Saturday, July 19, 2008

Tom Fontana

I spent a delightful couple of hours Wednesday afternoon with Tom Fontana, the writer/producer of such hit TV series as “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Oz” and “St. Elsewhere.” He had bid on and won a tour of my beloved Cathedral of St. John the Divine, to be given by the Dean, the Very Rev. Dr. James Kowalski, and to be followed by tea with the Dean. Because of all my showbiz connections and my decades of involvement with the Cathedral, Jim asked me to help host the afternoon.

Tom brought with him his two brothers, Charlie and Paul, his casting director, Alexa Fogel, and Brendan Mason who works with her, and another television superstar, David Simon, who originated the ideas and penned the scripts for “Homicide” and “The Wire.” (The day after the tour it was announced he had been nominated for an Emmy Award for his work on “The Wire.”) I knew David’s name because I knew he had developed his shows in part from his experience as a police reporter at The Baltimore Sun. I had covered that beat full time in January 1978 as a college intern.

Before the tour we sat in the Dean’s bright, spacious office while he presented an overview of the Cathedral’s history. We all also began to chat, and the topic of Baltimore came up. I mentioned that it was my hometown and added that I too had spent time on the police beat at The Sun. At that David swung his face back to look at me in one of those double-take gestures you see in comedies. He said: “What did you say?” He probably has had people tell him they’re from Baltimore, but I’m sure he didn’t expect to take the tour of the Cathedral and meet someone who had also done his old beat. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to turn my experiences into hit TV shows, but I did receive four college credits and write an essay about one of my encounters that was published in The Quill and which I later included in my anthology, Journalism Stories from the Real World, for which Walter Cronkite wrote the introduction. All those late nights covering murders, rapes and robberies weren’t in vain for me either!)

So it turned out the police beat was another talking point with our guests that I couldn’t have foreseen because I didn’t know David was coming. Still, what you have to understand is that while I have knowledge of the Cathedral and know a lot of people in show business, and was even a police reporter in Baltimore, I am the most unlikely person to be entertaining TV powerhouses. You would have to go to a Third World country to find anyone who has watched less television than I have. I don’t have cable, which in Manhattan, because of the difficulty with reception, is the equivalent of not having TV. Which is just fine with me. I only have a TV set so I can do my various fitness DVDs and tapes each morning because fitness is one of my minor religions. I’ve never seen any of the shows that almost everyone regarded as must-see -- “M.A.S.H.”? No. “Steinfeld”? No. “Law and Order”? No. “The West Wing?” No. You get the idea. The answer is no to everything.

Except, that is, for a couple of taped episodes of “Oz” that my friend Diane Synder lent me nearly a decade ago. She thought I would be interested in the nun character, Sister Peter Marie, played by Rita Moreno. I was indeed. Although the series was too violent for me -- I know a show set in prison has to be violent -- I developed respect for Tom Fontana for creating a credible nun character, whom he based in part on his sister who is a nun. All too often nuns are portrayed as dimwits, villains or comic relief, not the vital, intelligent women most of them are. (In the interest of full disclosure, let me say I am an associate member of the Sisters of Charity of New York, which means I haven’t taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but I do try to live the order’s charism, or mission, which is charity.)

I would never have thought that tape I watched all those years ago would come in so handy one day. After the tour, we all went to the Dean’s apartment for tea and more chatting. Tom happened to mention that his sister was a nun and I said how much I liked her character on “Oz,” sounding just like a regular television watcher. We were then able to have a great conversation about that character, his sister and nuns in general, and I thought, Thank you, Diane.

It turned out to be a lovely afternoon. I hope they enjoyed it as much as we enjoyed hosting them. My friend Drew used to say, the bigger the star, the bigger the star. That was certainly true of Tom Fontana. He couldn’t have been more down-to-earth. He might just get me watching television.

Well . . .


Lauren Yarger said...

You're such a great writer. I love the "Steinfeld" reference.

Diane Snyder said...

Oh, wow, I completely forgot that I'd loaned you those tapes. Thanks for the plug. Glad you had such nice day with everyone. Tom was always a great person to talk to back in the days when I was covering TV, and David Simon's wife, Laura Lippman, another former Sun reporter, is a favorite novelist of mine.