My Favorite Things: Village Icon Tom Fontana!
“Tom Fontana does not own or use a computer. He writes his scripts in longhand on yellow legal pads. Emails for Tom are sent to his office where a hard copy is prepared for him.”
This is a notice from Tom’s webmaster at tomfontana.com and I lead with this information because, in this day and age, I just find it so refreshing! Tom is a writer’s writer and that he does not own or use a computer is fascinating.
Tom is also a true Villager. And like many true Villagers, he came here because he knew it was where he needed to be. Fontana was born in Buffalo, New York, and is the fourth of five children in an Italian-American family; he is also a cousin of actress Patti Lupone. From a very early age, Fontana wrote plays and produced them with the neighborhood kids. After college he worked at the Studio Arena Theater in Buffalo in various capacities. He moved to New York City in 1973 to pursue a career as a playwright.
Tom became a writer, of course, but not primarily the playwright he had set out to become. Instead, while working at the Williamstown Theater Festival in the early 1980s, he fortuitously met Bruce Paltrow (father of Gwyneth and husband of villager Blythe Danner) who was in the midst of launching St. Elsewhere for NBC. He was offered the opportunity to write for the show and his career as a writer and producer for television took off from there.
He is the mastermind behind NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO’s Oz. Fontana wrote the HBO film Strip Search, directed by Sidney Lumet, as well as contributing two pieces to the September 11 special, America: A Tribute to Heroes. He was the executive producer of American Tragedy for CBS, Shot in the Heart for HBO Films, the independent film Jean and the documentary The Press Secretary for PBS. Fontana also created Borgia, Copper, and The Philanthropist, among many others. He has received 19 Emmy nominations throughout his career, winning for best writing in a drama series in both 1984 and 1986 for St. Elsewhere. He most recently received an Emmy nomination for his work on the HBO film Wizard of Lies starring Robert De Niro and is also an executive producer on Paterno starring Al Pacino, which is nominated for an Emmy for best TV movie. And on August 1st, 2018, Variety announced that Tom will be the Executive Producer and Showrunner for the new Showtime drama, City on a Hill.
Tom also owns one of the most interesting buildings in the Village, which serves as both his production company’s offices and his residence. This striking and unusual building on West 13th Street was originally designed as a library in 1887 by renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt. The library’s construction was funded by bibliophile George W. Vanderbilt, who gifted it to the Free Circulating Library, predecessor of the New York Public Library.
The front façade stands out as unique even within the architecturally eclectic Village. Modeled after a 17th century Dutch guild hall, the design includes molded brick trefoil arches above the window and door openings, and a tiled roof fronted by a Flemish gable. In 1969, the interior was significantly remodeled according to the design of modernist architect Paul Rudolph. Evidence of that design can still be seen in the recessed first floor and entry, which stand behind the original three bay ground floor facade with iron gates at the bays.
Tom contributed a piece about his affinity for the Village for GVSHP’s 2014 publication Greenwich Village Stories. In this writer’s eyes, it sums up so much about why so many people, artists and all, are inexorably drawn to this place:
“The Circle Repertory Company was an outstanding incubator for many of America’s best emerging playwrights. For a long time, the group was located in an old garage on Seventh Avenue.As a novice writer, I eagerly attended each production. But one night, the scene on the street was more compelling than the evening’s performance.
Lillian Hellman was there, in all her cigarette-smoking, cinderblock, imperial radical glory. She, of The Little Foxes and The Children’s Hour. She who would not cut her conscience to fit the year’s fashions. I had just read Pentimento and I was in awe, afraid to approach her, yet wanting somehow to be acknowledged by the same eyes that had beheld Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy Parker. I thought of clever things to say, I thought of lighting her next cigarette, I thought of jostling her septuagenarian body. In the end, I did nothing but stare.
For me, Lillian Hellman represented all that is wonderful, difficult, brilliant, irritating, and impossible about living in the Village. She was a talented writer, yes; political troublemaker, yes; but more important, she was a survivor. And though she is long dead, Lillian Hellman still walks the streets of Greenwich Village, as do so many of the talented, tortured, complex artists who have lived, labored, and played here.”
While you probably won’t be reading this blog on a computer, Tom, we at GVSHP wish you a very Happy Birthday! We are big fans of yours and thank you enormously for cherishing and saving one of the Village’s most iconic buildings! And we hope someone in the office will print a hard copy of this to give to you!