tales from the set

From St. Elsewhere to Copper, Tom Fontana Walks Us Through His TV Résumé

Copper’s Tom Weston-Jones and Tom Fontana Photo: George Kraychyk/Cineflix Productions 2012

Sunday night at ten, BBC America will air the first season finale of the just-renewed Copper, the Tom Fontana– and Barry Levinson–produced drama set in the crime-ridden world of 1864 New York. Fontana’s been involved with some of the most memorable TV shows of the past three decades, from St. Elsewhere and Homicide: Life on the Street to HBO’s sudsy-serious prison drama Oz. Vulture caught up with the writer/producer and got him to share some of his sharpest memories from those shows, as well as some projects that didn’t go so well, and, of course, Copper. And yes, there’s plenty of nudity involved with his Oz flashback.

St. Elsewhere (NBC, 1982-1988)

Because it was my first job in television, it all seemed special. I didn’t really realize until the second season the kind of freedom we were being given and the kinds of risks we were being allowed to take. You know, I was a huge, huge fan of M*A*S*H. And what I loved about M*A*S*H is that I would tune it in every week and had no idea what the narrative would be like or which way they were going to come at the story. I so admired that, because all the networks expected was a kind of formulaic storytelling. So, what we were able to do with Elsewhere, from a writing point of view, was, every week, kind of reinvent ourselves. We weren’t bound by the kind of restrictions of a Marcus Welby  or a Trapper John. They were kind of locked in to a kind of rhythm that they had to follow. And we were totally given permission to fail. It could not have been a better place for me to start in television: MTM Productions and Bruce Paltrow.

Every once in a while, I would see Mary Tyler Moore on the lot, and she would say, “Oh, I read the script for this week.” At that point, she was dating her now-husband, who’s a doctor. So I think he had an interest in seeing what kind of trouble we were causing. I was such a fan of hers from The Dick Van Dyke Show, and even before then, when she was the pair of legs on Richard Diamond Private Detective. She was such an icon of mine. And I was able to spend time with her, have dinners with her and her (now) husband. It was an added bonus to being in television.
Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC, 1993-1999)

There was a scene with Andre [Braugher] and Yaphet [Kotto] and Clark [Johnson] and two other actors, set in Giardello’s office. I was at the monitor watching the scene, and the scene ended. Andre came out and came up to me and said, “Did you do that on purpose?” And I said, “Do what on purpose?” And he said, “You did a scene with five African-American actors and none of us talked about race.” And I said, “No, I didn’t even think of that until you just said it.” But I think it was for those kinds of things that Homicide was groundbreaking. We were just telling stories about these men and women. It’s not that we didn’t deal with race a lot on the show; we did. But we celebrated the actors we had, as opposed to pushing any kinds of issues. As far as the cast went, obviously [Richard] Belzer was the paramount of quirky, dark humor. But Clark is also pretty funny. Andre? He wasn’t particularly funny. He’s a lot of things, but a jokester on the set he’s not.

Firehouse (CBS Pilot, 1996)

I’ve been fascinated by firehouses ever since I grew up: There was one on my block when I was growing up in Philly. They’ve always been my heroes, because when everyone and the cockroaches are running out of a burning building, they’re running in. I find that so extraordinary. So I did three pilots about firefighters. Michael Imperioli and Edie Falco were in one, Firehouse. Michael just came in and auditioned. I’d never seen him before. Edie I had worked with before, on Homicide, and I just fell in love with her. Any time I could write a part for her, I did. But it’s a good thing Firehouse didn’t get picked up [it was filmed in 1997, three years before The Sopranos], because to not have seen Edie Falco play that part on The Sopranos would have been a tragedy. She was actually working for me on Oz when David Chase called and asked me if I could let her out of her contract. I was happy to do so. On Oz, she was one of 30 people. On Sopranos, she was one of five.

Oz (HBO, 1997-2003)

Early on, Dean Winters had a nude scene with Kristin Rohde, who played the C.O. he was porking. It was her first nude scene ever. Dean had been nude in the hole and other [times]. Kristin was very tense, but Dean was being extraordinarily generous, talking to her. And I’m standing there, looking at my watch, and at one point, I just yell out, “Can we just shoot this?!” Dean turns to me and says, “Tom, you have to be patient here. It’s not like you’re going to be naked.” So I took off all my clothes. The crew just started screaming. And I said, “Now, can we shoot the scene?” I stood there naked while they were shooting the scene. I’ve always been a man who put myself in the same position as the actors.  

Another time during the show, I was out with a bunch of actors; we were at a restaurant. There was this bunch of women who were in town for some convention. They saw the actors and were all excited. So I asked them, “What do you like about the show?” And they said, “The nudity!” And I said, “Okay, what else do you like?” And they said, “The nudity!” I decided to stop asking.

The Jury (Fox, 2004)

Sidney Lumet was going to play the judge in the show, but then he got sick. So that’s when I said to Barry (Levinson), “Well, now, you’re going to have to play the judge.” And that’s how he got cast as the judge.

Copper (2012)

I love trying to discover the connections between then and now. It’s just been a tremendous experience. What was wonderful about Copper is, as writers, we get very kind of bookworm-y and buried in the research. But what happened was, even if something wasn’t in the script, the actors — or the directors, or the costumer, or the set designer — would come to us and start asking questions. You could see them getting enticed by the history of the city and the lives we were trying to depict. Everyone was trying to get it right. The irony of irony is that we don’t shoot in New York. We shoot in Toronto, in an old auto-parts factory. If I had my preference, we’d be shooting some place near Manhattan. But it’s a credible set. 

Copper Creator Tom Fontana’s TV Memories