It's hard to imagine, but J.K. Simmons — aka Vern Schillinger, the black-hearted neo-Nazi of HBO's Oz — once dreamt of becoming the next Leonard Bernstein. "I actually started out as a composer and a classical singer," the actor tells TV Guide Online. "That segued into conducting orchestras and doing summer stock. To be totally honest, I was a musical Broadway-type guy up until a few years ago."

As the deranged Schillinger, Simmons — who once starred in a Guys and Dolls special for PBS — certainly demonstrates the acting equivalent of perfect pitch. Few can generate the kind of head-on hatred he stirs up with each chilling episode of the popular prison series. Fewer still would be able to handle the pressures of the role — both on screen and off.

"At first, my wife was really concerned that I was going to be attacked on the street for playing such a hateful character," says Simmons. "I actually had a couple of white supremacist guys stop me on the street once and say, 'Right on man — I dig what you're saying.' In those situations, I just try to move along as fast as I can. I'm not going to get into a debate with someone on the street about how my character's politics are different from my own.

"Fortunately," adds Simmons, "The general response has been really positive from people of all ages and races. Folks come up to me and say, 'Oh, I hate you!' And I say, 'Thank you. Thank you very much.'"

Luckily, Simmons isn't handcuffed to his Emerald City cellblock: In addition to appearing in The Gift, The Mexican, and next year's heavily hyped Spider-Man flick, he also does part-time work as Law &#038 Order's shrink Dr. Emil Skoda. "Between him and Vern," says Simmons, "I get to play both the psychiatrist and the psychotic."

What's been his most unusual role to date? "Not too many people know this," starts Simmons, "But I play the voice of the 'yellow M&#038M' on the TV commercials.

"However," he laughs, "I'm not sure the M&#038M people are all that thrilled about the connection between their yellow candy and the leader of the Aryan brotherhood."