We’re sitting in Fontana’s office in the West Village, an airy atrium at the back of a converted three-story Dutch revival, a former public library that during the sixties was a setting for psychedelic “happenings.” Now the main floor houses the Levinson/Fontana Company. On the lower level, there’s a full editing suite. The top floor is Fontana’s showplace apartment, filled with the massive library he’s collected over the years. His office is stuffed with TV memorabilia: a St. Eligius statue, a Patriot Act game created by People for the American Way to publicize Strip Search, and a Drew Carey bobblehead. (Fontana’s girlfriend is Deborah Oppenheimer, an executive producer of The Drew Carey Show, who produced the Holocaust documentary Into the Arms of Strangers.) There’s also a framed copy of the Bill of Rights. It’s the ultimate New York Batcave for creativity.
“I will say this, it’s not that I don’t have a television writer’s chip on my shoulder,” Fontana acknowledges. “But invariably, somebody will say, ‘What do you do for a living?’ And I will say, ‘I’m a television writer.’ And they say, in this condescending way, ‘I don’t watch television.’ Then within ten minutes, they are talking about Sex and the City! I mean, it is the most hypocritical thing about New York. And I say, ‘What do you do?’ And they say, ‘I’m a mailman.’ And I say, ‘I don’t get the mail.’ ”
Of course, there’s no believer like a convert. Fontana started out as a theater snob himself—a wannabe playwright from Buffalo, one of five kids in a large Italian and Polish family. It wasn’t an especially literary home, but after his parents took him to a performance of Alice in Wonderland, Fontana’s tiny mind was blown, and he immediately went home and began writing dialogue: all sorts of plays, including a “sordid Peyton Place” potboiler written when he was 11, in which characters got pregnant without having sex. He also watched a fair amount of television, particularly tough-guy melodramas like The Defenders and Naked City. “I was drawn to one-hour dramas from an early age,” he says, laughing. “Which, when I think of it now, sounds ridiculous. But I was like, ‘Captain Kangaroo? Fuck him! Let’s see what E. G. Marshall’s up to.’ ”
But Fontana dreamed of Manhattan. He still cherishes a postcard his parents sent him of the Prometheus statue at the RCA building. At 14, he traveled twelve hours downstate by bus, accompanied only by his 16-year-old brother. “Here is my first memory of New York: We arrive at 6:30 a.m., and we go up to the street, and while I’m waiting for my brother to figure out which direction we’re going, this sad-looking prostitute comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, hi, are you looking for some fun?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ ” He waggles his eyebrows, Groucho-style. “Now I had no idea what she was talking about. But she put out her hand, I put my hand in her hand, it was a very touching, wonderful, romantic moment. And I was gonna walk off with her—and all I remember is my brother Charlie, this hand grabbing the back of my shirt, and me flying through the air backwards. And I was like, ‘Wait! She wants to have a good time!’ ”
Fontana attended a Jesuit high school, then studied theater at Buffalo State. Soon after he graduated, he ran off to Manhattan as planned, hoping to make his living as a playwright. “I failed at it,” he says. “From 1974 until I did television, I starved.” Those early plays were terrible, he claims, citing as the worst a college experiment titled Donut Go Gentile Into That Good Knight. But in 1978, he got his serendipitous big break: He joined the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, signing on as “general factotum” to the late theater guru Nikos Psacharopoulos.
“I say, ‘I’m a TV writer,’ and they say, ‘I don’t watch TV.’ I say, ‘What do you do?’ And they say, ‘I’m a mailman.’ And I say, ‘I don’t get the mail.’ ”
Williamstown was a bohemian wonderland (“Everybody fucked everybody”), and Fontana became drinking buddies with a cabal of playwrights, as well as a few bigwigs, including the producer Bruce Paltrow and his wife, Blythe Danner, who had moved to the theater community to wait out the 1981 Writers Guild strike. He met his future wife, Sagan Lewis, wooing her, Lewis claims, by telling the competition that she was celibate. “He fell in love with me at my audition,” recalls Lewis. “I was a really cute person, attractive and young. But I was much too interested in acting to be interested in Tom. He was persistent, though: He wore these red short-shorts he thought would impress me. After a while, I could not stop thinking about this funny, crazy guy.”
Paltrow hired Fontana as a writer on his new hospital series, St. Elsewhere, and the Hollywood success knocked the theater snob right out of Fontana. “He defined the word mentor,” recalls Fontana of Paltrow, who died last year of throat cancer. “He was tough, but he was honest, and he basically taught me how to write for television.” While Fontana hated L.A., he enjoyed riding the crest of a hit. He recalls casting sessions in fellow writer Mark Tinker’s office, where Tinker would startle auditioning actors by heaving darts at what appeared to be an adorable collie sleeping in the corner—in fact a creepily realistic stuffed “sleeping Lassie,” salvaged from the old show.
In the early nineties, Fontana and Lewis got a divorce; among other disagreements, she wanted to move to the mountains, not back to Manhattan. (It seems to have been the most amicable divorce in history: “When you’re young, you don’t know this is the best you’ll ever meet,” she says fondly.) Fontana formed a creative partnership with Levinson, and the two created Homicide: Life on the Street for NBC, based on the book by David Simon. Homicide was by all accounts a chaotic set: a raucous, macho Wild West of a production, filmed in Baltimore. Fontana worked like a madman, rewriting every script. Critics adored the show, but it was a perpetual underdog regularly snubbed at the Emmys. And the network pressed Fontana to tamp down his idiosyncrasies: to hire hotter actors, to stop experimenting with the show’s structure.
When Homicide was canceled after seven years, Fontana hopped onboard the more nurturing environment of HBO, for which he created Oz, the filthiest, most romantic prison melodrama imaginable. His characters were rapists, neo-Nazis, and gang members, and Fontana reveled in the taboo-busting possible only on cable. As usual, he hired many of his old writers and buddies for the show, including Edie Falco, who had first appeared on Homicide. Actor Dean Winters, who played Irish brawler Ryan O’Reily on Oz, met Fontana when Winters and his brother Scott were bartending at Jim McMullen’s on the Upper East Side. Noel, a friend of Winters’, walked in at 2:30 a.m., accompanied by an outrageous figure with “hair down to his butt,” a long beard, a baseball cap, and dark glasses. “I was like, ‘Look, Noel brought his cab driver in for a drink,’ ” Winters recalls. In fact, it was Fontana, who wound up hiring Dean and Scott to play brothers on Oz, and also mentored Dean’s other brother, a poet, into becoming a screenwriter. “Tom is kind of the yardstick by which I measure people: There’s not a fairer, more decent person in the business,” says Winters.
After Oz ended its six-year run, Fontana spearheaded a few failed TV projects. He also wrote TV movies, including a sympathetic treatment of Judas that, in an incident that presaged what would happen with Strip Search, ABC initially buried under pressure from Christian groups—then resurrected when Mel Gibson’s Passion made it suddenly timely. But The Jury marks his true entrance back into episodic network television. It’s a departure in many ways, certainly less character-driven than his earlier series. But it’s also a natural offshoot of Fontana’s long obsession with dialogue, his interest in human conversation as the imperfect engine that produces justice. Fontana’s jurors routinely ignore the judge’s instructions. They get crushes on the lawyers. And in a uniquely self-referential device, they base their opinions on TV shows.