Home » Harold Perrineau and Tom Fontana Reflect on HBO’s OZ

Harold Perrineau and Tom Fontana Reflect on HBO’s OZ

by Jef Dinsmore
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It is nice to be able to look back on a classic and OZ is indeed an HBO classic. When I came across this interview and mused whether I’d utilize it here I went to HBO Max posthaste to make sure the show wasn’t recently purged and bounced somewhere else. You just can’t tell what will happen on the streamer. Yes, it is still parked there so it is safe to proceed.

People_HaroldPerrineauHarold Perrineau, a fine actor in TV and film, spent time with TV Insider to talk mostly about his latest TV stint, Epix’s From. He also passed comment on ABC’s Lost, which we all remember him from but, of course, it is his turn as the narrative voice in the prison drama OZ at HBO that we recall best. Just for the satisfaction of taking a nostalgic trip back to that 6 seasons (1997-2003) show we excerpt that portion of the conversation.  

TV Insider: There’s so much about Oz reflected in our society, whether as the pioneer of golden age television or as a critique of America and the prison system. What stands out to you about those aspects of the show? 

Harold Perrineau: All the things that you just mentioned, like being the first dramatic series that pushed boundaries, that was exciting and interesting and scary, and nobody knew where it was gonna go. I feel really lucky to have been able to be part a part of that, we had many, many times where executives from HBO would walk in, and they’d look at whatever we were doing, just kind of shake their head. ‘They’re on a leash? Whatever it is, just let them do it.” 

That was a really interesting thing to watch, but they were letting us experiment. I’m really glad that we would get to experiment with an actual topic that makes sense in this country that we live in. You know, prison reform, what prison is about, what it does versus what we might want it to be, and how it affects us. 

[…] We certainly had to be entertaining, but we could also point the finger at or point an eye toward some of these things. Especially for me, for the community I grew up in, it felt really good to be able to say something about it. Not just sitting around and talking about it, but actually having a real look at this. Let’s see how that happens. Let’s see what violence really looks like. For all those people who think violence is cool, or whatever, like, we got to show you ‘yeah, no, no, this isn’t cool. This is scary shit here.’ So we should remember that. It’s really good to be part of something that says something. 

TV I: Do you think a fresh reboot of Oz could work today? 

HP: I think we still have tons of questions about what we’re doing with the prison system here in this country. I think we still have questions about how it affects OZ_AgustusHillthe African American community, we have questions about how it affects the American community as a whole. So I think there could always be a fresh reboot of Oz. I mean, until we figure out what we’re doing [and] when we need it. Look, it’s still a question for me. There are times I’m really like, ‘prisons work.’ And there were times where I’m like, ‘yeah, lock them up,’ because I’m personally affected by it. I recognize that the questions live in me as much as they live in our country. 

TV I: Would you return to narrate as a spirit? 

HP: I wouldn’t want to do it on a regular basis, but I would certainly be honored if anybody found a way to rewrite Augustus Hill back into it just a little bit. But, you know, since then, I’ve done a couple of a number of different things in prisons. And I’ve said to myself, I don’t need to be in a real or fake prison, I don’t think, anymore my whole life. 

As we continue to reflect on this time, the 25th anniversary of the series, we hunted down some quotes from show creator Tom Fontana as well.  


Tom Fontana: Our feeling about the penal system in America is very cyclical; you go through periods of “[Prison] should be about redemption” and then “[Prison] should be about retribution.” At that time, it was about retribution and there was this sense that prisoners were bad people, and there were no heroes in those stories. The truth is, I wasn’t interested in writing heroes per se. And that was the great thing about Chris [Albrect, HBO CEO at the time]. I’ve often quoted him as saying, “I don’t care if the characters are likable as long as they’re interesting.” That was what I needed to hear because I wasn’t planning to make likable characters — I was planning to make interesting characters. OZ_FontanaOnSet

TF: We got an eight-episode order. I was literally yelled at by friends of mine and peers of mine on the drama side of television. They said to me, “Why are you going to work over at HBO? It’s a movie channel. Nobody watches it.” And I said, “Well, who cares if nobody watches it? They’re going to let me make the show I want to make.” Literally, people thought it would kill my career, that I made the wrong tactical move and that I should be doing Touched by an Angel! I’d like to tell you that I’m the visionary who had this incredible sense that cable would someday dominate the television world, but it wasn’t that. It was simply that there was an open door and I went through it. 

TF: I was very clear in the auditions, and when people signed the contract that they might be asked to be nude and that there would be violence. I didn’t want people who were going to be skittish. I have to say, over the course of the series, there was only really one actor who lied to me and said he would do whatever I asked him, and then when it came time he said, “No, I’m not going to do it.” But he wasn’t a regular and I was able to kill him off fairly quick. Let them guess who that was!  

TF: In terms of the writing of the first episode, Augustus was the first voice I heard in my head. In terms of the design of the show, Beecher was the first character that I came up with, and then McManus. One is there as a prisoner, and one is there as a warden. It just seemed like, for the audience, Beecher’s our Dante coming into the Inferno. He’s the one who’s guiding us into this world where we’re going to be exposed to these different cycles of violence. … Even though they were both about criminals, The Sopranos was so different from Oz that it wasn’t like it a copy of something we did. It existed in its own universe. I’m glad Oz worked for HBO, and gave them the courage to keep pushing the boundaries that it did with The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and all the shows that have come since. 

I’m glad it worked too. Six seasons had us in an intense chokehold! Happy anniversary! I wish I had the time to revisit the series because I’d love to do so. How about any of you? Any repeat viewings of OZ for you?   

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