Tom Fontana

Show Creator / Producer


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

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About
About this interview

In his three-and-a-half-hour Archive interview, Tom Fontana talks about his early life, being a theater major in college, and deciding he wanted to be a writer. He describes being "discovered" by Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner, which led to him writing for the critically acclaimed NBC series St. Elsewhere. He recounts his time on St. Elsewhere, recalling the cast, various classic episodes, the comedic and dramatic aspects of the show, and its now-infamous finale. He discuses his time writing and producing Homicide: Life on the Street for Barry Levinson, detailing the filming of the series in Baltimore, the network's reaction to the series, and classic episodes including "The Subway." Fontana speaks of creating Oz for HBO, and chronicles the extensive research he did in prisons to write it. He also recalls the cast of Oz, the nearly complete lack of censorship on the show, and the end of the series in 2003. He recounts his experience of being in New York City on September 11, 2001, and describes writing for America: A Tribute to Heroes, as well as his then-current projects. Karen Herman conducted on June 30, 2009 the interview in New York, NY.

"Whether it's comedy or drama, tell the truth. And whatever your truth is, tell it as boldly and as loudly as you can get away with."

Highlights
Tom Fontana on how he came to write for St. Elsewhere  after being discovered by Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner
06:53
Tom Fontana on filming Homicide: Life on the Street  in Baltimore 
03:31
Tom Fontana on coming up with the title for Oz  and the opening credits of the show which feature him getting an Oz  tattoo
02:06
Tom Fontana on the darkness of his writing style
02:33
Tom Fontana on advice to aspiring television writers and producers
01:37
Full Interview

Chapter 1

On his early life and influences; on television he watched while growing up; on deciding he wanted to be a writer and becoming a theater major in college
On how he came to write for St. Elsewhere after being discovered by Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner; on moving to Los Angeles to write for St. Elsewhere; on writing his first episode of St. Elsewhere, "Down Syndrome"
On the casting of St. Elsewhere; on being hired to be on the writing staff of St. Elsewhere and his difficulty adjusting to living in Los Angeles; on the writing process of the show and becoming a producer
On a typical work week on St. Elsewhere and NBC's notes for the show; on maintaining the balance between comedy and drama on St. Elsewhere; on the use of television references on the show and public reaction to the show
On the St. Elsewhere episode "The Women" and winning an Emmy; on the St. Elsewhere episode "Time Heals"

Chapter 2

On working with the actors of St. Elsewhere; on coming up with script ideas for St. Elsewhere; on Ed Flanders as "Dr. Donald Westphall" and William Daniels as "Dr. Mark Craig"
On the cast of St. Elsewhere; on using ideas from his own life on St. Elsewhere
On his favorite St. Elsewhere episodes and the finale of the show; on the legacy of St. Elsewhere; on the legacy of MTM Productions; on the short-lived series Tattingers
On how Homicide: Life on the Street came about; on network reaction to Homicide: Life on the Street; on Robin Williams guest-starring on the show
On filming Homicide: Life on the Street in Baltimore; on the African-American response to Homicide: Life on the Street; on working with David Simon on Homicide: Life on the Street and doing crossovers with various shows

Chapter 3

On the cast of Homicide: Life on the Street; on constructing the stories for Homicide: Life on the Street; on the episode "Three Men and Adena" and winning an Emmy Award for it
On dealing with censorship issues and the head of Broadcast Standards at NBC during his time on Homicide: Life on the Street; on working with Barry Levinson on Homicide: Life on the Street; on the episode "The Subway"
On the end of Homicide: Life on the Street; on the then-innovative Internet presence of Homicide: Life on the Street and using new media to supplement his subsequent shows
On creating Oz for HBO; on doing extensive research in prisons for Oz and the themes of the show; on feedback he received from prisoners and prison workers about Oz
On coming up with the title for Oz and the opening credits of the show, which feature him getting an Oz tattoo; on Emerald City, the experimental prison unit in Oz; on Harold Perrineau as "Augustus Hill," the narrator of Oz  and the end of the series
On where Oz was filmed and the tone of the set; on the cast of Oz; on writing Oz with no network censorship 
On creating various shows after Oz including The Beat, The Jury, Bedford Diaries, and writing the made-for-television movie Strip Search; on being in New York City on 9/11

Chapter 4

On writing America: A Tribute to Heroes; on creating The Philanthropist;  on his involvement with the Writers Guild East Foundation (as of 2013 called Writers Guild Initiative)
On career achievements and regrets; on the darkness of his writing style; on advice to aspiring television writers and producers and how he'd like to be remembered
Shows

America: A Tribute to Heroes

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Tom Fontana on writing for America: A Tribute to Heroes 
01:53

Emmy Awards, The (Primetime and Daytime)

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Tom Fontana on the St. Elsewhere  episode "The Women" and winning an Emmy Award
03:44
Tom Fontana on the Homicide: Life on the Street  episode "Three Men and Adena" and winning an Emmy Award for it
03:16

Homicide: Life on the Street

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Tom Fontana on how Homicide: Life on the Street came about
04:08
Tom Fontana on network reaction to Homicide: Life on the Street
05:55
Tom Fontana on Robin Williams guest-starring on Homicide: Life on the Street
00:40
Tom Fontana on filming Homicide: Life on the Street in Baltimore 
03:31
Tom Fontana on the African-American response to Homicide: Life on the Street
00:51
Tom Fontana on working with David Simon on Homicide: Life on the Street and doing crossovers with various other shows
03:10
Tom Fontana on the cast of Homicide: Life on the Street
01:54
Tom Fontana on constructing the stories for Homicide: Life on the Street
05:40
Tom Fontana on the Homicide: Life on the Street episode "Three Men and Adena" and winning an Emmy Award for it
03:16
Tom Fontana on dealing with censorship issues and the head of Broadcast Standards at NBC during his time on Homicide: Life on the Street
03:14
Tom Fontana on working with Barry Levinson on Homicide: Life on the Street
01:48
Tom Fontana on the Homicide: Life on the Street episode "The Subway"
01:46
Tom Fontana on the end of Homicide: Life on the Street
03:43
Tom Fontana on the then-innovative Internet presence of Homicide: Life on the Street and using new media to supplement his subsequent shows
02:37

Oz

View Show Page
Tom Fontana on creating Oz for HBO
04:44
Tom Fontana on doing extensive research in prisons for Oz
04:41
Tom Fontana on the themes of Oz
00:50
Tom Fontana on feedback he received from prisoners and prison workers about Oz
01:59
Tom Fontana on coming up with the title for Oz and the opening credits of the show, which feature him getting an Oz tattoo
02:06
Tom Fontana on Emerald City, the experimental prison unit in Oz
01:42
Tom Fontana on Harold Perrineau as "Augustus Hill," the narrator of Oz
03:50
Tom Fontana on the end of Oz
01:47
Tom Fontana on where Oz was filmed and the tone of the set
00:51
Tom Fontana on the cast of Oz
03:26
Tom Fontana on writing Oz with no network censorship 
01:26

St. Elsewhere

View Show Page
Tom Fontana on how he came to write for St. Elsewhere after being discovered by Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner
06:53
Tom Fontana on moving to Los Angeles to write for St. Elsewhere 
03:23
Tom Fontana on writing his first episode of St. Elsewhere, "Down Syndrome"
05:08
Tom Fontana on the casting of St. Elsewhere
02:08
Tom Fontana on being hired to be on the writing staff of St. Elsewhere and his difficulty adjusting to living in Los Angeles
07:42
Tom Fontana on the writing process of St. Elsewhere and becoming a producer on that show
02:45
Tom Fontana on a typical work week on St. Elsewhere and NBC's notes for the show
04:43
Tom Fontana on maintaining the balance between comedy and drama on St. Elsewhere
01:13
Tom Fontana on the use of television references in St. Elsewhere and public reaction to the show
02:16
Tom Fontana on the St. Elsewhere episode "The Women" and winning an Emmy Award
03:44
Tom Fontana on the St. Elsewhere episode "Time Heals"
02:27
Tom Fontana on working with the actors of St. Elsewhere 
05:38
Tom Fontana on coming up with script ideas for St. Elsewhere
03:00
Tom Fontana on Ed Flanders as "Dr. Donald Westphall" and William Daniels as "Dr. Mark Craig" on St. Elsewhere
06:08
Tom Fontana on Ed Begley, Jr. as "Dr. Victor Ehrlich" on St. Elsewhere 
01:41
Tom Fontana on Denzel Washington as "Dr. Philip Chandler" on St. Elsewhere 
02:48
Tom Fontana on Christina Pickles as "Nurse Helen Rosenthal" on St. Elsewhere
02:08
Tom Fontana on Howie Mandel as "Dr. Wayne Fiscus" on St. Elsewhere
01:04
Tom Fontana on Norman Lloyd as "Dr. Daniel Auschlander" on St. Elsewhere
02:04
Tom Fontana on Mark Harmon as "Dr. Robert Caldwell" on St. Elsewhere 
00:50
Tom Fontana on using ideas from his own life on St. Elsewhere
02:46
Tom Fontana on his favorite St. Elsewhere episodes and the finale of the show
05:50
Tom Fontana on the legacy of St. Elsewhere
03:41
Topics

9/11

View Topic
Tom Fontana on being in New York City on 9/11
02:26
Tom Fontana on writing for America: A Tribute to Heroes 
01:53

Advice

View Topic
Tom Fontana on advice to aspiring television writers and producers
01:37

Censorship / Standards & Practices

View Topic
Tom Fontana on dealing with censorship issues and the head of Broadcast Standards at NBC during his time on Homicide: Life on the Street
03:14
Tom Fontana on writing Oz  with no network censorship 
01:26

Classic TV series episodes

View Topic
Tom Fontana on his favorite St. Elsewhere  episodes and the finale of the show
05:50
Tom Fontana on the Homicide: Life on the Street  episode "The Subway"
01:46

Drama

View Topic
Tom Fontana on his favorite St. Elsewhere episodes and the finale of the show
05:50
Tom Fontana on the Homicide: Life on the Street episode "The Subway"
01:46

Emmy Awards

View Topic
Tom Fontana on the St. Elsewhere  episode "The Women" and winning an Emmy Award
03:44
Tom Fontana on the Homicide: Life on the Street  episode "Three Men and Adena" and winning an Emmy Award for it
03:16

First Big Break

View Topic
Tom Fontana on how he came to write for St. Elsewhere  after being discovered by Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner
06:53

Historic Events and Social Change

View Topic
Tom Fontana on being in New York City on 9/11
02:26
Tom Fontana on writing for America: A Tribute to Heroes 
01:53

New Media

View Topic
Tom Fontana on the then-innovative Internet presence of Homicide: Life on the Street  and using new media to supplement his subsequent shows
02:37

Pivotal Career Moments

View Topic
Tom Fontana on how he came to write for St. Elsewhere  after being discovered by Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner
06:53

Pop Culture

View Topic
Tom Fontana on the use of television references in St. Elsewhere  and public reaction to the show
02:16
Tom Fontana on his favorite St. Elsewhere  episodes and the finale of the show
05:50
Tom Fontana on the Homicide: Life on the Street  episode "The Subway"
01:46
Tom Fontana on coming up with the title for Oz  and the opening credits of the show, which feature him getting an Oz  tattoo

TV Theme Songs

View Topic
Tom Fontana on coming up with the title for Oz  and the opening credits of the show, which feature him getting an Oz  tattoo
02:06

Television Industry

View Topic
Tom Fontana on dealing with censorship issues and the head of Broadcast Standards at NBC during his time on Homicide: Life on the Street
03:14
Tom Fontana on the then-innovative Internet presence of Homicide: Life on the Street  and using new media to supplement his subsequent shows
02:37
Tom Fontana on writing Oz  with no network censorship 
01:26
Tom Fontana on advice to aspiring television writers and producers
01:37
Professions

Show Creators

View Profession
Tom Fontana on doing extensive research in prisons for Oz
04:41
Tom Fontana on advice to aspiring television writers and producers
01:37

Writers

View Profession
Tom Fontana on the writing process of St. Elsewhere and becoming a producer on that show
02:45
Tom Fontana on coming up with script ideas for St. Elsewhere
03:00
Tom Fontana on constructing the stories for Homicide: Life on the Street
05:40
Tom Fontana on the darkness of his writing style
02:33
Genres

Cop/Detective/Mystery Series

View Genre
Tom Fontana on writing and producing Homicide: Life on the Street
18:16
Tom Fontana on writing and producing Homicide: Life on the Street (Part 2)
23:58

Drama Series

View Genre
Tom Fontana on creating, writing, and producing Oz
27:22
Tom Fontana on creating and writing The Philanthropist 
03:55

Medical Dramas

View Genre
Tom Fontana on writing and producing St. Elsewhere
42:22
Tom Fontana on writing and producing St. Elsewhere (Part 2)
37:39

Music Shows & Variety Shows/Specials

View Genre
Tom Fontana on writing for America: A Tribute to Heroes 
01:53
People

Chris Albrecht

View Interview Page
Tom Fontana on creating Oz for HBO at the behest of Chris Albrecht
04:44

Ed Begley, Jr.

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Tom Fontana on Ed Begley, Jr. as "Dr. Victor Ehrlich" on St. Elsewhere 
01:42

Blythe Danner

View Person Page
Tom Fontana on how he came to write for St. Elsewhere  after being discovered by Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner
06:53

Ed Flanders

View Person Page
Tom Fontana on Ed Flanders as "Dr. Donald Westphall" and William Daniels as "Dr. Mark Craig" on St. Elsewhere
06:08

Mark Harmon

View Person Page
Tom Fontana on Mark Harmon as "Dr. Robert Caldwell" on St. Elsewhere 
00:51

Barry Levinson

View Interview Page
Tom Fontana on working with Barry Levinson on Homicide: Life on the Street
01:48

Norman Lloyd

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Tom Fontana on Norman Lloyd as "Dr. Daniel Auschlander" on St. Elsewhere
02:04

Howie Mandel

View Person Page
Tom Fontana on Howie Mandel as "Dr. Wayne Fiscus" on St. Elsewhere
01:03

Rita Moreno

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Tom Fontana on the cast of Oz: Rita Moreno
03:26

Bruce Paltrow

View Person Page
Tom Fontana on how he came to write for St. Elsewhere  after being discovered by Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner
06:53

David Simon

View Person Page
Tom Fontana on working with David Simon on Homicide: Life on the Street  and doing crossovers with various other shows
03:10

Denzel Washington

View Person Page
Tom Fontana on Denzel Washington as "Dr. Philip Chandler" on St. Elsewhere 
02:47

Robin Williams

View Person Page
Tom Fontana on Robin Williams guest-starring on Homicide: Life on the Street
00:40

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