Sunday, November 10, 2013

On Call, Vol. 2, No. 2 - Personnel Profile - Tom Fontana: Rebel With a Cause... The Story of Easy Writer


From On Call: The Official Newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club, volume 2, number 2, July 1998.

THE EARLY YEARS


"No profile could ever be completed on Tom - start your article with that, because Tom is an ever-evolving person"... so proclaimed JOHN TINKER, Executive Producer of Chicago Hope and former St. Elsewhere writing partner with Fontana. But the more Tom changes, the more he also stays the same, and to understand that, we begin at the roots of this every growing phenom.

Tom Fontana first "evolved" in 1951 to Charles, a Buffalo wine salesman (and renowned rowing coach) and Marie, who ran the OBGYN office at Millard Fillmore Hospital where Tom was born.

MARIE FONTANA ... "Tom was very pleasant and easy to raise, and seemed to abide by our wishes. We really never had a problem with him. He helped his Dad shovel snow in winter time, and dig up weeds when his Father would take care of the garden. He was also a paper boy. One time we had a terrible snow storm, and his route was about five blocks away from where we lived. We had to drive him in the car because his wagon just couldn't go through the snow."

But whether it was delivering papers in the snow or attending chores, Tom, displayed early on a work ethic beyond his years... something that family and friends attribute in part to the Catholic influence on his education, first by the Sisters of St. Joseph at Cathedral School, and later by the Jesuits at Canisius High. His disciplined manner ever translated to his boyhood hobby and future career... writing.

MARIE FONTANA ... "What he used to do when he was a youngster is go upstairs to his bedroom and he would write stories about the neighbors, and about things in the world. He was a young child then, we didn't know anybody that was writing at his age."

The Fontanas had five children, the first four born in two-year intervals beginning in 1945: Charlene, Frank, Charles and Tom. The youngest, Paul, came along "out of sequence" in 1962, eleven years after Tom. The two younger siblings soon developed a "Wally and the Beaver" type relationship.

PAUL FONTANA ... "There was a point where we actually shared a room (I was about eight years old and Tom was in high school), and I remember very clearly that he was very protective of his desk, specifically where his writing was kept... he had a little box, a cabinet. I was very protective of my little kids' things, so we actually drew up a contract between us. He had to sign off on the fact that he wouldn't play with my toys, and I had (to agree that) I would play at his desk" (laughs).

In those days, Tom's writing was influenced by television, and, ironically, it was a rural comedy that most affected this urbane, Yankee child.

TOM FONTANA ... "The truth is, this is the dirty little secret of my career, my favorite show as a kid was Green Acres, because I found it so incredibly, wonderfully absurd. The world they created was very specific, very funny... to me, it was great."

PAUL FONTANA ... "He used to create little plays with the neighborhood teenagers and his friends from High School, that were all kinds of parodies of television, then record them on a reel to reel recorder. He had a creative spirit, and a great love of people."

And so began the offbeat writing style of one of television's greatest talents, and a career that would be underpinned by a structured upbringing.

TOM FONTANA ... "I would say that the Jesuits in general had a profound influence on my life in the sense that I learned about discipline. I mean, I can get up at 5:30 in the morning to write, having had no sleep the night before, and write for five hours, and then come to work and produce, because the Jesuits taught me to do that. They taught me you have to set up a schedule and maintain the schedule every day, and for a writer there is no bigger lesson to learn as far as I'm concerned. You can start writing at five in the morning or at ten at night, the point is you have to do it every day, and you have to do it at the same time every day, because what happens is that your body or whatever it uses (an endorphin or something) kicks in, and you suddenly go, 'Oh, it's time for me to write'."

But Fontana's road to success was long and challenging, and as he prepared for College and beyond, he would continue to rely on that Jesuit influence to strengthen his resolve.

SHUFFLING OUT OF BUFFALO... NEW YORK IS WHERE I'D RATHER BE!

After graduating from Canisius High, Tom attended Buffalo State College where he was involved in numerous theater productions, including a Dinner Theater group for which he directed. He also began an affiliation with the Buffalo-based Studio Theatre.

TOM FONTANA ... "I started working there when I was in college... doing volunteer work when I was a sophomore, and then I got a job there in my senior year. It was my first professional job. Studio Arena Theatre was for me, like a graduate school, because my intention was to become a playwright. At the time, the very best actors, directors, and designers were coming through Buffalo working at that theater, so all I had to do was just keep my ears open and my mouth shut. I had a lot of different jobs. I was originally the House Manager, then I worked in the publicity office, and then I was a Stage Manager."

During his college years, Tom also benefited from the wisdom of his mentor Warren Enters, a Tony award-winning director who, for a time, taught at Buffalo State.

WARREN ENTERS ... "I was Associate Director of the professional theater in Buffalo and also taught college...I thought Tom wrote well. I used to read all of his plays - he was in my play-writing class. I always said, "Writers write - you have to establish a discipline for writing'... so he wrote every day. I thought he had a strong sense of character and dialogue - he was leader. When Tom was BSC, he organized a group of high school students to volunteer at Studio Arena Theatre - it was called SAT squared - he eventually became assistant to the producer at Studio Arena."

It was also at Studio Arena that Tom received his first paycheck as a writer.

TOM FONTANA ... "I did a Kabuki version of the Johnny Appleseed story (laughs). And I wrote it and directed it, that was actually the first."

Busy with his studies and theater activities, Tom nonetheless had time for family, spending one Fall with his Father's rowing team at the West Side Rowing Club. He also continued to take baby brother Paul under his wing.

PAUL FONTANA ... "My grade school was attached to the college that my brothers Charles and Tommy went to. So everyday after school, I would just walk through the campus and meet them at the theater, and they would always let me hang around, and occasionally let me be in plays."

After graduating from college, Tom left Buffalo to seek his fortune in New York City.

TOM FONTANA ... "I came to New York to be a playwright in 1975, and I basically starved from 1975 until (I was) hired for St. Elsewhere. I would have a play done here or a play done there, I'd get a commission to write a play, but it was a very hand-to-mouth existence that was mostly subsidized by my parents."

In those days, Tom shared an apartment with college buddy David Domedion, who would later become the namesake for Mark Craig's mentor. Their bachelor pad was located at St. Mark's place near the Orpheum Theatre, and Tom's finances were occasionally buoyed by his own real-life mentor.

WARREN ENTERS ... "I took over a musical in New York called Boccaccio, and let Tom work for me."

PAUL FONTANA ... "Warren would give Tom these jobs as assistant or casting assistant, or PA work on these big projects that Warren was working on. So that was Tom's foray into the big leagues of for-profit theater. Those were the non-starving days of the starving years."

CLOSET ROMANCE and the Big Break

In the late 1970s, Tom began a seasonal Mecca up the road to Williams College to become a jack of all trades for the prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival. Meanwhile, auditions for the Festival were routinely held in New York, and that, according to his future wife Sagan Lewis, is where the love bug bit.

SAGAN LEWIS ... "He says he fell in love with me at my audition. A mutual friend had met Tom the year before I went to Williamstown, and for a year had tried to set us up, and it never happened. Then Tom saw me in an audition for the Theatre Festival, and said that was when he fell in love, so I guess we met (indirectly) through Williamstown."

 But Sagan resisted Tom's charms for a while - until one fateful summer evening.

SAGAN LEWIS ... "I was an actress at the Festival where I wasn't paying much attention to him. I was really just wanting to act, and I didn't want to get involved."

TOM FONTANA ... "What happened was I had walked her to her door at her room at Williamstown, and of course I wanted to get in (laughs), and she was like 'No, no', so I kissed her goodnight, and walked on down the hall. Then she went to the bathroom, which was in a separate dorm. The minute she left, I walked in and, for some reason, took off all my clothes, and waited in the closet for her to come back."

SAGAN LEWIS ... "I opened my closet and there he was naked - he wanted to make an impression (laughs)".

TOM FONTANA ... "I jumped out and she just fell over laughing, and hugged me and kissed me, and that was the end of that. But what hit me the next day was - what if I had come out and she had said 'Get the f___ out of my room!'"

ON CALL (to Sagan) ... "Was that the first known case of sexual harassment in the American theater?"

SAGAN LEWIS ... "No. The first case of sexual harassment was that he kept wearing the short, short red shorts all over campus... it was to me totally disgusting, but he did it to show me he had great legs" (laughs).

As a sidebar, we related the closet story to Tom's friend Norman Lloyd for comment.

ON CALL ... Are you surprised that your friend, the good Catholic boy Tommy Fontana was naked in Sagan's closet?

NORMAN LLOYD ... "No, because Tom is a very pure person and clothes complicate the matter."

ON CALL ... Have you ever hidden in a closet naked?

NORMAN LLOYD ... "No, but thank you for telling me. My wife Peggy and I have been married 62 years this month, and I'm about to try it on our Anniversary" (laughs).

Though smitten with Sagan, Tom still managed to put in a good days work at Williamstown, serving as everything from House Manager to Casting Director. But he aspired to be a successful playwright, and in 1981 he penned a script that would change his life forever.

TOM FONTANA ... "I had this play being done in what was the second company - which was the young actor's troupe. They would do a bunch of plays in repertory and tour them around. I had done an adaptation of a Washington Irving short story called The Spectre Bridegroom, and Blythe and Jake and Gwyneth came to see it opening night and seemed to really like it. Then Blythe said to her husband Bruce 'You should go and see Tom's play.' Now Bruce and I had gotten friendly at Williamstown because I was probably the only guy who wasn't asking him for a job... at that point, I still had an attitude about television. I was a playwright and very self-righteous about my art. So Bruce and I would hang out together, but we never talked business, and it was kind of great. So Blythe is after Bruce to come see it. Now the distance between the front door of the theater and the front door of the house Blythe and Bruce had rented for the summer was about from home plate to first base, and all through the summer Bruce had to drive or walk by the theater. He didn't go see it, and he didn't go see it, and every time he'd see me, he'd say 'I'm going to go see your play', and I'd say, Bruce, it doesn't matter. Summer ends, and he never sees the play. He now comes to me out of Jewish guilt or some motivation and says, 'Look I didn't see the play, but I heard it's very good, and I have this new TV show that I'm doing (a medical show) and I would like you to come out to L.A. and write an episode.' So I'm convinced to this day that if Bruce had seen this play, he never would have hired me (laughs), and I would still be in Williamstown earning $1.50 an hour, so it's some kind of lesson. I've yet to sort out what the true meaning of that story is, but it IS the true story."

And so Tom and Sagan headed for the west coast, and in 1982 they were married at the Patrows' home. The starving artist years were about to be over.

IN-PATIENT YEARS

As was reported in Volume One, Number Two of ON CALL, St. Elsewhere's first season was almost its last, and as cast and crew anticipated cancellation, most everyone went their own way. For Tom, that meant returning to New York with money in hand, and head held high.

TOM FONTANA ... "After the first season of St. Elsewhere I had already made more money in one year that I could have ever conceived of that I was ever going to make in my lifetime. So I came back to New York, the happiest little boy there was because I had money in the bank, and I was married to a woman I loved, and I thought, 'Wasn't that a great experience?'"

As it turned out, St. Elsewhere came back for many more seasons, and that "great experience" continued for the playwright from Buffalo.

TOM FONTANA ... "I always felt it (MTM) was like a small college - a small town college where they had put the very best students, and we all got to kind of interact with each other. Half of it was competitive - you know, we had to be better than Hill Street Blues (also produced by MTM) and they had to be better than us, and the other half of it was genuine respect for each other. So when you're in the same kind of environment as that, you go out of your way to be better than you would have been if you had been someplace else."

Law & Order Executive Producer Dick Wold was also part of the MTM family, and, in those days, worked on Hill Street.

ON CALL ... Did you have respect for what Tom did on St. Elsewhere?

DICK WOLF ... "Oh hell no! Of course not! It was a MEDICAL show! (Laughs) Yes, there was friendly competition, but there were remarkably similar attitudes towards getting shows done and keeping them on an 'A' level. Everybody would occasionally have a lunch together, because lunches were free (laughs). But it wasn't a question of going out and partying because as people don't seem to realize, on these shows, you're a well paid slave, and in those days, staffs were smaller, it was kind of a full submersion for forty weeks a year."

For Tom that submersion included a commitment to realism, for example his accompanying Christina Pickles to research Breast Cancer clinics (see Volume One, Number One). He would also call upon his mother Marie for occasional input about medical issues. But once a script had been written, he always turned it over to his own "in-house" editor.

SAGAN LEWIS ... "He always called me his script editor."

ON CALL ... Did you ever suggest changes?

SAGAN LEWIS ... "Yes, often."

ON CALL ... "How did Tom react to that?"

SAGAN LEWIS ... "He was wonderfully open. The way it worked was he would bring home every script, and I would read them all, and give him my notes afterwards. I know he would take my notes into John Masius, and that many of my notes were used. He was very open to what I had to say."

ON CALL ... Give us an example.

SAGAN LEWIS ... "After Westphall's daughter had had an abortion, they had a scene in the script where Westphall goes in after the operation and gives her an exam, and I said, 'No way, you can't have a father/daughter like this.' And Tom was really sensitive, and said 'OK' and they cut that. They were going for the love between father and daughter, and I said 'No, in this instance the intimacy and love would be to respect her privacy.'"

Of course, some of Tom's story ideas came from his own personal experiences, for example the naked closet romp which later became the basis for an exchange between Victor Ehrlich and his girlfriend. Later in the series Tom also created the character of a young seminarian which was based on his brother Paul who was headed for the seminary when Tom convinced him to work on the St. Elsewhere production crew instead.

PAUL FONTANA ... "The character he and Channing Gibson created was based on me, but it was a woman seminarian played by Shelly Gibson who was later married to Channing."

Perhaps, though, the most difficult and poignant example of art imitating life occurred in episode #35 - IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH, a story based on the death of Tom's father.

MARIE FONTANA ... "Right after his father passed away, Tom went back to L.A. and he was speaking to Bruce Paltrow and said 'Gee I've got to do something for my Dad - he was such a great guy.' And Bruce said, 'Do it now, don't wait.' So Tom did this wonderful story about his father and I and how close we were, and showed the very good relationship we had. My husband was a rowing coach so we had an 8 oar shell brought into the hospital and my husband christened the boat when he was dying."

JOHN TINKER ... "Bruce pushed him into doing it. I think Tom's immediate reaction to that was that he wasn't inclined to do it yet, and with some nudging and pressuring from Bruce, he did it. I think Bruce thought Tommy had come back to work too soon, and he thought that would be one way Tom could work through it. And it was not easy. Then Bruce gave his notes on the script that Tom had poured his heart out on, and that's not easy. It was dangerous territory for both of them to be exploring. From my vantage point, Tom cared as much about that episode as he did all the others. And each episode for him had to be as good as the last, or better."

And that career credo, plus a genuine kindness toward his fellow man is what earned Tom the respect of cast and crew alike.

NORMAN LLOYD ... "A wonderful human being, enormously talented. I think Tom is a rare human being. I tell you as a person he's Christ-like, he is just amazing."

JOHN MASIUS ... "First of all, Tommy has great discipline - that Jesuit training. He remembers everything, and he has the ability to keep track of all these things. He has a great ear for character, and a great storytelling ability. He is very, very funny."

BONNIE BARLETT DANIELS ... "Tom Fontana is the best. He along with Bruce and Mark was the heart and soul of St. Elsewhere. He is a marvelous person as he is in work."

ABBY SINGER ... "I think he's brilliant, Tom is brilliant. He's a wonderful guy."

JOHN TINKER ... "Well wait a minute, he's not a saint! (laughs) I don't want to canonize him so quickly. I remember early on in the life of St. Elsewhere he blasted out of his office and into the large outer office there - the bullpen area - and he went ape because one of the assistants had dropped a comma from one of the sentences - I swear!"

ON CALL ... So he gets mad over punctuation?

JOHN TINKER ... "He did then, but he doesn't anymore - I know for a fact he doesn't anymore, he's learned to loosen up (laughs). But oh boy, he's such a good guy!"

But after two Emmys and five seasons, Fontana was facing burn-out, and decided to move back to New York, something that may come as a surprise to viewers who continued to see Tom's name on the credits during the sixth season. In point of fact, his influence was felt on every episode in the final year.

SAGAN LEWIS ... "He still worked on the show as a consultant, but you have to understand that Tom put 400% of his energy into St. Elsewhere, and just before the last season he had to get some space, and I remember he went to New York because he loved New York so much. (Still) he was probably as involved as most of the other writers, but for Tom it WAS cutting back. He probably cut from giving 400% to 100%. They were on the phone with him a lot. He was very active, and I don't think the actors would have been able to see that, but the writers knew. He was very involved with the story outlines and very involved with final approval on scripts."

Upon his return to New York, Tom spent some of his time working with the Writers Theatre and also writing scripts for the legendary Father Ellwood Kieser, a Catholic priest turned television producer (Insight). It was also the start of another career evolution for Fontana, but for he and Sagan, it was the beginning of a separation that would lead to divorce in 1988.

SAGAN LEWIS ... "Tom's passion was his work, and my passion was Tom and his work. And after a while, it's like, 'My God, who am I?"

Despite the divorce, Tom and Sagan remain good friends, and today, he still sends her scripts to review. But for the period immediately following the end of St. Elsewhere, Tom would face some professional disappointments before he was to score big again.


PILOT'S LICENSE

TOM FONTANA ... "What happened was Bruce formed the Paltrow Group which was John Tinker, Channing Gibson, Mark Tinker, Bobby DeLaurentis, and myself, and of course, Bruce. And we came back to do Tattinger's (for NBC, starring Mark Harmon). We made nine hours and four half hours, and got shuffled off the schedule. Then he had a development deal with Columbia Television to develop mostly hours, though we did do some half hour stuff. We did the series Home Fires (NBC) with Kate Burton (a Williamstown player with Sagan) which we actually shot in L.A. It also co-starred Norman Lloyd.

NORMAN LLOYD ... "I don't know why Home Fires didn't sell, I thought it had great charm, and I loved the character I played. I played this analyst and every show opened and closed with me (counseling) the mother, father and children. It was a very funny concept, and charmingly written."

JOHN TINKER ... "There was also a comedy called Word of Mouth, and it was about the speech writers for the President. It was as good a concept as you could screw up, and for myriad reasons it got screwed up, and we'll take some of the blame. It was a great idea and unfortunately it never came to pass. We made two pilots, the second one which I think was cast better with Billy Daniels as the Chief of Staff. That was for CBS."

And though certainly not starving financially as he had after college, Tom nonetheless hungered for something different, and was in fact, planning to travel to Italy for a period of self-discovery when fate stepped in.

COP LAND and Mr. PEABODY

TOM FONTANA ... "I was going to go to Italy for a month, and I was telling people I was going to rent a villa outside of Florence to write epic poetry."

But the poetry would have to wait because Tom was about to e called back to television. Legendary film producer/director Barry Levinson was launching a new small screen series, and ironically, it was slated to involve two St. Elsewhere vets other than Tom.

JOHN TINKER ... "It was about that time that Masius and I were leaving L.A. Law. We went over to Barry's trailer - he was shooting a movie about a toy factory. I sat over there and had a very pleasant conversation with Barry. We went in believing we could write the pilot, when in fact, the pilot was going to be written by Paul Attanasio, a wonderful writer who did Quiz Show. But for some reason Masius didn't want to go on a show where we weren't going to be writing the pilot. I wasn't going to go against John, so we gave Tommy's name to Barry. I'm sure they would have found him without us. Tom was a far better choice in hindsight."

TOM FONTANA ... "I went out and met with Barry, and as I think I've said a thousand times, when the whole idea of doing a cop show was presented to me, I was like, well there's never going to be a better cop show than Hill Street, there's no other way to do it better... and Barry said 'I want to do a cop show without car chases and without gun battles. I want to do Homicide as a thinking man's unit.' And so, the minute he said that, I said 'That's impossible, I have to be part of this!'"

BARRY LEVINSON ... "Tom has an imaginative sensibility, so that you're able to explore themes not in such a straightforward manner, which is one of the aspects that applies to Homicide. Not straight-ahead storytelling, but to be able to have an edge in an off-center way to view what takes place. Based on what we were doing in the pilot script, he could not only take that out and run with it, but it would continue to evolve and reflect the elements we're talking about. One of the great things in us getting together is I think we have a very similar sensibility to this (show). I can't even tell you a situation where I think we differed about what we should be going for. I can't remember any creative time when we were at odds about any given situation, so I think we are very connected in that respect. You know, not all shows are going to be in the top ten, certain types of work you do isn't going to fit that sensibility, but sometimes you can say, look, we can work over in this area here, and artistically it's satisfying, and economically it makes sense for the Network. And that's fine. And I think we're both comfortable in that respect. Now I think somehow you turn out a show and it becomes a big hit, and that is a wonderful accident."

Accident or not, with Tom as Co-Executive Producer, Homicide has won an unprecedented three Peabody awards and a third writing Emmy for Fontana. And since joining the Homicide squad, Tom has also teamed with old pal Dick Wolf for several cross-over episodes with Law and Order.

DICK WOLF ... "The idea for it came up after an NBC party... at a downtown restaurant. It was Tom, Warren Littlefield, and me. It sprang fully formed from a tablecloth. The three of us were talking about it, and we said, 'Why don't we do this?'"

Both Wolf and Fontana share a masterful sense of humor, and are hilarious conversationalists (the Steve Allen influence), so ON CALL wondered why the duo hadn't teamed up to produce a comedy.

DICK WOLF ... "Didn't Tom tell you? That's what we're going to do next... we're going to put Belzer and Orbach together as P.I.'s in South Beach, with their cover is running an all-girls volleyball team" (laughs).

ON CALL ... You and Tom are both twisted.

DICK WOLF ... "Oh, he's a lot more twisted than I am" (laughs).

Like St. Elsewhere before it, Homicide is off-beat, but due its serious themes is much grittier. Still, the Fontana wit surfaces regularly. The legendary Steve Allen and his beautiful, talented wife Jayne Meadows (who both appeared on St. Elsewhere) were cast by Fontana for cameos on Homicide. The Allens commented, first referring back to St. Elsewhere:

STEVE ALLEN ... "And that's exactly what happened in this appearance on Homicide. Now there's about as serious a show, and as realistic a cop show as there is... forget the word ABOUT, that's as serious and authentic as any cop show on television. And among the nice things that people have said to us in seeing that appearance on Homicide is 'Oh, you guys were so funny.' Well, we ARE funny, we do funny for a living, that's not news. What is news is that we did it on a very serious dramatic show."

JAYNE MEADOWS ... "Well of course, it's Tom Fontana, it's the eccentricity of the show. Tom Fontana is too good for the business."

No one would argue Ms. Meadows' point, the question is, WHY is Fontana too good for television?

MARK TINKER ... "Tom's take on writing is never let anybody get comfortable. Always keep them on their heels and surprise people to the point of shocking them sometimes, just because the status quo bores Tom."

And Tom's ability to shock audiences would reach new levels in his next teaming with Levinson.

WIZARD of "OZ"

In 1997, not content to rest on their Peabodys, Tom and Barry developed a prison based drama for HBO titled Oz (from the prison named Oswald).

TOM FONTANA (to TV Guide) ... "I always look to do dramas in an environment that has a very intense, urgent life and death kind of situation, and I can't think of a more life and death situation than a prison."

Now in its second 13-week season, Oz is, to say the least, shocking and disturbing, so much so that the former Buffalo paper boy had concerns about one potential viewer.

MARIE FONTANA ... "Well you know, he had forbidden me to watch it (laughs), so I didn't watch it. But then I felt I DID want to watch it... I wasn't a youngster, and there's really nothing in the world that I haven't heard about, so he did send me the videotapes. Personally I think it's wonderful, and I feel that it's done so well, and that it would teach the young children who are getting involved in crime - maybe it would show them the kind of life they would have if they DID go into prison. I personally think it should be on at 8 o'clock."

SAGAN LEWIS ... "He's still delving into areas of the heart, and if you closely study Oz, they are incredible scenes of the heart. I'll never forget this one scene that made me cry - where a prisoner is planning his wife's funeral, and in that moment you see this incredible love that this monster has for his wife, and I'm like 'That's so Tom, that's so Tom. That's so wonderful.'"

 DICK WOLF ... "I called Tom after the second or third episode, where the guy who was married and had a family, comes back from a conjugal visit, and he reaches under his bed and takes out these pictures, and says 'I've got two boys who love me - they'd do anything for me, they'd rape, they'd kill... maybe I'll send them over to your house', and I called up Tom and said, 'Wow, the absolutely pure Fontana theme (laughs). That's Tom."

The LEGACY... "FONTANAVISION"

As John Tinker observed, "Tom is ever evolving," and so it should come as no surprise to friends, family, and fans that his work always takes us to the next level. Still, it is ironic that the sweet little boy who never gave his parents a moment's trouble, the disciplined teenager with a Jesuit influence, and the genuinely funny man who attracts instant and lifelong friends - it is ironic that THAT Tom Fontana can write about the most serious, stark, and even sadistic sides of human nature.

SAGAN LEWIS ... "I think a lot of his artistic anger comes from his relationship with Catholicism. I mean, they used to call him the happy camper when he was young. I think he just has this incredible ability for seeing things. Maybe the writing is his balance. He approaches his life with such love and humor, that maybe the dark side comes out in his writing."

NORMAN LLOYD ... "He has the eye of an observer. And don't forget he writes his characters with dimension, he doesn't write them in a cardboard way - a black and white way. Let's say... with the villains, they have dimension which leads you to understand what was going on with them."

PAUL FONTANA ... "The key to his success is his personality. He's an amazingly talented writer, but Tom marries that to his genuineness, people just love him. As he's gotten older he's tried to remake himself... he's very much a 'bad boy' with tattoos and stuff, but there's this good guy inside that hasn't really changed at all. When you see hi in magazine photos, he's sitting on a motorcycle showing his tattoos, and I go 'This isn't the guy I used to it and listen to Broadway cast albums with,' he's a guy who pretends he doesn't know any Broadway shows, but he does, and I can get him singing them! (laughs) His house is full of heavy metal now, so he's trying to change the story a little bit" (laughs).

MARIE FONTANA ... "He's still the sweet young man man who moved from my home when he was ready to start his career. Tom is just as nice and kind and considerate as when he was ready to start his career. Tom is just as nice and kind and considerate as when he was growing up here in Buffalo. I love him more and more because he isn't that other type of person that I know of - show business people that have that attitude."

JOHN TINKER ... "He's a very solid, stable guy. I think he's rooted in certain beliefs and principles, and I don't necessarily mean religious. I probably mean more philosophic and humanitarian, and I think that's what allows him to go as far out there in one direction, and then rebound, and go as far in the other direction, and then rebound again, and go as far off in another direction. That's why he's an ever-evolving guy. I can't put a handle on Tom. It's funny, you know, working with someone that intensely is like having been married to them, and there was a Tom I was 'married' to when I worked on St. Elsewhere, and there's a different Tom virtually every time I see him. He's a creature of change. If I have to put a handle on Tom, he's one of the most decent and caring people I know."

WARREN ENTERS ... "He is aware of people, and he always was. He is one of the most generous people I know."

SAGAN LEWIS ... "He's a great guy. It's a blending of an incredible sense of humor with compassion for mankind. I used to tell him he was an incredible writer, but his greatest gift was that he approached life through the heart."

BARRY LEVINSON ... "He's a writer, he could do anything. I think that's the best. He has that discipline as a writer, he's one of the most un-funny writers I've ever met, in that he can just sit down and apply himself, and do it. He knows how to apply himself and sit down and go for it."

ON CALL to JOHN TINKER ... Did you ever learn anything from Tom?

JOHN TINKER ... "Oh, God, you know the truth is, I still DO. Things that I learned from him firstly is attention to detail. If you're paying attention to the small stuff, you're more than likely paying attention to the big stuff. Whether it's a comma on the page or the fact that a character needs to be consistent, or his behavior needs to be explained as to WHY he's inconsistent - all of that stuff is very Fontana. I also learned story from Tom. I learned to write about what I cared about, and care about what other people wanted to see. And the best stories I could tell were the ones that were truthful to me."

DICK WOLF ... "In all seriousness Tom is undoubtedly one of the best writers ever to work in this medium, and though he is selling himself on a weekly basis, the stuff that comes out of that head is incredibly unique, and in very much a way that is immediately recognizable. I mean you look at those episodes (on Homicide, and that's all Tom. That's not to take anything away from the writers who do a terrific job, but the head of that show - or what the head is wrapped around, is really FONTANAVISION."

And so, thanks to Dick Wolf, Webster's can now add a new word to the American lexicon. The trouble is, how will a one volume dictionary condense the definition. Here's our suggestion:

FON-TAN-A-VI-SION / noun: (from New York Latin)
1. Television programming that is created or otherwise influenced by Tom Fontana, a playwright and television producer of the late 20th century.
2. A high art form whose classical influences include Jesuit teachings and Hooterville discourse.
3. Any television program that can shock, surprise, teach, and/or evoke deep emotions.
4. An ability to see into the human soul and reflect that image on to the television screen.
5. Free expression characterized by acts of nudity in closets.
6. A creative spirit that is ever-evolving (see COMPASSIONATE, GENIUS, DISCIPLINED, TWISTED).

In short, Tom Fontana has had a lasting impact on American Television, and that is an undefinable achievement.

Originally produced by Longworth Communications.

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