before we started shooting the episode in the box, Martin did.

Tom Fontana: 

And when he shot the film, he never repeated an angle. He shot it from here, and then moved on to another section. Then he would shoot it this way. Then he’d shoot it that way and shoot it that way. And so as an audience member, you don’t really notice it. But your eye never gets tired because you’re never looking at the same spot for the entire piece. And I thought that was an inspired way to direct that episode.

Kary:

So from the documentary, we get a deep sense of your working relationships. Tell us a little bit about the larger team that you’ve built, Jim Finnerty, and how… the logistics of putting it all together.

Tom Fontana: 

Well, starting with Jim Finnerty, Jim was a grip in New York, and worked on every major film that was shot in New York as a grip. And we decided to ask him to be the line producer because we figured he knew where all the money was being stolen from, and that’s what he did. He knew what everything cost… He’s Irish from Howard Beach, so you don’t put anything past this guy. The rest of the head of post is a woman named Irene Burns, who I actually knew from college. And then she went off to work in telemarketing. And then she said, “I want to get into television,” so I made her my head of post without her having ever done the job. But I knew she was so smart that she would figure it out very quickly, which she did.

Tom Fontana: 

Because my philosophy as a showrunner is you hire really great, really smart people, and then you let them do their job, and you let them hire their staff as opposed to imposing something on them. And in terms of the writing staff, it’s really important to me… There’s two kinds of showrunners. And what I’m about to say is not to disparage any of the people’s names who I’m about to mention because I think they’re all tremendous writers. But there’s the Aaron Sorkin, David Milch, school of showrunning, where every character sounds like Aaron Sorkin, and every character sounds like David Milch. And Aaron and David hire a writers’ room filled with talented people that they end up writing, rewriting the script entirely because nobody can sound like Aaron Sorkin, but Aaron Sorkin. Nobody can sound like David Milch, but David Milch. So that’s one way of doing it.

Tom Fontana:

But I hear the world differently in my brain, which is I hear thousands of voices, all sounding different. And so my philosophy of hiring writers is to say, “Teach me what I don’t know about my series. And bring your voice, so that we create a choir, as opposed to a solo.” And so you have somebody like Jimmy Yoshimura, or Jorge Zamacona, or Julie Martin, as your key writers. They’re writing stuff that I could never come up with in 100,000 years. As opposed to expecting them to mimic me, I’m looking to them to surprise me and make me cry and make me laugh and all that stuff that we want when we watch a television show.

Kary: 

One of the truly distinctive and groundbreaking things about Homicide was the diversity of the casting, and the kind of real world quality of the casting. The other thing that I remembered from when I read through some of the write ups about both Homicide and Oz, was that you were incredibly solicitous of the actors in giving you feedback on the characters year on year. Can you tell us a little bit about both the ethnic makeup of Homicide for now, and then the way that you worked with those actors year on year?

Tom Fontana:

Well, I would like to pretend that I am this incredibly… “king of diversity.” But the reality is that with both Homicide and Oz, what was more important to me was that the characters on the show reflected the makeup of the people living in that moment in time. Baltimore is a brown town, and so we felt very important to populate it with a lot of African American actors. And the same thing with Oz, I mean, you look at the prison population, and it’s unfortunate the number of the imbalance between the races in American prisons. But that’s why we went that way because it was true to Baltimore to have the cast look that way, as opposed to going, “Oh, look. They’re all blonde, and they’re Botox-ed. And aren’t they fabulous looking?”

Tom Fontana: 

I used to say, half jokingly, we had the ugliest cast in television because people looked like real people, as opposed to like TV stars. 

Tom Fontana:

I mean, what’s interesting that happens, at least in my experience, is that when you start a television series, you know everything there is to know about a character, and the actor knows nothing. And within a relatively short amount of time, depending on the actor, the actor knows more than you know about the character because they’re living the character. They’re inhabiting the character. And you’re still looking at it slightly from the outside. So it was very important as the series goes on because you watch a show like, I don’t know, CSI, and those characters never change. They’re the same character week, after week, after week, after week, after week.

Tom Fontana: 

On the shows that we do, we like to chart an evolution for each of the characters, so you see them change over the course of the life of the series. So what I would do, sorry, what I would do before I started writing the new season, I would meet with each actor individually. And I would say, “What song haven’t you sung? What dance haven’t you danced?” And they would be very open about, you know, I feel this, I feel that, I feel that. And I’ll give you one example. Andre Braugher, at the end of I think it was season four, said, “I’m just tired of being in the box and always being on my game, and always being the best. I’m getting bored with that.” And I went, “Oh, okay. All right. All right.” And I sort of went off, and I thought about it.

Tom Fontana: 

And I went back to him some time later and I said, “How about if we give Pembleton a stroke?” And so we took the most articulate character we had, and turned him into somebody who could not speak. And so that whole season was the struggle of this man to get back into the box. His only goal in life was to get back into the box. And in the very first episode, they’re saying, “Frank, you’ve come back too soon. You’re not ready.” And he can barely make the coffee in the kitchen, and he can’t remember words. And he’s struggling, struggling, struggling. But you see this man, this fighter, and you know he’s going to come back because he’s too tough not to. So I’m not sure Andre expected quite such a large change in his character, but we had a lot of fun writing it and he had a lot of fun playing it.

Kary:

In the documentary, we see that you have already gone on to create a show for HBO called Oz. And then when we watch the Oz episode, we see that the character you think is going to be the lead of the series does the unthinkable. He dies at the end of the pilot. And that actor ended up going on to act in the episode… becoming a regular character on Homicide. Tell us about the creation of Oz, and how it started, how you were enticed into doing it, and how you were able to juggle both shows at the same time.

Tom Fontana: 

Well, to answer the last part first, as I said, you get the best people and you trust them. And when it came to the writing of Homicide, I had Jim and Jorge and Julie guiding the other writers. So I was very confident that the quality of the writing on Homicide would not fall… I mean, I was still involved. I was still doing the final pass on every script, still doing the final edit on every episode, so it wasn’t like I disappeared. But starting a series is difficult, and you have to spend a lot of time thinking about it and doing things.

Tom Fontana:

But what happened was two things. One is, when I was about, I don’t know, 16 or so, there was a riot at Attica Prison near my hometown. And it always struck me as sort of like, first of all that the prisoners had taken over the prison, but then the governor sent in the National Guard, and they basically shot everybody, correctional officers, prisoners, it was a true massacre. And the whole thing sort of was embedded in the back of my mind. And then we’re doing Homicide, and on most TV shows, there’s a bad guy. And at the end of the episode, the bad guy goes to prison. And we weren’t quite that efficient on Homicide. Sometimes people went to prison, and sometimes they didn’t.

Tom Fontana:

But it got me thinking about how on television, we always end the cop show with, there’s always the joke, and everybody freezes, laughing. And my thought was, “Well, what happens to the people who go to the prison?” And David Simon in his book, Homicide: A Year in the Killing Street, had a section about a prison riot that the homicide detectives, the Baltimore homicide detectives had to investigate. So I write that episode as part of Homicide, called Prison Riot. And what we did was we brought back a lot of the actors who had played murderers in previous episodes, and they were actually in the prison part of the riot.

Tom Fontana:

Anyway, that worked out pretty well. And so I thought, “Well, I should do a show about a prison.” And at the time, there were four networks, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. And so off I go to pitch. And I’m pitching this prison series, and they look at me like I am the biggest idiot on the planet Earth.

Kary:

How are you going to sell soap with a prison show?

Tom Fontana: 

Yeah, yeah. Exactly. That’s probably the easiest thing to sell because … But no, it’s true. They were, “Well, where’s the heart? And where’s the hope? And where’s that?” I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know where it is. Have you been to a prison?” So a friend of mine, Rob Kenneally, who’s now an agent at CAA, was in a meeting with Chris Albrecht and Bridget Potter, and Ann Thomopoulos. I don’t know if you were in that meeting.

Kary:

I was over on the documentary side at the time.

Tom Fontana:

Right. And he was a buyer at that point. He was running a studio. And somebody said, “You know, we have a lot of success with our prison documentaries. So we’re thinking our first drama series ever should be a prison show.” And Rob goes, “Oh, okay.” And he literally goes outside and finds a phone, because there were no iPhones back then, and he calls me in New York. And he says, “Get your ass out here. There’s somebody stupid enough to do your prison show.” So I’m like, “Whoa.” And I’m on a plane, and I go in to see Chris Albrecht, who was running HBO at the time, and Bridget Potter and Ann Thomopoulos, who were heads of development, or I don’t know their titles.

Tom Fontana: 

And I pitched this thing. And Chris says, “Okay, well … ” Again, they had never done a drama series before, so everybody was being very tentative. So he said, “Let me give you a little bit of money, and you can make a 15 minute presentation.” So I was like, “Okay.” And we were obviously still shooting Homicide at the time, so I said, “We’ll shoot it in Baltimore, and I’ll write scenes that I can then use the same set for the Oz presentation.” I mean, it was literally like cheating on so many levels. And I don’t know to this day if NBC knows how much of that presentation they paid for because … But we were able to shoot it.

Tom Fontana: 

And here’s something extraordinary, which had never happened before, and has not happened since. Barry Levinson and I go off to come out here to show. Chris says, “Bring the tape. Come to LA and show me the tape.” So we come back out here. We go into a room with Chris Albrecht, just the three of us. We put the, it might’ve even been Beta, that’s how long ago it was, we put the thing in the player. And the three of us watched the presentation. And Chris goes, “All right. Let’s make it.” There was no testing. There was no nothing, nothing. He didn’t call somebody. I’ve got to check with five people. Yeah, let’s do it. All right. Let’s do it. And I was like, “Okay. I’m now in an out of body experience.” 

Kary: 

So tell us about setting it up. Tell us about, okay, you’re doing a prison show. Do you put a writers’ room together?

Tom Fontana:

No.

Kary:

Or do you write them all yourself?

Tom Fontana:

You know, it’s funny. I’m not a big believer in writers’ rooms. I’m really a big believer in each writer having an individual voice and not feeling like they’re “committed.”. There’s too many people giving you notes on the network and studio level, that you then don’t want to sit in a room with other writers giving you attitude about your writing. But with Oz, the first season, I was very much like it’s really hard for me to sit in a room with another writer and say, “And then at the end of the scene, he bends him over.” So I would be like, “I’ll just write that myself. I don’t want you to write that, I’ll write that.”

Tom Fontana:

So I ended up writing most of the first season myself. And the way I did it was from a narrative point of view, what was unusual about the show was on a weekly basis, there could be a story, an element, a piece of say, the Beecher story, and one week, the Beecher story would be 20 minutes long, and the next week, the Beecher story would be two minutes long. I wasn’t bound by any of the old rules of, well, you know, everything has to be balanced. So each episode became like a little anthology of short stories that bled into the next episode, and bled into the next episode. So what I did every season, actually, was I would start with the Beecher story, and I always started with Beecher because he was our way into the series.

Tom Fontana:

Here was this basically HBO subscriber, and he was Dante going into the inferno. And so I would write all the scenes in all the episodes for the season for Beecher. And then I would write all the scenes for a character, like Saïd. And then I’d write all of them for O’Reily. And then I would just go, “Oh, I’ll take these three scenes. That’ll be in the first episode. And these five scenes will be from this character.” I would do this sort of just … I would have each character’s pages laid out in front of me, and I’d just shuffle and put things in the thing. The only problem was that I would discover that about episode seven that I’d be like, “Oh, okay. I’ll put his scene.” And then I’ll go, “Oh, I killed him in episode six. Hm. I have this extra scene leftover.” But that’s how I did it.

Tom Fontana:

I did bring in other writers eventually. We had a whole story with Dean Winters, who played O’Reily, and his real life brother played his brother on the show, Cyril. And when Cyril was facing being executed, I hired the third Winters brother, who’s a wonderful writer and a poet, Brad Winters, and he wrote all of his brothers’ scenes because I thought that would be the best way to do that story.

Kary: 

Why don’t you just talk for a few moments about your discipline, your writing process? To me, it’s legendary, given the hard life you live at night, that-

Tom Fontana: 

Used to live, used to live.

Kary: 

Even so, you would party until the wee hours. But there was something you did religiously every day.

Tom Fontana: 

Yeah. It is true. The Oz cast was the most partying cast on the planet Earth. And I was still of an age where I could do that. And I would get home at 4:00 completely wired out of my mind. And I would go to sleep for an hour, and I would get up at … I’ve been getting up at 5:00 to write every day of my life since I was about 16. And the reason I was doing that is I had to when I was in high school, we didn’t have much money, and I had to go to a job before I went to school to make money for myself. And so I started getting up at 5:00 to write for an hour before I went to work, before I went to high school.

Tom Fontana: 

And when I got to be the boss, I was like, “Oh. Well, you don’t have to do that anymore.” But what I discovered was I really love getting up at 5:00 AM to write because the world, especially in New York City, which is, I don’t know, a noisy place to live, at 5:00 AM, there’s this breath that New York takes. It’s between the time that all of the people who were out at the clubs go home, and before the garbage trucks start. There’s this little breath the city takes. And if you can get the muse to come during that breath, then you’re on your way to writing.

Tom Fontana: 

But back in the Oz days, I was a very bad boy. And I would literally sleep an hour, get up and write, and then go to the set. And it would start all over again. But there was one time I came home, and I was like … We weren’t shooting that day. It was a Saturday. I had been out all night, like 5:00, and I’m writing, and I’m writing, and I’m writing. And I go to sleep, and… I wrote this one scene, and I go to sleep. And then I wake up, and I’m like, “Oh, okay. I wonder what I wrote.” So I don’t think it’s in the episode you saw, but it might be. Oh, no. It was in this episode. It’s the one where he shoves his face in the bowl of feces. And I wrote: “And he shoves his face in a toilet bowl full of feces.” And I was like, “Oh, God… Hey, yeah. That works.” But I’m way past those days, I have to tell you. I still drink, but not to excess.

Kary:

Tell us about the non prison characters in the show and what you invested in each of those characters, why they’re there.

Tom Fontana: 

Do you mean the non prisoners?

Kary:

Yeah, non prisoners.

Tom Fontana: 

Well, I started with Tim McManus because I thought I want to have an idealist who has to eventually confront the reality of the world, that his concept is flawed and vulnerable. And so to basically partner with him, I created the warden, who Ernie Hudson played, to be a much more practical, I’ve been here, I’ve been doing this a long time, I’ll support you, but only up to a point. The doctor, who was played by Lauren Velez, I wanted to have a woman doctor because I thought it was important to see somebody … I wanted to have a couple of women. And so the three women that I came up with were the doctor, Sister Peter Marie, that Rita Moreno played, and a correctional officer that Edie Falco played because I thought that was very important to have. If it was just all men, it would’ve been just even more relentless than it was. And I wanted each of them to bring something else to the party, if you will, each of the women. So that’s really, I think those are the major outsiders.

Kary: 

You broke some major cultural ground on the show, particularly in, as you mentioned, the depiction of female characters, depiction of race relations, depiction of gay and sexual and romantic relationships. That was part of the mandate of HBO in a way. Tell us about that environment… What inspired you, kind of how you … When the network is behind you saying, “Do whatever you want to do,” what are the challenges in that situation?

Tom Fontana:

Well, the first challenge is coming from broadcast television and being told literally, you can do whatever you want to do. Your first instinct is to go, “Oh, I can have my characters be potty mouthed and swear. And I can have weird violence and sex all over the place.” But what I very quickly came to understand was that by giving me the responsibility, I had to actually take responsibility. And so I was very careful that that violence was only happened when it had to happen, and that the language was something that also had to be orchestrated very carefully.

Tom Fontana: 

I can’t stress enough how seriously I took the responsibility because I didn’t think I would. And it was really a life lesson for myself to go, “Oh, okay. You are in charge. And what are you going to do with that?” I think it’s important when you’re in a position of power to not just say, “Oh, boy. I have the power.” It’s important to say, “How do I use the power properly?”

Kary:

Can you elaborate on that a little bit? What drives you in that situation? How do you keep yourself challenged? How do you set the bar for what you’re trying to do? What are the-

Tom Fontana: 

Well, it all has to come through character. If it’s not right for the character, then it doesn’t belong in the piece. Character informs everything I write. And so plot does … I’m not really that interested in plot. I’m more interested in the journey of characters through a difficult environment.

Kary: 

I’m going to ask one more question, then I’m going to turn it over to the class and let them ask a few. And that one last question is: As you look back at almost 25, we’re on 25 years since you started Homicide, you’ve written about the criminal justice system over those years. You also did a show called Copper that looked way back in the early days of the… Do you think it’s changed? Do you think it’s stayed the same? How has it evolved over that period of time?

Tom Fontana:

The real criminal justice system? Not at all. I mean, unfortunately. I don’t think we’re … It’s horrifying to say it. But I don’t think we’re in any better shape. I think we’re in worse shape than we were 25 years ago. When I got to Baltimore, I found out a fact, that an African American male in Baltimore in the year we started doing the series was more likely to be killed than if that same young man was on the boat getting off at Normandy during the invasion, the D Day invasion. Okay. Now that was such a mind fucking statistic that I carried that with me the whole time. And I can’t say that’s any better now. I mean, we like to believe that television affects people’s lives. But I think television doesn’t lead, it follows. And that’s just the way I perceive it at this point.

Kary:

All right, so we’ve collected some questions from the students.

Kary:

The first question is: People like to say that we live in the golden age of television, but what I see is that, generally speaking, people don’t want to be challenged, but rather want to be comforted and are not really interested in watching something that is unsettling. How do you continue to make your kind of TV in that kind of environment?

Tom Fontana: 

Well, first of all, I don’t think that’s exclusively true in the sense of … But let me put it this way. I was able to do Oz because HBO wanted to make noise. And if you can find a venue like that, that wants to make noise, they will pretty much let you do anything you want. I mean, there’s many examples currently on television that I just think are tremendous and completely different from each other, but unsettling in their own masterful way. So I just think you have to find the right place for your idea.

Tom Fontana:

And you have to also … It’s a tricky thing. And I don’t know, you have to have a strong sense of your vision for the show, but you also have to be collaborative. So you have to listen. I listen to everybody, and then I make a decision. But I don’t go in going, “Well, I know everything.” I don’t know everything. I only know what I know. And believe me, I don’t know all that much. So it’s important to listen, but it’s also to say, “I know what my vision is, and that helps me, and that doesn’t.” And being able to say that in an articulate way without being a dick.

Kary:

Second question: Do you think that your experience as a playwright has given you an edge, or given you a sort of different perspective to bring to TV?

Tom Fontana:

I don’t think so, only because I was such a terrible playwright.  I guess the only thing I took away with me from play writing was that language is really important. And to identify each individual character’s language, because that’s very important to me. And you can watch a production of Streetcar Named Desire, and those characters, they’re all the voice of Tennessee Williams, but they’re all unique to their own speech patterns and education and points of view about life.

Kary:

Next question: The documentary showed how resistant NBC was to some of the bold ideas that you brought to the show. How would you go about trying to persuade executives who were looking at the show through a commercial lens that it was critically important to the show and to the audience that you follow through on these ideas.

Tom Fontana:

It was a constant battle. And I will say… I’ll say this, that part of the job of being the show runner is to, as I said before, you have to be collaborative, but you also have to be clear about the vision of the series. And the times when the network would win an argument was when I was tired or sick, and just didn’t have the fight in me. So the reason I say that is to make clear that I thought that everything was sort of this machine in motion that was just going to go on no matter who was involved. But what I have learned, and learned quickly being a showrunner, was it actually mattered that I was doing what I believed in. And I would say that to each of you, that you can make a difference out of the pure joy, or energy, or whatever you want to call it, of your vision. But it is up to you. Nobody else is going to do it for you. I don’t know. There was a much better thought in my head, but it didn’t come out.

Kary: 

I think that the entire evening, including seeing the work and seeing the documentary, is a testament to the importance of will, of your will to make this stuff happen, and to — with equanimity — to battle against the kind of commercial forces that for no really good reason want to impede the purity of that will. So it’s a creative will that you’re expressing. That’s how I’m hearing it, and that’s what I’m seeing in this. And I think I’m grateful to you for being with us tonight. It’s an incredible privilege to have your experience, and being at the epicenter of a real transformation in our culture. And you’re a pal, Tom, but you’re also a legend. And we’re really lucky to have you.

Tom Fontana:

I’m beginning to feel like a legend. I’m telling you.

Kary:

I want to ask you one other question.

Tom Fontana: 

Okay.

Kary:

Besides the Bruce Paltrow advice, what’s the best piece of advice you ever got?

Tom Fontana: 

The best piece of advice was in reference to the business, which is that if you believe them when they tell you, “You’re brilliant,” you have to believe them when they tell you, “You suck.” And they will tell you, “You suck.” So I’ve never let any of the awards define my identity. I’ve never let a review, positive or negative, define my sense of self. I’ve never let the very sweet things that people say tell me who I am. I have a very clear sense of who I am. And I have enough friends who call me on my bullshit, so that when I do start to feel like I am “a legend,” then they kick me in the ass and say, “You’re just another schlep from Buffalo.” So yeah.

Kary:

Join me in thanking Tom Fontana.

Tom Fontana: 

Thanks.