By David Keeps. Photographed by Francois Dischinger
June 2000 Issue of OUT magazine
The Seducer of OZ
Ever since he worked at a gay gym as a young actor, 39-year-old Chris Meloni has had an electric appeal to queer men. But when Chris Keller, his equal-opportunity seducer on the TV prison drama OZ, began an affair with another man two seasons ago, Meloniís Q factor skyrocketed. While preparing a new season of OZ episodes, which start airing next month on HBO, the actor took the time to talk about his gay fans and gay friends-and how theyíve contributed to his roasting-hot career.
The cafeteria is a sea of muscles and tattoos. At one table sits a group of chiseled African-American wearing Muslim prayer caps. Nearby, but not too close, a skinny Puerto Rican sissyboy hovers around the Italian bodybuilders, sneered at by a group of beefy guys with shaved heads and goatees. A stud in a denim shirt with the designer logo "98C931" above the chest pocket has a Tom of Finland tat on his left arm and a winged phallus inked on the right. And judging by his profile, the young man in the '60's-print head scarf across the room is a real head turner, but as he swivels in his chair he reveals another side of himself: "I'm a drag queen gone bad," he says, pointing to the synthetic battery acid burns on his pretty face. Friends of Dorothy, you're not in Kansas anymore."
Welcome to OZ, the high-security prison of HBO's other crime and punishment drama. Three years ago, before the world started singing the praises of The Sopranos, the brutal, multiracial soap opera set inside the fictional Oswald State Penitentiary was quietly pushing the envelope with graphic violence, sewer-level language, and full-frontal male nudity.
According to the showís creator, Homicide and St. Elsewhere veteran Tom Fontana, Oz, which begins a new season of eight episodes next month, is a metaphor for all of lifeís struggles. "Thereís a wide diversity in our audience-itís gay, itís black, itís middle-aged, middle-class couples. I donít write for any group specifically. I like to think that I write Muslims as accurately as gay characters," says Fontana, who has cast rappers like Naughty By Natureís Treach, as well as drag icon Charles Busch as the homicidal Nat Ginsburg. "But maybe, he adds with a chuckle, "the diversity in the audience comes from all those dicks swinging in the wind."
While the nudity is groundbreaking, and the treatment of homosexuals is decidedly, sometimes harshly, non-PC (as it is of other groups represented in the program), it's the emotional terrain that ultimately distinguishes Oz for its gay audience. "It's a show about survival, how men shut down their ability to love and to feel," Fontana observes. The action revolves around the inmates of an experimental unit called Emerald City, where members of the Aryan Army and Muslim Nation face off, where mafiosi and cholos form unlikely alliances, where a man is just as likely to give his rapist an unasked-for circumcision as he is to fall in love with his cellmate who breaks his arms and legs.
And it is in this hateful place that one of these most intense and addictive homoerotic love-hate romances ever televised-complete with French kisses-has bloomed between a meek, married lawyer named Tobias Beecher and a conniving, murderous thief named Chris Keller. For Christopher Meloni, the never-so-much-as-kissed-a-man-before heterosexual actor who brings an arsenal of sexual charm and physical menace to the role of Keller, the motivation is pure and simple: "He uses his penis as a weapon. Female, male, itís relevant. Itís just a way of getting what he wants."
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