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HBO's prison drama Oz had great writing and acting and took storytelling risks long before The Sopranos was anointed a TV groundbreaker.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2003

For six years now, he's played one of the toughest, most intense roles on HBO's no-holds-barred prison drama, Oz: black Muslim minister Kareem Said.

But ask British actor Eamonn Walker to recall his final day on the set, wrapping six seasons in one of television's most memorable ensembles, and he has a curious reaction.

He cries.

"They announced, 'Eamonn Walker's last scene,' and people started coming from all over the set, and the clapping wouldn't stop," said Walker, clearly fighting back emotions over the phone from his home in England. "I tried to talk and tell them how much working with them changed my life. But my emotions ran away with me, and I sobbed the whole time. It was an amazing day."

Mention that moment to the show's creator and principal writer, Tom Fontana, and you get a different reaction.

"Ahhh . . . he's a weeper," Fontana said of Walker, laughing loudly over the phone from his hometown, Buffalo, N.Y.. "That's what I love about him. . . . He's so honest. He never hides his emotions. But he'll cry at the drop of a hat."

To explain his, um, offhand attitude, Fontana explains what happened as the 110-minute series finale was being shot.

"Literally, every day the assistant would say, 'That's a wrap for so-and-so for the episode and the series,' and there would be, like a 10-minute standing ovation," Fontana said. "I got to the point where I was saying, 'Can we just finish the show here?' I had to be the Scrooge."

Some might say Fontana has played the ultimate Scrooge already, deciding long ago that this season would conclude a series that showed images as stark as male rape, prison riots and a man burned alive long before The Sopranos topped critics' lists with its explicit flavors.

"I knew I had a sixth season in me; I wasn't sure I had a seventh," said Fontana, whose resume includes St. Elsewhere and Homicide: Life on the Street. "I knew if I made the decision before I'd written a word (of the sixth season), each episode would be leading us toward resolutions. It was my decision, so, unlike Homicide, where NBC pulled the rug out from under me . . . I really got to tell the story."

Another reason for ending now: cast members such as Christopher Meloni (NBC's Law & Order: SVU), J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man) and Harold Perrineau (The Matrix Reloaded) have so many outside projects, getting them together became tougher each year.

Even Walker had to miss much of the show's final season for a co-starring role in a film with Bruce Willis, Tears of the Sun.

"I can't get anybody to come to work," Fontana said. "What it says, I believe, is that they're a talented cast. And people outside our little family are finally starting to realize it."

At a time when even mainstream TV shows such as CSI and ER are showing dismembered limbs, nude corpses and projectile vomiting, Oz's success in presenting tough yet compelling images may go overlooked.

But Fontana set the bar high from the show's first episode in 1997, featuring Jon Seda (Homicide) as a charismatic inmate viewers spent an entire episode getting to know before he was killed.

The message was clear: This is a TV show where no character -- and no TV convention -- is safe.

In the way that The Sopranos' visceral language, sexuality and violence are almost incidental to the reasons it is considered a landmark series, Oz stands out not for its mind-bending images but for its unflinching look at society's worst denizens.

"People lie about Oz all the time," Walker said. "They pretend they don't watch it. It's like admitting you watch porn. They don't want to admit there's a piece of their darker nature that Oz appeals to. But why are people so affronted by seeing this stuff on TV when it just happened in their bedroom last night?"

Set in an experimental wing of the maximum security Oswald State Correctional Facility in New York (likely modeled on Riker's Island), Oz sometimes unfolds like a Shakespearean play. Inmates plot against each other over past grudges, control of the facility's drug trade and their own twisted ambitions.

"This is a typical television genre done in an extraordinary way . . . in the same way I wanted Homicide to be a reinvention of the cop show," Fontana said. "The emotions in Oz are extreme. You have a building filled with people who have committed extreme acts. For the people bold enough to watch it, it clearly touches a nerve."

As the series progressed, we met yuppie lawyer Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen), thrown in Oz after killing a child while driving drunk. Viewers saw him become a "prag" (love slave) for a white supremacist inmate (Simmons, in a signature turn as ruthless neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger), watched him fall in love with another inmate and eventually try to move beyond his blood feud with Schillinger.

Another character, ruthless con man Ryan O'Reily (Dean Winters), fell in love with the prison's doctor, had his retarded brother kill her husband and wound up caring for the brother after he was convicted of the crime and sent to Oz.

Walker's Kareem Said began as a famous activist dedicated to uniting the prison's black population against the mostly white jailers. Later, he experienced a spiritual crisis after he was forced to kill the powerful leader of the prison's non-Muslim black inmates.

"People always (look at) the murderers, the rapists, and they just blank out that person, forget they exist," said Walker, his London accent at odds with the African-American character he inhabited in Kareem Said.

"What Tom says is, 'No matter who you think this person is, there's a lot you don't know about him,' " Walker said. "It's truly about the journey of human beings whom society would rather ignore. We enable shows like The Sopranos to do what they do. I'm proud we were the original. And nobody can take that away from us."

Walker has seen the widespread acclaim awarded The Sopranos while Oz has gotten far less attention for breaking many more rules.

But Fontana quickly puts the brakes on any perceived rivalry with HBO's biggest series.

"The Sopranos . . . if you strip away the mob aspect, is inherently a family show," he said. "Therefore, it is more accessible to an audience member. The brutality and moral confusion of Oz doesn't make it as easily accessible for just anybody. But having said that, over the past five years, the (Oz) audience has only gotten bigger."

Oz has presented many unspeakable images: a man nailed to a gymnasium floor, a woman raped outside the prison because an Oz inmate paid for it, an inmate's child kidnapped and killed by the son of a rival for revenge.

Fontana maintains that Oz's most explicit images often are taken directly from the experiences of real inmates.

"You saw the spoon thing," he said of a sexual assault depicted in one episode. "I am not twisted enough to make that up. That is something a prisoner told me about."

This season opens after one of the show's most jarring moments: the stabbing of Perrineau's Augustus Hill. The wheelchair-bound inmate served as a Greek chorus of sorts, peppering each episode with tiny monologues outside the episode's action.

In the first three episodes of the new season sent to critics for review, events move more quickly than in seasons past, with Beecher trying to stay out of trouble as his first parole hearing nears.

Tony winner Patti LuPone joins the cast as a librarian hoping to teach the inmates to read. Fellow Broadway star Betty Buckley plays O'Reily's mother, Suzanne Fitzgerald, a drama teacher who gets the inmates to tackle a production of Macbeth (Other Tony winners on Oz this year include Rita Moreno as the prison's psychologist nun and Joel Grey as a man who has a confrontation with Said).

Said and others try to cope with the attack on Hill. Meanwhile, O'Reily dedicates himself to getting his brother off death row. Schillinger, just released from solitary, plans a brutal revenge against Beecher.

Fontana has found a brilliant way to bring back deceased characters from seasons past, including Seda's Dino Ortolani.

"Once mainstream television moves past Oz's superficial violence and sex . . . they'll see you can do an hour of drama without stereotypical TV heroes," he said. "You can play with the camera and stimulate the eyes so the audience gets the information they need without being spoon-fed it.

"In my 25 years of writing television, I've never written down to the audience. . . . I've written toward them. I can look back at St. Elsewhere, Homicide and Oz. . . . If I never make a TV show again, I don't have to make excuses. I've done some good work."

* * *

PREVIEW: Oz returns for its final season tonight at 9 on HBO. Grade: A. Rating TV-MA (mature audiences).

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