Time off for Good Behavior
by Lauren David Peden
Photos by James Geer
CRUNCH Magazine, Winter 2003
THE UPCOMING SEASON OF
HBO'S LONG-RUNNING PRISON DRAMA OZ IS TO BE ITS LAST, SO CRUNCH
DECIDED TO PREP TWO OF ITS STARS FOR AN EARLY RELEASE.
As anyone who watches OZ knows, J.K. Simmons and Lee Tergesen have
been trading the dark side since Anakin Skywalker was just a glint
in his father's eye. When Tobias Beecher (Tergesen), a mild-mannered
blue-blooded lawyer convicted of DWI and vehicular manslaughter,
first arrived at Oswald State Correctional Facility in 1997,
neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger (Simmons) took him under his wing and
then raped him and branded a swastika on his lily-white ass. Beecher
retaliated by beating Schillinger senseless and taking a crap in his
And that was just for starters. With enough casual violence to make
Tony Soprano wince, the dastardly duo has played Byzantine
cat-and-mouse games throughout OZ's six-year run, which, to the
dismay of the show's ardent fans, is coming to an end next spring.
Now, though, the pair are contemplating life after prison hell.
We're grabbing a beer in Pravda a Martini `n' blini bar in SoHo
after a day's filming on a sweltering soundstage in Bayonne, New
Jersey, where Simmons was mightily intimidating in a sleeveless
black muscle shirt, freshly shaved head and multiple (faux) tattoos.
Unfortunately, I was kicked off the set by OZ writer-producer Tom
Fontana before Tergesen's scene. But I did spy him wearing an orange
prison jumpsuit, which, in the Land of OZ, means Beecher is either
up for parole again or being arraigned on yet another criminal
Tergesen has changed into a green T-shirt and jeans, Simmons into
his black "gardening" T and cargo pants, and they exchange equally
casual banter as we wait for service. Simmons expresses delight over
his stellar SPIDER-MAN reviews (he played blustery newspaperman J.
Jonah Jameson), while the quick-witted Tergesen, 37, is griping
about being misquoted: "I never said that Chris Meloni was a gift to
work with. That doesn't make sense. It sounds like I'm wrapping
When the waitress finally arrives, it turns out neither actor is
of a drinker. "If you wanted a drinking piece, you should've caught
us the first season," Simmons says.
"Yea, we were bad back then," says Tergesen, a self-described metal
head, who first came to fame as Terry, the "I love you, man" guy in
the Wayne's World movies. "Getting drunk, ripping all our clothes
off in bars. But noooo nobody cared that first season. Nobody
wanted to interview us back then. You're too late!"
"I'll toss back the occasional beer now and then, but I'm an old
married man with two kids," adds the 46-year-old Simmons, who opts
for an Amstel Light. "Bo-ring."
Tergesen, a young married man with no kids, has given up drinking
altogether, for reasons he does not reveal. He orders sparkling
water. So much for getting them buzzed and watching the sparks fly.
Instead, I listen to them dissect the current season and the fate of
their characters. "We've hardly worked together at all," says
Simmons. "We've butted heads in one scene, but I have a feeling it's
all boiling down to episodes seven and eight."
OZ being all about sin, redemption and retribution, it's obvious
one will kill the other in the end. "I hope so!" Tergesen says.
"I assumed that would be the case," agrees Simmons. "But just
recently I've started thinking that Tom Fontana is so sick that
Schillinger might be the character that survives."
"Yeah, but then it's all going to be fake," says Tergesen. "I won't
"You know, that last episode might not be fake," warns Simmons.
"I mean, it's always real," says Tergesen, his voice rising in mock
"It's always real. I've got to imagine I kill you. I kill you!"
Maybe that explains why they don't hang out off set so much. Simmons
thinks the last time they kicked it was a bowling night during the
second season. "Yeah, this guy is Captain Family and Captain Work,"
says Tergesen sarcastically. "There was a certain amount of bonding
that went on like second, third season that we don't do anymore."
A lot of it has to do with the set location in Bayonne, New Jersey
a place that offers precious few reasons to linger. But according to
Tom Fontana, the two "adore each other" in real life. Which must be
fairly helpful when you're filming scenes of multiple limb fracture,
murder and (gulp!) oral sex. In fact, Tergesen claims that the only
difference between OZ, famous for its full-frontal nudity, and gay
porn is that "OZ doesn't have the cheesy music."
"I was asked in one interview who is the better kisser, Chris Keller
[Chris Meloni's character] or my wife," says Tergesen, "and I
said, `Chris Keller, without a doubt, because when I kiss him, I get
That affection, however, didn't extend to a vacation invitation when
Tergesen, Fontana and cast mate Dean Winters planned successive
trips to Cuba and then Rome. "Even when I was single I didn't get
invited," Simmons complains.
"You were never single," says Tergesen. "When were you single?"
"You wouldn't have gone, anyway," says Tergesen.
"Of course I wouldn't have gone with you guys," Simmons says with a
look of disgust. "But you should have asked me."
Instead, Simmons is taking his brood to visit relatives in Illinois
and Montana (his home state) and then plans to spend a month in
Seattle, where he did repertory theater in college. "This is our
vacation," he says.
"Nice," says Tergesen.
Days off seem to follow a similar pattern. Simmons spends most of
his downtime hanging out with his family in the `burbs, while
Tergesen is more apt to be found on the dance floor at Centro-Fly
and Vinyl in New York, where he'd gone the weekend before to check
out legendary DJ Danny Tenaglia. "I used to go to Twilo a lot when
Junior Vasquez was there, and now I go to Exit."
"Is that the kind of music that's been happening after Jimi Hendrix
died?" asks Simmons. "That's when I basically stopped turning on the
radio or buying LPs."
"Did you dance at my wedding?" Tergesen asks him.
"Ask my wife that question," says Simmons, with a sigh. "No, I did
not dance at your wedding."
Tergesen got married August 2001 at NYC's Studio 450, with renowned
DJ Randy Bettis (aka Randy B) doing the musical honors. "Lee had the
coolest wedding in Manhattan history," says Simmons. "And yes, of
course I left early. I hung out, I had a beer and I went home. It
was a lovely ceremony."
A lovely ceremony and, as it turned out, an even better honeymoon.
At the last minute they opted for a cross-country road trip instead
of a European jaunt that would have concluded on September 11. They
were back at their Manhattan home when the news broke. "We're
sitting in our bedroom talking, and we hear some sirens, and Leslie
goes, `Oh, God that's something big,'" says Tergesen. "She feels
like she's `in touch' with things. In my head, I go, `Oh, what the
hell does she know? Big? It's one fucking siren.' We turn on the
radio, like in a movie, just in time to hear them say, `The World
Trade Center has been hit by a plane.' I turned on the television
just in time to see it." He pauses for effect. "I never doubt her
Falling in love with Leslie was, according to his Web site
(leetergesen.net) one of the three defining moments in the life of
Lee Tergesen, whose first post-OZ projects are the indie film, BARK
and EXTREME DATING. The other two are being cast as Rosie in POINT
BREAK, his first major movie, and driving back from a New Orleans
road trip just in time to be by his mother's side when she died of
breast cancer in 1989.
"Jksimmons.com was closed down," Simmons counters. It was closed
because the Web mistress received numerous threats and e-mail bombs
from people who obviously had a hard time separating fact from
fiction, Simmons from Schillinger. "I'm still not clear on whether
[the threats] were from Nazis or if they thought she was promoting
Nazis," says Simmons.
Simmons then recounts a story about being recognized by an
overzealous fan on a recent plane ride. "He does this unbelievable
triple take and goes, `Oh my God! J.K. Simmons! Your first name is
Jonathan and your birthday is January 9.' I said, `Pal, if you know
my Social Security number, I'm going to kick your ass.' It turns out
the guy and his wife were big OZ and LAW & ORDER fans." (Simmons
also plays shrink Dr. Emil Skoda on the NBC series, going, he says,
"from psycho to psychiatrist.") Simmons looks incredulous. "I was
just like, `He knew my birthday!'"
Tergesen laughs and shakes his head. "I came out of a play last year
and this guy rushes up to me and he's like, `Oh my god, Lee
Tergesen!' I'm like, `Hey, how ya doing?' He says, `I just saw you
in there; I went to see the play, too. Could you sign a picture?'"
Tergesen's eyes widen in horror. "He's got two pictures of me! With
"And he goes, `Can I just bother you for a picture?' and he pulls
out this little disposable camera that he obviously just ran out and
bought, and I go, `No it's too much.' Him and his friend just stop
and they're like
.[look of dejection]. I go, `No, I'm only kidding.'
I always like to throw a little scary shit at the people because I
think that way I'll never have a stalker."
When Tergesen departs "I can't imagine I can't say everything I
have to say in 45 minutes and then get the fuck out of here"
Simmons stays for dessert. "It's a good time to go," he says.
Meaning OZ, not Tergesen. "But it will definitely be sad to see it
end." His post-Oz projects are piling up. He recently shot several
pilots, including an ABC drama called HOMEWARD BOUND with JoBeth
Williams, which he just found out didn't get picked up for fall. We
also discuss his big-screen career (in addition to SPIDER-MAN,
Simmons has appeared in THE MEXICAN and THE GIFT and is currently
shooting the Disney western HIDALGO with Viggo Mortensen and OFF THE
MAP with Joan Allen), parenthood and the difficulties of being
separated from his family when he's shooting on location.
"If it's less than a week, it's okay," says Simmons. "The first day
is a huge relief; you get to sleep. And the second day is fine. But
by the third day it starts to get old, and if it goes on much longer
than that I'm, like, crying. I can't do it. I just can't. I've got
go home." And so he does.
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