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Fall into ''Oz''

Check out our guide to HBO’s powerful prison drama starring J.K. Simmons, Dean Winters, and more

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Some people like to while away those lazy summer days surfing the waves and casting fishing lines at the beach. We here at EW prefer to stay indoors — cooped up inside a hot, sweaty, windowless maximum-security prison where the only things getting tanned are the hides of rapists, murderers, and — worst of all — lawyers. Dead-bolt the door, kids, because on July 14 at 10 p.m., HBO unleashes the third season of Homicide: Life on the Street vet Tom Fontana’s prison drama Oz. Herewith, a thumbnail guide to TV’s Most Hardened Convicts.

Wizards of Oz

Prisoner: Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons)
Crime: Attacked a drug dealer with a tire iron. ”And since he’s been in, other sentences have been tacked on,” says Simmons. ”Conspiracy to commit murder, assault — boys will be boys.”
Tell-tale trait: Hmmm, how do we put this gently? He’s a Nazi! ”In Vern’s twisted mind, the love of his family is what drives him,” says Simmons. ”Both his nuclear and his white-race family.”
Prior record: Simmons also has a recurring role on NBC’s Law & Order as forensic shrink Emil Skoda. ”I try not to complain to my underemployed friends about my two TV shows,” he says.
Bad-ass factor: 5 (on a scale of 1 to 5) What makes him such a badass? ”My shapely buttocks,” he says. Butt seriously, folks, ”Vern’s got juice in Oz,” says Simmons. ”He’s a charismatic and powerful leader.”

Prisoner: Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen)
Crime: Killed a little girl while driving drunk.
Tell-tale trait: ”I’m the tart of Oz,” says Tergesen. ”Dudes inside dig me because I seldom wear underwear, and when I do, it’s something unusual.”
Prior record: Tergesen played the roadie in both Wayne’s World movies, the big brother on USA’s Weird Science series, and…wasn’t that him guesting on Touched by an Angel last season? ”I’m in litigation about that,” he jokes. ”They computer-generated me. I’m going to sue God for everything He’s worth.”
Bad-ass factor: 3 ”They underestimate me time after time,” says Tergesen of his seemingly harmless lawyer, who has found disgustingly creative ways to strike back at his enemies (hint: Jaws crossed with Monica Lewinsky).

Prisoner: Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau)
Crime: Killed a cop who was about to bust him for drugs — and became a paraplegic in the process.
Tell-tale trait: ”He’s neutral,” says Perrineau of Hill, who serves as the series’ narrator. ”It’s hard for him to fit in anywhere, because he’s in the wheelchair, so he’s not really viable as a force.”
Prior record: Perrineau packed heat as Mercutio opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. ”If you’re a 12-year-old girl who likes Leo, you know me from Romeo,” Perrineau explains. ”If you’re a hardened dude with no teeth, you know me from Oz.”
Bad-ass factor: 1 ”I’m staying pretty low on the totem pole,” he says. ”Unless I figure out a way to kick people’s ass and then roll away really fast.”

Prisoner: Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker)
Crime: Arson. ”He burned down a building to make a political point,” says Walker of his mesmerizing Muslim guru.
Tell-tale trait: ”His whole thing is about battling injustice,” says Walker. ”I see him as a very bright light in a very dark tunnel.”
Prior record: ”Most of my stuff has been British,” says the native Englishman, who mastered an American accent for Oz. ”Unless you watch A&E, you won’t have seen me an awful lot.”
Bad-ass factor: 2 Aside from leading a riot, Kareem has remained relatively passive so far. But ”he could do a lot of damage,” says Walker. ”Because he has a lot of people who will do as he says.”