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Harold Perrineau Jr.

Played Paraplegic Prisoner In Oz

Perrineau's television career also expanded. His breakthrough role came in 1997 when he was cast as August Hill, a wheelchair-bound prisoner whose monologue introduced each episode of the gritty dramatic series Oz. The series, set in the fictional Oswald State Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison, presented a world in which everyone is "on edge," according to Boston Globe writer Jim Sullivan. "It's a world of competing cliques and warring ethnic factions, tribe against tribe. Black thugs, black Muslims, neo-Nazis, the Italians, the Latinos, a couple of Irish, a couple of old-guy lifers."

Oz attracted significant critical attention for its uncompromising approach to the subject of incarceration. Caryn James in the New York Times described the series as "intelligent, ambitious and determined to shock," but also "gruesome and claustrophobic." Though the series had many stars, Perrineau earned much recognition for the role of Augustus Hill. He parodied the character on a Saturday Night Live episode in 1999, and the character even provided the basis for a spin-off book. In 2003 HBO published a volume purporting to be the character's "secret journal" of prison life: Oz: Behind These Walls: The Journal of Augustus Hill. Containing plot synopses and other information about the series, the book is held together by Hill's thoughts and observations about freedom, violence, responsibility, and other issues.

Perrineau's next major television project, after Oz completed its run in 2003, was a starring role in the ABC series Lost. Hailed as "one of the best new series" of the fall 2004 season by Boston Globe critic Matthew Gilbert, Lost followed the experiences of the 48 survivors of a plane crash on a remote tropical island. Perrineau played Michael, a father who had just obtained custody of his estranged son; other characters included a doctor, a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard, a Korean couple who speak no English, and an aging rock star. "We needed a huge cast," explained a series executive to Thelma Adams in the New York Times. "It's like a petri dish. You need as many protozoa as you can to begin with." The premise, as another executive commented, allowed for an intelligent treatment of a several important themes. "Certainly, race is an issue of the show," he noted, "as well as issues of society, leadership, trust, responsibility and personal destiny. You're on an island—how do you live, how do you survive?"

As Perrineau noted to Zap2It writer Daniel Fienberg, playing Michael has again made him a familiar face to audiences—though they may not remember his name. "I'm one of those guys that whenever I'm doing a project, people will notice me then," he said. "People will walk up to me and go 'Oh my God, you're the guy from Oz or 'Oh my God, The Matrix' or something like that, so now it's just 'Oh, Lost.' It stays the same, which is fortunate for me, because I guess I'm working." Explaining that he enjoys choosing unusual roles, Perrineau explained that "it's really the thing I set out to do" but that such choices can also create difficulties because he resists any type-casting. "Clearly I can do many things, but because I do so many things, I always have to prove I can do the next thing as well."

Perrineau, who has one daughter, is married to actress and model Brittany Robinson. Among his non-acting interests is the sport of motorcycle racing.

At a Glance...

Born Harold Williams on August 7, 1968 in Brooklyn, New York; married Brittany Robinson; children: Aurora Robinson.

Career: Alvin Ailey Company, New York, NY, dancer, early 1980s; actor in stage, film, and television productions, 1988–.

Awards: Independent Spirit Award, for Best Supporting Actor, 1995.

Addresses: Agent—Larry Taube, Gersh Agency, 232 North Canon Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Jan Peck Biography - Personal to David Randall (1972–) Biography - PersonalHarold Perrineau Jr. Biography - Began As A Dancer, Played Paraplegic Prisoner In Oz - Selected works