HBO’s first one-hour dramatic television series, Oz took viewers behind the bars of the fictional Oswald State Correctional Facility for an unflinching view of prison life—from religious and racial strife, to rape and consensual gay sex, hard drugs, jarring violence, and
shit-smearing insanity—and gave credence to the premium cable network’s slogan: “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”
Before Orange Is The New Black, before Prison Break, and before all those other prison shows, there was Oz which ran for six seasons (1997-2003) on HBO. It wasn’t as mainstream as those other prison shows either. Oz was such an incredibly dark show (especially for its time)! In fact, Oz actually paved the way for other gritty shows like Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, and The Wire. It’s safe to say that if you didn’t enjoy any of those three shows I just mentioned, then you’re not going to enjoy Oz so feel free to stop reading at this point.
I was too young to watch Oz when it first came out, but I found it several years later (possibly around 2005) while rifling through my older brother’s external hard drives, and binge-watched the entire series. Oz had such a huge cast – each depicting their characters so masterfully – making it hard to label any one character as the main one (not unlike Game of Thrones). There were ten groups in total – The Aryan Brotherhood, The Bikers, The Christians, The Homeboys, The Italians, The Latinos, The Irish, The Muslims, The Gays and one called The Others. Watching all those different groups interact with each other was endlessly fascinating! It was especially mesmerizing when different groups would set aside their differences (temporarily), and put their heads together to hatch a plan and sometimes even follow through with it. Although it was a pretty dark show, at times, it was actually quite hilarious (especially if like myself, you found dark humor funny)! The colorful characters were not only relevant to the story but they were actually very well fleshed out and quite memorable. I’ll go over a few of them in no particular order (because if I went through all of them, this post would be ridiculously long). Oh and one more thing, I apologize about the quality of the pictures but again this aired back in 1997 and ended in 2003 but you can watch the trailer available at the bottom of this post in HD (720p).
For starters, we’ve got Harold Perrineau who plays the character who narrates the story, Augustus Hill. I recognized him instantly because he happens to play one of my favorite characters (Romeo’s cousin, Mercutio) in 1996 Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (yes, the one with Leonardo Dicaprio). You might probably recognize him as Michael Dawnson (the guy who is incessantly yelling for his son, Walt) on Lost. As the character Augustus Hill on Oz, he spends the majority of the show in a wheelchair which makes him a non-threatening entity and therefore part of The Others (one of the many groups in Oz). For the most part, I didn’t mind his narrating (he’s no Morgan Freeman but I enjoy the way he enunciates his words). I’ll be honest though, sometimes it got to the point where it was annoying because I was impatient to find out what happens next (as the episode before would have ended with a cliff-hanger) and this dude was still going on and on and on about stuff (that probably went way over my head at the time, because aside from being quite dark, Oz is also a deep, thought-provoking show).
Although he seemed familiar, I couldn’t quite place Ernie Hudson at first, who plays the role of Leo Glynn the warden of Oz. Ernie is most known for his role as Winston Zeddemore in the cult classics Ghosbusters movies. He also appeared in the reboot Ghostbusters: Answer The Call.
Governer James Devlin is played by Željko Ivanek. The Slovenian actor has appeared in The X Files, Snow Falling on Cedars, Hannibal, Unfaithful, 24, The Manchurian Candidate, Lost, Numb3rs, Heroes, Argo, Revolution, True Blood, 12 Monkeys, Suits, X-Men Apocalypse, and Madame Secretary. I’m not sure if he’s choosing these roles for himself on purpose or if he’s being typecast into them but he usually plays the role of a villain or someone hated by everyone else on the show, and Oz is no different. As Governer Devlin everyone from the inmates to even some of the staff hates him.
Clayton Hughes is played by Seth Gilliam. If you think Seth looks familiar, that’s because he also plays the part of Father Gabriel Stokes on The Walking Dead. His story is interesting because he starts off as a correctional officer in Oz but later on ends up as a prisoner, despite Warden Glynn‘s best efforts (as he knew the kid’s father). Seth also plays the part of the Doctor (vet?) on Teen Wolf and has also appeared in Nurse Jackie.
Then we’ve got the smart-mouthed Ryan O’Reily played by the adorable Dean Winters. Highly intelligent and utterly ruthless, O’Reily survives in Oz by manipulating everyone around him, from dangerous inmate gangs to even his own mentally handicapped brother Cyril O’Reily just to get whatever he wants; series creator Tom Fontana has likened him to Iago, the villain of Shakespeare’s Othello. What really endeared the character of Ryan O’Reily to me was his protectiveness over his brother Cyril O’Reily. Both the O’Reily brothers are members of The Irish. I was delighted when watching P.S. I Love You and noticed Dean Winters in the movie (mentioned in the post “Book Club”). That was a pleasant surprise! I was also happy when he had a recurring guest role on 30 Rock as Tina Fey’s boyfriend, Dennis Duffy. Most recently, I’ve watched him play Avi in the movie John Wick starring Keanu Reeves. That said, Dean Winters will always hold a special place in my heart as Ryan O’Reily.
Next up, we’ve got Cyril O’Reily who is played by Scott William Winters and is also part of The Irish. The O’Reily brothers on Oz are played by Dean Winters and Scott William Winters who are actual brothers in real life! Basically, the O’Reily brothers ran a prominent Irish street gang on the outside. When Ryan went to jail, Cyril took over the gang until he too was eventually sent to jail, and the gang was disbanded. We later learn that Cyril‘s child-like state was caused by brain damage as result of an injury from a fight. It’s fascinating watching the real-life brothers play the part of brothers on-screen!
I know of Luke Perry because my sister (who is a decade older) and her friends used to swoon over him as Dylan on Beverly Hills 90210. I thought it was funny that he was like 50 or something and was cast to play the role of a teenager in highschool but whatevs. I never noticed him again until I saw bits and pieces of trailers on Showtime or Orbit (can’t remember which) promoting his show Jeremiah (could’ve sworn it was called Jericho but whatevs). He was also in Buffy The Vampire Slayer (the 1992 movie), Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm (Sub-Zero), The Fifth Element, The Incredible Hulk (Rick Jones), a bunch of tv movies, and more recently Riverdale (because that’s such a stretch from Beverly Hills 90210 -_- If this ruins Archie’s for me, so help me God…) Anywhooo, Luke Perry plays the role of Jeremiah Cloutier who is sent to Oz for embezzling funds from his church but aside from that, he’s actually a nice guy. Cloutier falls in with The Christians and because he was both famous and respected (had some clout lawl) on the outside, Warden Glynn allows him to work in the Chaplain’s office continuing his role as a preacher alongside Father Ray Mukada (Oz‘s Chaplain). Due to the fact that Cloutier is Protestant and Father Ray Mukada is Catholic they both engage in a “competition of souls”.
Kareem Said is played by British Actor Eamonn Walker. I haven’t watched it but I thought it was interesting that Eamonn Walker plays the part of Othello in the 2001 Othello. Something I have seen albeit a while ago is Unbreakable in which Eamonn plays role of the Dr Mathison. On the show, Kareem Said is imprisoned for blowing up a white owned warehouse. I was shocked because I thought religious extremism in Islam was more of a recent thing but that’s obviously not the case since the show started airing in 1997. As Kareem Said the man who takes control of The Muslims as soon as he arrives in Oz, he becomes one of the most powerful prisoners in Oz with great influence (wasta lawl) and control of a large part of the inmate population. Kareem Said is also a very powerful figure outside of prison with a network of fellow Muslim leaders, a large political influence (more wasta) and numerous contacts in the media (and even more wasta). Kareem Said and the other Muslims renounce themselves from smoking, alcohol, foul language, abnormal sex, drug smuggling, and drug use, because in Islam every one of those acts is considered a sin.
J.K. Simmons plays the part of Vernon Schillinger the leader of The Aryan Brotherhood a merciless group that consists of neo-nazi white supremacists who commit racially motivated hate-crimes. They also tend to rape other inmates as well as kill them in especially cruel ways. Schillinger is captivating on-screen. He’s the guy you love to hate but then at times I actually find myself feeling sorry for him until he goes and does something incredibly cruel and vicious… again. He plays a villain and he plays it outstandingly well! J.K. Simmons has a long list of projects under his belt from lending his voice to animated movies, videogames, and even movies (you only hear his voice in True Grit) to making guest appearances on tv shows in addition to acting in movies. Honestly, I’d be watching Korra (where Simmons does the voice of Tenzen) or Archer and I’d swear that voice would sound familiar but I could never quite place it until I blogged about him today and looked him up on imdb. I was delighted when I noticed him in Whiplash and thought he deserved some sort of reward for that role and sure enough a few months after, he was not only nominated but actually won a Golden Globe and would go on to win several other prestigious award. Well deserved!
Next up, we’ve got Officer Diane Whittlesey played by Edie Falco. Not surprisingly, after Oz, Falco was cast as Carmela Soprana on The Sopranos. She also had a little stint on 30 Rock (which is one of the funniest shows, ever) before starring in Nurse Jackie as Jackie Peyton.
Dr Gloria Nathan played by Lauren Luna Velez was Oz‘s Chief Attending Physician. Surprisingly, she wasn’t half as annoying as that other doc from Prison Break, Sara Tancredi (played by Sarah Wayn Callies who would go on to be even more annoying as Rick‘s cheating wife, Lori Grimes on The Walking Dead). After Oz, Velez was cast in Numb3rs, Ugly Betty, Dexter, and more recently How To Get Away With Murder.
Kirk Acevedo was utterly fascinating as Miguel Alvarez, a member of The Latinos. For starters, his voice threw me off, every single time he opened his mouth. It took me a minute to wrap my head around that. Even though the odds are stacked against him (grew up in a bad neighborhood, both his father and grandfather are serving life sentences in Oz) leading him to make some pretty bad decisions, you get the feeling that deep down Alvarez is actually a nice guy; he’s got a conscience. Unfortunately, that’s what makes things even harder for him in Oz as Alvarez acts before he thinks and then lets the guilt eat him up. Acevedo has appeared in a bunch of shows and movies from Band of Brothers, Numb3rs, 24, Fringe, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., 12 Monkeys, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and The Walking Dead.
BD Wong plays Father Ray Mukada a Japanese American Catholic Priest. He smokes a lot and cusses even more as he attempts to provide spiritual guidance and counsel to the inmates but that makes him even more endearing to the viewers, I feel. Father Ray Mukada and Miguel Alvarez form one of the more interesting relationships as you see Father Ray Mukada truly trying to help Alvarez but as I said earlier, the odds are just stacked against the kid. BD Wong has lent his voice as well as appeared in an eclectic list of cartoons, movies, and shows including The Karate Kid II, Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, The X-Files, Joe’s Apartment, Mulan (my favorite animated movie from Disney), Mulan 2, Kingdom Hearts II, Nurse Jackie, Madam Secretary, and more recently Mr Robot, and Gotham.
Tim McManus (played by Terry Kinney) is the idealistic Prison Unit Manager of “Emerald City” (aka cell block 5) the experimental wing focused on rehab. As opposed to the rest of the staff, McManus sees the prisoners as humans, worthy of rehabilitating. He’s always pushing the inmates to change for the better and Warden Glynn admires him for it so he just kinda’ lets him do his thing. Kinney was also on Being Human, Fargo, and more recently Billions.
Mark Margolis has been in so many shows and movies including Star Trek: The Next Generation, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Hannibal, Daredevil, Sex and the City, Defiance, American Horror Story, 12 Monkeys, Noah, Gotham, and Better Call Saul. I remember him quite vividly as the dude in the wheelchair (Tio Salamanca) constantly ringing the little bell on Breaking Bad. On Oz, he played the part of Antonio Nappa leader of The Italians.
Tobias Beecher (whom some might argue was the main character of the show) was a normal guy (Harvard Law School graduate, successful attorney, married, has a kid) who accidentally killed a little girl while driving under the influence and the judge choosing to make an example out of him sentences him to 15 years (with a chance at parole only after 4). Unlike the rest of them, he isn’t street-smart and wasn’t really involved in anything like that on the outside so watching him deal with stuff in Oz, you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. I mean right off the bat, Schillinger welcomes Beecher to Oz by raping him! Tobias Beecher is played by Lee Tergesen who has also appeared in 4400, Desperate Housewives, Defiance, and American Horror Story, to name a few.
Christopher Keller is one of the more fascinating characters on Oz and is played by Christopher Meloni. Basically, the man is an absolute sociopath and like most sociopaths, he’s quite charismatic! Schillinger not quite finished messing with Beecher, sets Keller on him telling him to gain Beecher‘s trust so that he could later betray him by delivering Beecher to The Aryan Brotherhood so they could beat him up. Here’s the twisted part, somehow Keller and Beecher fall in love and yet Keller follows through Schillinger‘s plan anyway. The ongoing love story between Beecher and Keller is frustrating because Keller keeps doing shady things to Beecher and then apologizes for them afterwards but at the same time once Keller opens his mouth to say anything at all, you can’t help but be utterly charmed by him. To the extent that I found myself rooting for their relationship (regardless of the fact that they both had a wife or in Keller‘s case an ex-wife on the outside) and thinking “Go on Beecher, forgive him… again.”. Meloni has also been in Twelve Monkeys, True Blood, and Call of Duty: Black Ops III (my favorite video game franchise).
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays my favorite character on Oz; Simon Adebisi. When I think of Oz, I think of Adebisi. Don’t get me wrong. He’s not a nice guy. In fact, he’s a monster. Inasmuch that Adebisi is actually serving a life-sentence in Oz. He’s a horrible person and yet from his little quips in that deep accent to the way he dresses (striped socks and little knit hat he wears lopsidedly) he’s undeniably hilarious! Aside from his drugs, the man could not care less about anyone or anything else. He just don’t give a fig. As such, Adebisi is the leader of The Homeboys (the group who control the drugs in Oz). He is also feared by literally every other group in Oz. Adewale‘s portrayal of Simon Adebisi is one of the more masterful performances I was talking about earlier. He is such a pro! I was absolutely delighted when I noticed him on Lost and more recently Game of Thrones. Adewale has also been in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, The Mummy Returns, The Bourne Identity, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Thor: The Dark World, and more recently Suicide Squad. I’m such a huge fan of his!
The list of actors co-starring on Oz goes on and on but like I said, we’d be here forever so instead I’ll just end it with one of the many guest actors on the show. LL Cool J who plays the role of Jiggy Walker. No introductions needed, I assume.
If you’d like to know more about the characters on Oz or their groups just click this link http://ozhbotv.wikia.com/wiki/Ozhbotv_Wiki
Oz was a fantastic show that was way ahead of its time! Truth be told, writer-producer Tim Fontana did an excellent job! Down to the last man, every single character’s story was engaging, coaxing all these feelings out of you (mostly frustration but also sadness, fear, apprehension, disgust, and every now and then laughter). A lot of the actors and actresses would go on to do great things in their career, after Oz (as I tried to point out, in each character’s description) so it was fun seeing them all together – and in some cases before their careers took off. Oz would go on to be nominated and win several awards. This post doesn’t even begin to do the show justice but I’ll just say this, I purposely chose Oz as the first show to review on my blog because it is undoubtedly one of my favorite shows of all time. That said, Oz contains profanity (they say everything including racial slurs in every episode), drug use (everyone is in some way affected by the drug-trade and drug-use), full-frontal male nudity (prisoners are shown naked frequently while showering), female nudity (less so but it’s there in some episodes), graphic violence (lots of blood), graphic death scenes (at least one murder every other episode), and rape scenes (you see the back-sides and the faces and you hear the moaning but it’s usually starting or just ending). If you are squeamish about any of the above, do not watch it. I can’t say this enough times, Oz is a cold, dark, and deeply disturbing show (as it was meant to be). If you can’t handle it, do not watch it. If you still can’t decide, then a good test is watching the trailer but if you can’t stomach even that, then don’t watch it. Here’s the the trailer.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a few random pics from Oz.
The staff at Oz.
Adebisi‘s iconic hat.
Beecher with Said and Adibisi (and his hat) in the background.
O’Reilly and Adebisi.
O’Reilly and Keller
Personally, I believe Oz is one of the best shows out there, to this day!