THICK AS THIEVES
(1998 or 1999)
Blood and Talent: Two actors and a screenwriter
by Jessica Willis
It's peculiar to see Dean Winters close his eyes and let a makeup artist pat his face with a powder puff. And when he's summoned over to the racks of Italian suits and fedoras and slips into one of the many Armanis he will wear this morning, you realize were just not in Oz anymore, and he is no longer Ryan O'Reilly, the cool psychopath he plays on HBO's Oz. "It's good to look nice for a change", he says. "Being that I'm on
a prison show and all."
That's an understatement.
If Oz is a prison show, then Valley of the Dolls is just a paperback. The Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson -produced television serial is set in a claustrophobic vision of purgatory: the maximum-security Oswald Penitentiary. And since the first episode aired in August of 97, Dean, along with his brother Scott (who also plays Dean's retarded brother on the show), have been getting Ozzed in public on a regular basis. Everyone from soap-opera-loving housewives to young toughs in stocking caps get in their faces and yell in amazement and fear.
To keep the filial franchise thing going, enter Brad Winters, the youngest brother, and one of the Oz writers. Right now he's lurking around, trying to avoid the Armani racks. He shares with his brothers the same open face and candid blue eyes, and he certainly doesn't look like someone who would be involved in the conjuring of pornographically grim scenes of bleeding eyeballs and crucifixion.
"It's so much fucking fun", says Dean who, at 34, is the oldest of the brothers. "I wish we would do more episodes during the season. I've worked on so many bad TV things. I'd go to work and I'd just be like, oh Christ."
He calls Scott, who is the more experienced actor of the two (Dean got into the business at an ancient 28), the king of memorable scenes - and Scott does have a knack for putting on the innocuous, Caucasian white face. Scott (who is 33) was the silky-haired Harvard jerk in the bar who tried to woo Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting (maybe you remember me as the "How you like them apples?" -guy, he says softly), and he was also the ponytailed jerk in the 80s part of The People vs. Larry Flynt ("maybe you remember me as the guy with his feet up on the boardroom desk") who took over the editorship at Hustler when the big boss was at home getting loaded. And now he's a dumb, angel-faced murderer shuffling after his brother in jail.
"I know, I know", Scott wails. "Suspend belief here, please. Come on, it's TV, man. Let's try to force-feed them something with a smidgen of reality. It's better than force-feeding them soapy, sitcomy cheese".
Both Dean and Scott say they get fan letters from inmates who praise Oz for showing jail as the lose-lose situation that it is. If reality is a load of men in wifebeater tees locked up in rooms with Plexiglas doors, the genderfucker in all of us is pleased as punch. Oz gives us the male version of being barefoot, black-eyed, and pregnant - the tough guy who is bound, sweaty, and relieved of all rights.
In the previous season, Dean's character even got breast cancer. "We're a bunch of guys that have all come undone", Dean says. "There are no bullshit heroes in Oz. We're there because of our failures. There are only eight precious episodes made per season, and each one offers fleeting male frontal nudity, powdered drugs, forced sodomy in the mess hall, and billyclubs rammed to the kidneys - and that's only in the opening credits!"
"It's enough to make any viewer want to piss blood and stay glued to the boob tube. Who knew that a drama that dared to go way beyond and below the usual happy Shawshank vision of jail would be such a pleasure to watch?"
Dean and Scott did some of their research for Oz at one of their earlier jobs, where they had to fend off hordes of nerved-up, needy people on a constant basis. They were a bartending duo all over their native Manhattan ("The question is: Where didn't we bartend?" says Dean) and during one particularly uproarious, packed, hot summer night at Nevada Smiths, Dean and Scott were lobbing around the bullshitty Irish charm, being very mirthful and blue-eyed, and Tom Fontana, a regular customer, shouldered up to the bar, noticed that he had a hard, handsome leading man, a gentle sympathetic supporting role, and a venom-penned dialogue writer within a one-foot radius of a keg, and he decided to make some stars.
"It always sounds like the movie Cocktail when we describe how we all started working on Oz", Brad says wearily. "Like we're a package deal or something. I was underage, so of course I was wandering around at the place where my brothers were bartending. Dean hissed at me, Quick, get that man a Wild Turkey! Maybe that's why [Fontana] hired me as a writer a couple of years later".
When Fontana asked Dean if he would like a role in Homicide: Life on the Street, his new TV series, Dean said no. One can imagine Dean crinkling the corners of his eyes and being very nice about it.
"I was the first person to turn him down", he remembers gleefully. Tom Fontana eventually got over his shock and became the Winters' champion, patronizing their Work House Theater Company, and commissioning Brathair (Gaelic for brother), Brad's short film about two brothers in Hells Kitchen.
"It was the first time we all got excited about working together", Scott says.
The three of them crowd into the bathroom and get into costume. Presumably. Laughter ricochets off the tile, and the rest of us exchange nervous glances. One wonders if one brother is entreating another to jam an explosive device in the toilet.
Eventually the door slams open and they pile out all at once. In their cool suits and easy matching smiles, they look sweet and untrustworthy.
"You're out of your fucking mind", Dean says to Brad, shaking his head in wonderment. "I just wanna know why the fuck we're dressed this way." Brad says, jamming an expensive fedora on the back of his head, yokel-style. The question lingers: How can the Stanford-educated, English lit and poetry-majoring Brad Winters, who has never visited a jail, be part of a writing squad that comes up with such sparkling dialogue for societys dregs? After all, this is a mild-mannered 27-year-old man who wears cashmere sweaters and says secure, baby-brotherish things like, "I don't consciously remember anything but broad influences on my body of work", when pressed about his own poetry.
"Oz isn't a documentary", he adds cryptically. "I use lots of imagination and research". In an attempt to explain himself, he reminisces about one of his brothers knocking him out during a demonstration with a homemade pair of nunchaku. "You know how brothers are". That might explain why he knows how some boys can be, if they aren't brought up as nicely.
Much, much later, coats wrapped tight against the cold, the brothers are walking across Chinatown looking for a slice of pizza. "It would be fun to do the family thing strictly on our terms", Dean says. He names Death of a Salesman and Hamlet as two of his dream productions. Not surprisingly, these are stories about blood kin run amok. With that long, wiry body, Dean Winters can do whatever he wants. He could be a
brathair yelling out of a tenement window, or an architect drawing up plans for a church.
Still, it has been a hard year for Dean. This past summer, he was starring in All Shook Up, a small, good indie film about the dreary life in New London, CT, but the film died due to funding problems. Then, at the eleventh hour, he took the romantic lead in Undercover Angel, playing a down-and-out writer opposite the un-Oz-like Yasmine Bleeth. Tough breaks, yes, but it's not bad for an actor who doesn't have a publicist or any sort of entourage that isn't part of the family tree.
"I'm not sure if Undercover Angel is going out theatrically. It's the complete, polar opposite of Oz. It's mellow and G-rated. No ones eating glass or getting raped".
Brad falls into step next to him. That would be PG entertainment.
THICK AS THIEVES