How I Landed in Prison for 5 Wonderful Years

Posted on November 19, 2011

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Here is the tale of how I ended up with one of the best jobs any actor could ever want on the hit HBO Show OZ. The actual story is a pretty short one and frankly it surprises even me. But before I tell you all about it, let me assure you that I called to the soon to be named casting director and asked him if my recollection of it all was accurate. He was so busy laughing at the absurdity of how it happened, and the nerve I had at the time that he could barely choke out, “yeah, that’s about right.”

with Gwyneth Paltrow

It was late 1997 and I was doing stand in work on the movie A Perfect Murder (a remake of Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow).

Standing in, if you’re doing it right, is an acting job only slightly different than playing a scripted role yourself. You get your sides (the script pages you’ll be shooting that day), you’ll be in wardrobe that is a fairly close approximation of what the principal actor is wearing (or at the very least it will be in the same color palate) and you’ll learn the blocking and scene (sometimes with the principal actor who will be shot on camera) and then you “stand in” as lights are set, camera moves are checked. You step out as the principal actor steps in and you watch them carefully to be sure you know what they do and when they do it, so that when new angles are shot, or changes are made you can approximate them (if not duplicate them) for subsequent rehearsals.

Watching a rehearsal on “Bringing Out The Dead”

On more than one occasion, I’ve had to bring “my actor” up to speed on changes that were made while they were off the set. In many cases, if you’re the same height, coloring and size as the principal actor you might be called on to photo double as well as stand in. In those cases you are who is shot in a scene, usually from behind or from a distance, or in extreme close ups of hands or feet etc. (insert shots of you picking something up, playing an instrument, turning a knob or any number of other things that can be shot without revealing who the person actually is.) I did a lot of stand-in, photo doubling and even stunt driving work for John Goodman over the years (but I’ll leave that story for another time.)

Doing stand in work was a wonderful experience almost every time I did it. First of all I was working directly with some of the best producers, directors,  DP’s and actors in the business.  I worked with the likes of Martin Scorcese, Joel Schumacher, Martha Mitchell, Bill Richardson, Vince Misiano, Jerry Bruckheimer, Glenn Gordon Caron, Scott Rudin, John Goodman, Nick Cage, Patricia Arquette and a whole lot of other amazing people.

standing in for Goodman, shooting w/ Cage

I worked with some amazing crews and crew chiefs. And believe me when I tell you, these are the people who you want to know. For me, who had only done stage work, voice-overs and a few non-union commercials, for me doing stand in work  (and background work) was the best on-camera class on the planet. I am immensely grateful to have done it, and to have done it in NYC where there isn’t some bizarre stigma attached to it.

For some reason I’ve never been able to fathom, in Los Angeles background actors and/or stand-ins are looked upon as though they are something just short of criminal. I don’t understand that.  It makes no sense and is in a word, stupid. You can’t have television or movies without background actors filling out the scenes. But there is a culture of elitism (when it comes to certain LA film crews in particular). In NYC, where most of us do stage work long before film or television, there is a culture of “everyone has a job to do and each of our jobs is important, so let’s get this show done right.” Certain spoiled LA crew members could really do with working on live theater where you can’t do another take and fix it in post production.

So one morning I was waiting for a crew van to take us out to the set (we were ferried daily from lower Manhattan to an armory somewhere in New Jersey that served as our set). Standing with me was one of the other stand-ins (Jane DeNobel) and the background casting director who had hired me for this gig, Lee Genick (who has since taken over his late Aunt Sylvia Fay’s Casting Company). Lee and I became friends over the years as I worked on dozens of movies and TV shows  and commercials that his/Sylvia’s company was casting. I am grateful to know him and count him among the good guys (and lest you think he does it all alone, Fleet Emerson and I shared many a laugh and many a ‘war story’ over those years as well.) I also worked for Lee in the office from time to time. As anyone who knows me will tell you, the one thing in my life that I have never lacked for is meeting a lot of people: a lot of interesting and unusual people.  Lee has called on me many times to help cast specialty performers for different projects (The oddest may have been when I found myself in the office for two days calling actors who might be willing to simulate gay sex acts in Central Park for a scene in the film Angels In America. To the best of my recollection I found those people; it was respectful, discrete and professional, but the footage was never used.)
Okay, okay, okay…back to the OZ thing… so there we were at about 6am, in lower Manhattan waiting on a crew bus. I didn’t have HBO at the time but I’d heard about this prison show called OZ that had begun the year before. All I knew about the show was that it was gritty, a little tough and set in a prison. I also knew that they were going to begin shooting again in a few weeks. I turned to Lee and said, “So OZ shot an entire season last year and I didn’t work on it a single day. Look at me I belong in prison.” And, just as he did when I asked him about this conversation, he laughed hysterically at me and said he’d look into it. What I did not know at the time was that OZ had completed a full season and had been populated with a rotating cast of inmates (both principal and background) and that at the end of the season the inmates rioted, nearly wrecking the place (not for real, but as part of the plot). It turned out that Tom Fontana, brilliant mind that he is, had decided that Emerald City (or EM City as it was known) the experimental ward of The Oswald Correctional Facility run by Tim McManus (played by Terry Kinney) needed to be filled with the same people from episode to episode. A “core group” of prisoners was to be created with different, diverse groups of people that might mirror the actual population outside the prison. So they needed The Irish, The Italians, The Homeboys, The Muslims, The Latinos, The Aryans, The Gays, At one point we had The Christians, there was even a group called The Others. Of course there were lots of others and as some were paroled, or killed (or fired) cast rotated in and out.

From what I can remember it was about 72 hours total from the time I said “I belong in prison” to the day Lee called me and told me that he’d sent my picture and resume over to the production office and that if I was willing to play a gay inmate, I was in. No meetings, no auditions, just in.

Yours Truly

Just a few weeks later I was incarcerated as inmate 98M922, Tony Masters.

Working on OZ was at the time, and remains to this day one my favorite jobs, ever. I went to work with people I genuinely enjoyed. The positive vibe began at the top with Tom Fontana, a man whose work I’d admired for years. From working for him, I know him to be genuine and generous (and a brilliant writer.) There was a parade of  incredibly insightful and unique directors (Adam Bernstein, Miller Tobin, Steve Buscemi, Chaz Palmintieri, Kathy Bates, Keith Samples, Nick Gomez and more) a cast that was second to none and was in part a list of people that included almost every actor from Musical Theater (my first love) that I could ever have wanted to meet (Betty Buckley, Rita Moreno, BD Wong, Ben Vereen, Joel Grey, Patty LuPone, Anne Meara, Elaine Stritch) there were people I’d worked with/known before, and people I’ve worked with since. Nearly all of them were incredible. I’m still in touch with many of them and I have seen both Betty and Rita recently, I run into JK Simmons from time to time, bumped into Harold Perrineau at the Hair Salon (how random) and am FB friends with many more.

I’d be remiss in this particular moment if I didn’t mention my friend James Palacio (sometimes known as Fiona James) who was my friend, confident, cell-mate, fellow trouble maker and all around partner in crime throughout our entire run on the show. We’d worked together on “Stonewall” (he was very “Marilyn” in that movie. There are lots of pics from that on my FB Fan page) and we had both worked on “Too Wong Foo…” though not in any of the same scenes. We were fairly inseparable (and incorrigible) for 5 years on OZ and we remain friends to this day.

the Gay gang of OZ

That entire experience over a 5-year period is owed to one casting director totally “getting me.” Sometimes that’s all it takes. And as I’ve said in a previous blog, as well as in every class I’ve ever taught about acting, or the business in general, casting directors WANT YOU to be right for a job more than you can ever know. Be your most authentic self, be open to direction, be prepared, prompt and most of all professional and some of the most amazing things will happen.

(I will be writing more about my experiences in OZ. The truth is I could write a book about it, and very well may one day.)

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