'Oz' PaleyFest Reunion: Stars Talk Path HBO Series Paved for Scripted TV

"We got a good reception, but for a show 20 years ago that had a Muslim as the lead, a gay love story, had a bad nun and then people talk about that today and I’m like, ‘We were doing that 20 years ago. Wake up!'," Dean Winters said.
Courtesy of Photofest

Just a few months after celebrating the 20th anniversary of the show Oz, the cast and crew reunited for the first time at PaleyFest New York to commemorate the work they did on the HBO show and how they were able to pull it off.

Oz marked the first one-hour drama series that HBO produced, and it followed the lives and tribulations of the inmates and workers at a level-four maximum-security prison.

Series creator Tom Fontana said the idea for the show grew out of him wanting to know what happened to the inmates in all the crime and police shows he watched.

“The point of the show then was in some terms examining the prison system, which is still highly relevant today,” Fontana said.

The HBO series, which premiered in 1997 and aired its final season in 2003, explored controversial and then-untouched subjects and featured a cast full of some of today's biggest names.

For Edie Falco, it was the first real paying job she had. “Oz was very important for me in that it gave me the ability to support myself,” Falco said of her three years on the drama. “It marked the reality of not having to go back to my restaurant job. That was big.”

Through Oz, Falco went on to land her breakout role in The Sopranos, which earned her two Golden Globes and three Emmys.

As for the subject matter explored on the show, castmember Dean Winters, who played menace Ryan O'Reily, said the series was a trailblazer. 

“I think we were so far ahead of the curve that the country didn’t know how to take it,” Winters said. “We got a good reception, but for a show 20 years ago that had a Muslim as the lead, a gay love story, had a bad nun and all this crazy shit like the drugs and the violence, and then people talk about that today, and I’m like, ‘We were doing that 20 years ago. Wake up!’.”

Other castmembers who've gone on to become well-known include J.K. Simmons and Law & Order’s Christopher Meloni, who played a gay inmate opposite love interest Lee Tergesen.

“When Oz started 20 years ago there were three networks and Fox and that was about it,” Tergesen said about the show’s ability to cover subjects such as sexuality and race. “Nobody else was making these kind of shows, and it really pushed the envelope of television.”

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