Four years ago, actor Peter Krause lost his dad. And with that, a familiar on-camera acting experience became a real-life one. The former “Six Feet Under” star, who spent five seasons on a TV-set funeral home, found himself stepping inside an actual funeral parlor in his hometown of Roseville, Minnesota, to plan his late father's wake.
“I stood up and he [the funeral director] immediately launches into ‘Oh, it’s such an honor to meet you. You don’t understand.’ And I’m just standing there listening to him go on and on,” Krause told The Huffington Post. “I sort of cocked my head and looked at him. And he says, ‘Of course, we’re not here to talk ‘Six Feet Under.’ My mother was with me, as well. She was just standing there staring at the guy like, ‘Are you kidding me?’"
Despite the ill timing, it’s not surprising that the local funeral director wanted to talk to Krause about the HBO series that followed the Fishers, a family running a funeral home in California. The show, which debuted 15 years ago this month, became a critics’ darling, going on to win Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards during its time on the air from 2001 to 2005. Along with Krause, “Six Feet Under” co-starred a stellar cast, including Michael C. Hall, Lauren Ambrose, Frances Conroy, Freddy Rodríguez, Mathew St. Patrick, Rachel Griffiths and Jeremy Sisto.
Looking back 15 years later, Krause and Hall remember falling in love with the pilot script immediately. The family-owned funeral home premise hadn’t been tackled on TV like this before, and they hoped to ride on the success of other premium cable shows. Krause thought it had “cult hit” written all over it, while Hall felt like the TV landscape was ripe for this kind of series.
“Given HBO’s pedigree at the time with ‘The Sopranos’ and other shows and the emergence of pay cable as a viable artistic medium, I knew that people would be leaning forward and paying attention to it,” Hall told The Huffington Post. “I think everybody involved was blown away by the quality of the pilot script and felt confident with Alan [Ball] at the helm, so I think there was a collective sense that, if we were able to embody the characters in a way that honored our collective sense of enthusiasm, we would be onto something.”
Indeed, they were onto something. "Six Feet Under" is still considered by some critics to be one of the best shows to ever hit the small screen. Even to this day, though, there’s still one thing that Krause remembers so vividly about Season 1: The show premiered just months before the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
“We did the first season in a vacuum. We completed the whole thing before a single episode aired. It was really just ours … Then it went out and there was great acclaim. And then 9/11 happened. And I wondered to myself, ‘Is this show going to suffer because of the subject matter at this point in time and history? Is this really life before 9/11 and after?’ … I certainly met people along the way who watched a few episodes, had a death in the family and they stopped watching," Krause said. "And there were others who watched more because it was therapeutic and cathartic for them to watch the show.”
Those emotional and realistic (and sometimes quirky) storylines are part of why "Six Feet Under" resonated with viewers. In addition to death, the show tackled love, relationships of all kinds, and practically everything in between -- all while being pretty relatable.
At the start of the series, Krause's character, Nate Fisher, leaves Seattle to return home to Los Angeles after learning about some sad family news.
“The catalyst of Nate moving home is his father’s death and then his mother’s request that he stay awhile longer. In that pilot episode -- not just because it’s a TV show but because of what his mother needs right now -- he’s going to put his own needs aside,” Krause said. “Of course, he winds up resenting that he stays home. He’s at odds with going into the family business but he’s emotionally compelled by this familial relationships to make decisions that run contrary to his own desire … There's a struggle to be authentic, and that’s what I latched onto with this character. It was the fulcrum for me with Nate.”
Now, all these years later, certain "Six Feet Under" moments feel extremely memorable for the actors. For Hall, who played Nate's brother, David Fisher, one scene in particular stands out.
“The one I think of now is the scene after Nate has died and David is washing his corpse -- the one that they created and that looked -- in three-dimension -- so much like Peter it was crazy,” Hall recalled. “You didn’t really have to imagine that he was there. It felt as if he was. And the scene that transpired between David and his mother [Ruth Fisher, played by Conroy] when she comes down and they have a raw-nerve exchange and fight and then just let it dissolve and just start washing his body -- that was pretty amazing ... It seems like a real memory. At that point, the characters were so full that I can feel that scene … It’s a memory from David’s life, but, at this point, it feels like a scene almost from my own.”
The connection among the cast members both on and off the set likely helped contribute to the show's realistic nature.
"We immediately felt comfortable surrendering to this notion that we were a family," Hall said. "The show was really well-cast from an individual standpoint, but collectively we immediately felt upon our first table-read that we were connected and that that had a lot to do with the power of the material and the time we all spent with it."
Although it's been over a decade since the show went off the air, and both Krause and Hall went on to other successful series ("Parenthood" and "Dexter," respectively), the cast members still feel that closeness.
"It was a magical time for all of us. And I still cherish all those relationships. The funny thing is I still think about those people like family," Krause said. "Lauren is very much my little sister, and Michael is very much like my brother … I always thought that they cast that so well. It really looked like a biological family."
The final casket closed on "Six Feet Under" on Aug. 21, 2005. But according to Krause, the actors would have worked inside the Fisher & Sons Funeral Home a little bit longer.
"HBO wanted to make a couple more seasons. The cast was ready to make a couple more seasons. When we got the call from Alan before we began filming the fifth and final season we were all kind of shocked," he said. "But by ending it when he did and the way he did, Alan Ball made the TV series in its entirety into a work of art because it did end prematurely. The stories snuck out before you wanted them to end."
And what's left is essentially the ghost of "Six Feet Under," the lovely remains of a television show as much about living as it is about dying.
All five seasons of "Six Feet Under" are currently available for viewing on HBO Now.