This story was originally published August 20th, 2015.
It’s easy to imagine that, 15 years from now, television audiences will take for granted the existence of groundbreaking series like Orange Is the New Black and Transparent. But it’s impossible to look at the currently lush television landscape without acknowledging the debt that most popular shows owe to HBO at the turn of the new millennium.
While network television continued raking in the advertising dollars with surefire bets and lowest-common denominators, the premium cable channel was kickstarting its own quiet revolution, finding success in a variety of genres from pop-cultural phenomenons (Sex and the City) to the ground-zero of modern prestige dramas (The Sopranos). The “It’s Not TV” cable network realized a simple, but often overlooked, programming principle: unique voices make for unique television. And so they set their sights on American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball, pitching him on the very basic idea of creating a “series set in a family-run funeral home.”
What the Oscar-winner came back with was Six Feet Under, a deeply nuanced meditation on life, death, and the ties that bind (and strangle) within the Fisher & Sons funeral home that could be painfully funny, gut-wrenchingly depressing (each episode began with a death), and surprisingly uplifting. And the who’s-who ensemble cast could not have been stronger: Peter Krause, Rachel Griffiths, Lauren Ambrose, Frances Conroy, Richard Jenkins, Freddy Rodríguez, and Michael C. Hall.
During its first season alone, the series earned a total of 23 Emmy nominations in 2002, including nine acting nods. It also won that year’s Golden Globe for Best Drama Series, plus a Peabody Award for “its unsettling yet powerfully humane explorations of life and death.” Far from being just a critical darling, audiences were coming along for the ride, too — its fanbase grew larger with each season.
In 2004, while averaging about 6.2 million viewers per week (beating out the most watched seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Wire), HBO made the announcement that Ball was ready to bury his creation, just as he had so many of its characters. Six Feet Under‘s fifth season would be its last.
While fans of the show immediately began mourning its imminent passing, there was one thing they weren’t counting on: its finale, one of the most finely executed hours of television and a fitting send-off for a series that found beauty in life’s most tragic moments. On the 10th anniversary of Six Feet Under‘s much-praised finale, we caught up with the show’s creator and cast for a long-overdue eulogy.
Life Before Death
Alan Ball (Creator/Showrunner): In the fall of 1999 I was working on this television series that I created for ABC called Oh, Grow Up, which, in retrospect, I’m not sure is a show that I myself would have ever watched. But American Beauty [which I wrote the script for] had premiered in September of that year as well. So I got call from [then-president of HBO Entertainment] Carolyn Strauss’ office asking if I would meet her for lunch. That was right around the time I had just discovered The Sopranos, and I was amazed that, like, “Oh, TV can be this?”
I met with her, and she told me that she had been thinking about a TV series set in a family-run funeral home, and something in my head just clicked. But I was doing this other show, and I’m not a person who could do two shows at once, so I said, “Well, good luck with that. I really like that idea, but I can’t because I’m doing this sitcom.” And not too long after that, ABC very graciously cancelled my other commitment.
So I went home to Atlanta for Christmas break, because my mom was still alive back then, and I just wrote the pilot. I had two years left on my TV deal, and people were already calling me and saying, “Oh, we have this washed-up comedian who’s going to do his own show, and you’re the perfect person to write it for him” or “I have this great idea about this guy who dies who’s reincarnated as a dog, and he gets adopted by his ex-wife…” I thought: I can’t go back into that sitcom world. I gave it a shot, but it’s not where I want to be. So I just wrote the pilot on spec and had my agent send it over to HBO. “You know that show we talked about? Well, here’s a version of it that I just wrote.”
After they read it, they invited me in, and I went in and met with Carolyn and with Chris Albrecht, who was running HBO at the time, and they said, “We really like this, but we have a main note for the whole thing: It feels kind of safe. Could you make it more fucked up?”
And I told them, “Well, yeah… I would be very happy to fuck it up for you. I mean, I don’t want to just fuck it up arbitrarily, but if we can make the characters messier and weirder, yeah, absolutely.”
Peter Krause (“Nate Fisher”): When I read the pilot script, I didn’t put it down. I read it in one sitting without interruption, and when I turned that last page, I knew this is going to be HBO’s next big series.
Ball: In my first draft, I also had Nathaniel’s will read, and the business was left to the two sons, which they said: “That just feels like a pilot. That feels network-y. That feels like setup, saying, ‘Okay, here’s what the show’s going to be.’ So why don’t you save that? Why don’t you find something more ambiguous as a way to end this,” which was a great note.
Michael C. Hall (“David Fisher): I was excited to see the script because HBO was emerging as the place to be as far as exciting new television and I was a fan of American Beauty, and understood that Alan had written a pilot script for a new show. Within a few pages, I recognized that it was as good as anything I had ever read as far as original work goes — not just for TV, but for any medium at that point.
Richard Jenkins (“Nathaniel Fisher”): I’d never read anything like it. I loved the fact that it was about a family of funeral directors. As soon as I read that I went, “Oh, wow! That’s great.” The idea has always fascinated me and the way he wrote it…the whole thing was so human. Beyond being just clever, everything was fleshed out — even in the pilot. You wanted to know what these people were going to do.
Frances Conroy (“Ruth Fisher”): I’ve been going through all the scripts, because I’ve literally saved them all these years. And I finally thought: You have got to get rid of these. So I’ve been going through them, taking out Ruth’s scenes [so as] to have her journey on paper… but all of these scripts are extraordinary. What each character goes through in each episode is very rich. And the pilot was like that. Ruth was a very complex character. Because most shows usually just put the mother in the background or make her smile a lot, you don’t find out that much about her. But you find out a lot about Ruth. And I thought that was compelling.
Ball: Once the deal was ironed out, they said, “Okay, we’re going to produce this pilot. Who do you want to direct it?” And I said that I would. And they went, “Oh… okay.” Only later did my agent tell me they were like, “Oh, Jesus!” But for me, I felt much more confident taking on an hour pilot for my first directing gig that I would have a movie. So we shot it, we edited it for a couple of weeks, and I gave it to them on a Friday afternoon. On Monday morning, they called and said, “We’re going to series.”
I didn’t know where the show was going to go [past the pilot]. Basically, when I write a pilot, I just try to open as many doors as possible. And then watching the actor in the role and working with the other writers — because a lot of people think that I wrote every word of Six Feet Under, and that’s very not true. I worked with some really, really gifted and smart writers who brought a lot of their own experience and stuff to the table. I feel like other people are going to have ideas, and some of them are going to be better than mine, and for me, it’s always about the show. It’s like, well, I didn’t think of that, but that’s such a great idea. That’s where we’re going to go, because, otherwise…if you have to be in charge of everything, go write a book.
Building the Imperfect Family
Ball: I don’t really write characters with specific actors in mind. Once I started considering casting after the script was finished, I was thinking about Chris Meloni and Justin Theroux as being the two brothers, because I thought they looked like siblings and they were both two actors who I really admired. But Chris got the SVU thing before we went into production.
And I did have Freddy Rodríguez in mind because he’d done a couple of guest spots on Oh, Grow Up and there was something about him and his intensity that I just thought was great. But I didn’t offer roles to anybody. Everybody came in to read. We did some casting out here in L.A.; Rachel was in Australia, but came to L.A. for it. Then I went to New York, which is where Michael Hall, Mathew St. Patrick [who played Keith, David’s boyfriend], Frannie Conroy, and Richard Jenkins were.
Freddy Rodríguez (“Federico ‘Rico’ Diaz”): I just remember getting an invitation to a party at Alan’s house and we chatted a bit. And about a week later a got the script for Six Feet Under in the mail, and I was like, ‘That’s interesting. I was just at a party at his house and he didn’t mention it.” So I met with him and [executive producer] Alan Poul and the HBO folks to audition. And I got it.
During the first week of shooting, he pulled me to the side and said, “You know, I wrote this with you in mind.” I was so floored when he said that. He had just won an Oscar, and now’s he’s trusting me so much with this character. So I felt a deep, deep sense of responsibility to deliver. It paid off: I was nominated for an Emmy, and the rest is history. But I always kept that sense of 110% work ethic about me because of what Alan did.
Krause: Every now and then, the perfect actor comes along to play a par, and Michael C. Hall for David was perfect.
Ball: We had a lot of prospective Davids. I was not aware of Michael Hall. I didn’t really know him. It turned out later that I had seen him in a production of Skylight at the Mark Taper Forum, but I didn’t remember it — and I didn’t remember it was him. He’s an example of somebody who just comes in and nails the audition: “Alright, well, that’s the guy.” He knew exactly how to play this character.
Hall: There was definitely an immediate sense of how David was, how he breathed and held himself. There was something about his repression that I responded to and was able to embody. It might’ve had something to do with the fact that I was playing the Emcee in Cabaret at the time. I had slung open many doors to play that. So, David came along and I just slammed them all shut and there he was.
Ball: Nate and Brenda were both tough to cast. We brought other people into the network prior to Peter and Rachel [Griffiths]. Peter originally came in to read for David, and he was very good, but there were other frontrunners for both of those roles that either the network didn’t feel were right, or they just choked on the day that they had to go to the network. So those two were the toughest.
Rachel was coming over to test for network, and we just decided to have Peter read with her and see how it worked. I had known Peter from Cybill [a sitcom starring Cybill Shepherd], because I wrote on [the show] prior to creating Oh, Grow Up, and I liked him. I thought he was funny, and I thought he was a good actor. And when he read for Nate with Brenda, I totally saw it.
“We used to say that Nate was Marilyn Munster and that everybody else in the family was much more overtly strange. Nate seemed normal. But as the series went on, that was very clearly not the case.”
Krause: Alan talked about how he was having a difficult time finding Nate, so I went in and read in front of HBO. I was quite pleased to play the part. It felt less defined to me than David; David was a very clear character, and Nate was a little blurrier on the page. You didn’t exactly know where he was coming from, but the one that was clear to me was Nate Fisher wanted to be true to himself.
Ball: At the beginning of the series, we used to say that Nate was Marilyn Munster and that everybody else in the family was much more overtly strange. Nate seemed normal. But as the series went on, that was very clearly not the case.
Krause: My mantra for Nate as I played him was that Shakespearean line from Hamlet: “To thine own self be true,” and the addendum to that is “and let the chips fall where they may.” Nate wasn’t always able to be true to himself. You see it in the pilot when Ruth is looking out the window and asks him to stay, and he says, “Okay, maybe for a little while” or something like that. But you can tell in that moment, and it’s how Alan directed it, that Nate knows it’s not just going to be for a few days. That in the wake of his father’s death, his mother’s request, subtly, is “I want you to move here and stay with us.” You see it all in this one great single shot: Her in the foreground, Nate in the background. It’s one of my favorite moments of the whole run of the show.
Ball: Well, first, a big majority of the women who came in to read for Ruth had had work done, and they looked like it. And didn’t believe this character would have had work done. I don’t think this woman who lives upstairs over a funeral home is trying to look younger than she is.
Conroy: I was doing a play at the time on Broadway and I found out about the audition. I actually said to my agent, “I’m too young for this.” And he said, “Well go in for it.” “Okay, I will. But I’m too young for this.” So I met Alan and read two scenes…I remember laughing. He loves actors. And the audition process is such a delicate process, unless you’re on the other side of things. But Alan was so lovely. And then I left and then I found out pretty soon after that they had wanted me to come back.
I had worn these funny pink shoes I had found to the first audition — very round-toed shoes — and I had little anklets on. And I didn’t wear them to the callback because I thought, I can’t rely on a pair of shoes. And Alan asked me, “Oh, where are those wonderful shoes?” I told him that I had thought about that but if I had had to wear the shoes, then I was lost. And he laughed.
Ball: TV and the culture that we live in sort of teach us that women of a certain age are no longer sexually viable. And I wanted her to be sexually viable without having to have plastic surgery or dress in stupid clothing. When she came in and read, I gave her one adjustment, and she took it and ran with it. I just thought, “Okay, well that’s it. There’s nobody else. I don’t even need to see anybody else.”
Krause: Boy, would Frances Conroy be in character. It was irresistible. You were going to go along with her wherever she was going to take you.
Rodríguez: There was one season where I was having some relationship problems and got to do a lot of stuff with Franny, and she’s such a dynamo. When you act opposite her you’ve just got to strap your seatbelt on and go along for the ride.
“So I went out into the lobby with Lauren and told her ‘You just have to play up the meth more.’ She’s like, ‘I don’t know what that’s like. I’ve never done crystal meth!’”
Ball: Lauren [Ambrose] was always my favorite [for Claire]. I remember when we took Claire to the network, you go in with favorites, but you bring more than one, because if you go in with just one, it’s very easy for them to say, “I don’t know, I need to see some more.” The smoking-crystal-meth scene was part of the audition for Claire, and they felt like it wasn’t realistic. So I went out into the lobby with Lauren and told her “You just have to play up the meth more,” and she’s like, “I don’t know what that’s like. I’ve never done crystal meth!” I said: just be really nervous and antsy. And then she came back in, and she was so great. I remember early in the first season, there was a shot of her just walking across the parking lot at her high school, and I went: This girl is a star, because I cannot take my eyes off of her, and all she’s doing is walking across a parking lot.
Ball: My own father was kind of remote, but really fascinating and interesting. So that’s where I started with writing Nathaniel in the pilot. I don’t think when I wrote the pilot I ever expected him to be as big a part of the show as he was. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this guy will be around all the time.” But Richard Jenkins was so effective and so good that I though, yeah, we need to see more of him.
Jenkins: Originally, I was hired for the pilot only. Then Alan said to me, “You know, you don’t stop thinking about your father after he dies. So would you come back and do other episodes?” I would come and go — maybe I’d show up the first one or two episodes of the season, and then maybe one in the middle and one at the end, or something.
Krause: We would all look forward to working with Richard Jenkins. The energy level and excitement level would jump when he’d show up on set or if we knew he was going to be in an episode. He was well loved, and I think he elevated everybody’s work. He and Frances both. But because he wasn’t there day in and day out, we’d miss him. And we would greatly look forward to him showing up.
Conroy: I loved it when Richard came! He is so funny and so smart. I couldn’t breathe, I’d be laughing so hard when he was around. So he’d bring his energy.
Jenkins: I really never knew who Nathaniel was. I kind of struggled with that in the beginning, but then I just went with the flow, which is I was whoever thought about me. It was their image of me… Alan never thought of Nathaniel as much as he thought of the person who was thinking about Nathaniel. Whether it was David or Nate or Claire, anybody who I knew who was thinking about me, I was different, depending on whom I was talking to. It was all their impression of me.
Hall: Like David, and like many people, I find myself maybe compulsively addicted to a sense of conflict and almost depend on it to define myself… I would like to think that spending as much time as I did with the character I transcended that to some degree, but I could definitely relate to — and can still relate to — David’s addiction to the idea that he’s his own worst enemy. And I could certainly relate to the internalized father energy in as much as I lost my father when I was young.
Ball: I never thought of him as a ghost… I thought he was always the voice of the father in his children’s head.
Finding the Fun in “Dysfunctional”
Ball: I remember it as being a very functional set. Everybody was respected. Everybody felt like the job they were doing was important. That’s always been something of importance to me because my first jobs when I came to Hollywood…my first jobs in television were really toxic, dysfunctional sets, and I think I made a vow to myself, if I’m ever the guy who is in charge, we’re not going to have this because it’s not worth it. We’re so lucky. I feel like we are so lucky to get to do what we do that it’s almost like there’s a moral imperative to not be an asshole and to create a situation where people can enjoy themselves and feel good about the work they’re doing.
Hall: We all felt a real sense of ownership and that only increased the more we inhabited the characters. Initially, you ask yourself all kinds of questions when you’re just encountering something, but there comes a time where the job changes and the task is really to get out of its way and let it move through you. The questions have been asked and answered… You didn’t have to manufacture memories. You have real memories. The ghosts of fights you’ve had or pivotal moments in the character’s life… they were there, floating through the space. You didn’t have to make it up.
Krause: One of the things I enjoyed the most was when Alan would direct, because he would free us up. In an episode where Nate inadvertently takes ecstasy, there’s a scene where Nate is high and he’s talking about flow, and I had improvised a little bit of something. Alan was standing at the monitors and said, “I want you to take that further.” I don’t know if you remember this shot, but my hands are going in and out towards the camera lens… And that was one of those times where Alan saw something and he wanted to expand on it in the moment. That would happen a lot with him, which made it really fun and vibrant. You weren’t painting by the numbers. You were almost performing jazz or something. Something was happening in that moment, and people started riffing, and more than anyone, he allowed that and encouraged it.
Rodríguez: It was like lighting in a bottle. It was a very unique circumstance. I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. We were in a really unique position where we were one of the pioneers of everything you see on cable today. So there’s an excitement where we were charting unknown territory. So there really were no rules.
We approached it like we were making a film every week; we shot it like a film, we had film directors; our creator won an Oscar for a film. So there was nothing really about it that was like television. And we were at HBO, so we could cuss and show nudity. [Laughs] There was nothing that made it like television except that we were playing the same characters week after week and were coming back year after year. That was the only thing. That business model didn’t exist back then… So going into it, it was a really new situation where we were charting unknown territory. It was like all the stars aligned.
Ball: You know, I remember when DreamWorks was getting ready to release American Beauty, I just kept hearing them say, “How are we going to market this? It’s so dark.” And I was like, is it? It’s not nearly as dark as A Nightmare on Elm Street or some teenage slasher movie. And HBO was saying exactly the same things about Six Feet Under. They’re like, “Oh, we don’t know how we’re going to sell this. It’s so dark,” and I was like, is it really darker than The Sopranos? I don’t think so. And you don’t really have a problem selling that.
Krause: I knew it was going to be a success. I didn’t know it was going to be as deeply loved by the public as it was. Critically, I thought, “Okay, this is going to hit,” but people really, really loved that show. And were devastated when it was over.
Hall: I really recognized from the moment I saw the script that it had the potential, if the script were properly executed, to be something that was really special and really resonant. And the fact that people responded to it was not entirely surprising… I mean, I was glad that we had managed to collectively step up and embody the script in a way that we hoped we could, but going in I think we all knew that we were on to something special.
Jenkins: I was surprised. You’re always surprised. When we were making the pilot I think we all thought it was really special, but you don’t know how people will respond to it. I’ve been in a lot of things that you say, “I think this really is great,” and then nobody likes it. William Goldman has that line about how, in Hollywood, nobody knows anything. If you did, then everything would be a big hit. I was pleased that it struck a nerve and that people related to it, but I had no idea if it would or not.
Conroy: You never know what’s going to happen with a show, but it’s great that people were going along with it and wanting to see the next one. People were very involved in this family’s life and wanting to know what happens next. Meanwhile, you’re working every week and so involved in the doing of it that you’re in a subjective world. And then when the season ends you kind of want to get away from it for a few months, but then you’re objective.
People would come up to me.. and say that they would watch it with family and friends. So it was tribal watching, and I found that fascinating. People didn’t want to watch it alone. They wanted to have dinner with people that they care about and just talk about it afterwards.
The Beginning of the End
Ball: I called HBO around 2004, and I said “I’m done. I can’t do another season after this upcoming one,” and they said, “Well, then we’ll just end the show.” Oddly enough, I did exactly the same thing on True Blood, but they kept it running for two more seasons. I think because it was generating a lot more money for them than Six Feet Under did.
I think when you’ve done 60 episodes and you’ve told 60 hours worth of story…every show has a shelf life, and a lot of them go on way past their shelf life. And that decision, I believe, is always financial. It just felt like, “I don’t know what else we can do with these characters. And I’d like to work on something new. I’d like to have something that has a different tone.” I don’t want to just repeat myself — because what do you learn if you do that? You just get really lazy.
Conroy: Alan called all of us and then the next day it was actually it was on the crawl on CNN. Alan’s so intuitive that he just knew. He felt that he would complete the arc at the end of the fifth season.
Krause: I felt like there was still gas in the tank. I think we could’ve told two more seasons worth of stories without anything getting stale, but it was a brilliant move on his part… I think that the meditation on death and that everything has to come to an end, to do it like that and really leave the audience wanting more, made Six Feet Under into not just a television series but, in its entirety, a work of art.
Hall: There was some sadness, but there was also a sense of invigoration — or reinvigoration — moving into that last season. It was nice knowing from the beginning that this would be it. It wasn’t something we found out halfway through or before the final episode, or even after the fact, which happens in some cases. We knew going in that we were in the final act of it all. So I think it vitalized the experience. I was sad that it was ending. Professionally, it was certainly the fanciest job I’d ever had. But it felt right and it felt… I mean, we could’ve gone on, but I certainly trusted in Alan as far as his instinct to end it when he did and how he did.
Jenkins: Alan said, “I don’t know where to go, so I’m going to stop.” I was really thrilled. I was hoping that when the time came where he said, “I don’t have any more to offer this,” that he would stop… I think in the long run it served the series. I think one of the reasons that you’re still talking about it is that it stopped after five years.
Rodríguez: It was sad. We really enjoyed working on the show. But we understood why. And Alan, from the first to the last season, [he] saw it as a book. There was a beginning, middle, and end— and he just felt like it had reached its end. We all felt like the show was so special that we didn’t want to sort of “milk the cow.” We didn’t want to force the story as opposed to letting it end organically, like a book would end organically.
Kill Them All
Ball: When I convened with the writers for that last season, because we knew it was the end, we had to know where we were going. And somebody in the room said, “We should just kill everybody.” And I was like, yeah, that’s funny, whatever — and I wish I could remember who it was, because it wasn’t me. But they said, “No, no, no. We should be with each character at the moment of their death,” and when I heard that, I was like, “Well, of course. I mean, what else can you do? That’s the perfect organic ending for this show.”
Conroy: When I got the final script, I just started crying. It was a very rarefied piece of writing that Alan did. It was just so extraordinary and delicate.
Jenkins: Can you imagine not doing that? If somebody had not figured that out, or that thought had not occurred to somebody? It is the perfect way to end it.
Hall: We were all working very hard, and the script for the next episode comes while you’re shooting the previous one — it was the same with the finale script. But when I read it I thought — as I think the audience did when they saw it — “Of course.” I’d never seen something so simultaneously surprising and satisfyingly obvious as the way that show ended. And once that first card comes up you’re just there as the waves continue to crash over you.
Rodríguez: I had never seen anything like that. I had never read anything like that. I had never been a part of anything that ended that way. And I felt that it was apropos to what the show meant to me. And what the show did for television… It didn’t surprise us that Alan came up with something like that, because he’s Alan. But then to see it come out and see people’s reactions to it — even 10 years later — is really gratifying.
Ball: Well, I’ve been keeping pretty busy. So I’m not surprised it’s been years, but looking back, it was a tremendous learning experience for me. I never went to film school, but I learned so much on the set of that show, and in the post-production of that show, and directing episodes like I did. I also have a tremendous fondness for it because I really love the people I worked with. I loved the characters. I love the story. You never go, okay, I nailed it 100 percent, but I feel like we got a lot right.
And the fact that people responded to it in such a visceral and emotional way was gratifying after hearing HBO saying, oh, it’s so dark. How are we going to market this? Because it’s like, well, I’m not such a freak, you know? I don’t have any negative memories. I mean, it wasn’t always easy, and certainly, there were moments where people rubbed each other the wrong way. But those were very minimal, and I think it was something of which I’m extremely proud of my contribution to it.
Krause: As an actor, maybe I’m not the best at putting my character aside. I think of the Laurence Olivier’s remark to Dustin Hoffman when they were doing Marathon Man: Dustin was talking about how exhausted he was because he was doing all these things to stay in character and deeply imagine the circumstances, and Olivier’s advice was: Why don’t you try acting? People have different ideas about what that takes and what it is.
But for me, Nate Fisher’s psyche just walked right beside me when I was moving through my life, and there were some tough things going on for me at the time, too and compromises I was having to make. I had a child and was with a person that… we couldn’t have a healthy relationship. So, for me, even though the work was difficult, I look back, and it was so challenging but yet rewarding….
And I think, because of that — that psychological depth and the fact that we go inside someone’s thoughts, someone’s feelings, someone’s dreams — that world was alive. It was as real as the real world sometimes. I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m insane… I felt like I lived in that house. I felt like that green hearse was ours. I felt like I ran around that kitchen when I was a little kid. It ran that deep.
Hall: With Six Feet Under when I remember it and try to think of a highlight or a fondest memory, there are so many it’s hard to single anything out. But I remember it as if it all really happened. That’s how rich the experience was. I remember Claire realizing I was wearing her T-shirt before I went out and did ecstasy. I remember watching Ruth crumbling in front of her dead husband and my father’s grave. I remember the scene with Nate in our father’s secret room. It just goes on and on. I remember it like a life I lived.