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."

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Good Gnews: Remembering The Great Space Coaster

Tubby Baxter and Gary Gnu in The Great Space Coaster.
Tubby Baxter and Gary Gnu in The Great Space Coaster.
YouTube

Tubby Baxter. Gary Gnu. Goriddle Gorilla. Speed Reader. For people of a certain age, these names probably tug on distant memories of a television series that blended live-action, puppetry, and animation. It was The Great Space Coaster, and it aired daily in syndication from 1981 to 1986. Earning both a Daytime Emmy and a Peabody Award for excellence in children’s programming, The Great Space Coaster fell somewhere in between Sesame Street and The Muppet Show—a series for kids who wanted a little more edge to their puppet performances.

Unlike most classic kid’s shows, fans have had a hard time locating footage of The Great Space Coaster. Even after five seasons and 250 episodes, no collections are available on home video. So what happened?

Get On Board

The Great Space Coaster was created by Kermit Love, who worked closely with Jim Henson on Sesame Street and created Big Bird, and Jim Martin, a master puppeteer who also collaborated with Henson. Produced by Sunbow Productions and sponsored by the Kellogg Company and toy manufacturer Hasbro, The Great Space Coaster took the same approach as Sesame Street of being educational entertainment. In fact, many of the puppeteers and writers were veterans of Sesame Street or The Muppet Show. Producers met with educators to determine subjects and content that could result in a positive cognitive or personal development goal for the audience, which was intended to be children from ages 6 to 11. There would be music, comedy, and cartoons, but all of it would be working toward a lesson on everything from claustrophobia to the hazards of being a litterbug.

The premise involved three teens—Danny (Chris Gifford), Roy (Ray Stephens), and Francine (Emily Bindiger)—who hitch a ride on a space vehicle piloted by a clown named Tubby Baxter. The crew would head for an asteroid populated by a variety of characters like Goriddle Gorilla (Kevin Clash). Roy carried a monitor that played La Linea, an animated segment from Italian creator Osvaldo Cavandoli that featured a figure at odds with his animator. The kids—all of whom looked a fair bit older than their purported teens—also sang in segments with original or cover songs.

The most memorable segment might have been the newscast with Gary Gnu, a stuffy puppet broadcaster who delivered the day’s top stories with his catchphrase: “No gnews is good gnews!” Aside from Gnu, there was Speed Reader (Ken Myles), a super-fast sprinter and reader who reviewed the books he breezed through. Often, the show would also have guest stars, including Mark Hamill, boxer “Sugar” Ray Leonard, and Henry Winkler.

All of it had a slightly irreverent tone, with humor that was more biting than most other kid’s programming of the era. The circus that Tubby Baxter ran away from was run by a character named M.T. Promises. Gnu had subversive takes on his news stories. Other characters weren’t always as well-intentioned as the residents of Sesame Street.

Off We Go

The Great Space Coaster was popular among viewers and critics. In 1982, it won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming—Graphic Design and a Peabody Award in 1983. But after the show ceased production in 1986, it failed to have a second life in reruns or on video. Only one VHS tape, The Great Space Coaster Supershow, was ever released in the 1980s. And while fan sites like TheGreatSpaceCoaster.TV surfaced, it was difficult to compile a complete library of the series.

In 2012, Tanslin Media, which had acquired the rights to the show, explained why. Owing to the musical interludes, re-licensing songs would be prohibitively expensive—potentially far more than the company would make selling the program. Worse, the original episodes, which were recorded on 1-inch or 2-inch reel tapes, were in the process of degrading.

That same year, Jim Martin mounted an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to try and raise funds to begin salvaging episodes and digitizing them for preservation. That work has continued over the years, with Tanslin releasing episodes and clips online that don’t require expensive licensing agreements and fans uploading episodes from their original VHS recordings to YouTube.

There’s been no further word on digitizing efforts for the complete series, though Tanslin has reported that a future home video release isn’t out of the question. If that materializes, it’s likely Gary Gnu will be first to deliver the news.