You can’t discuss HBO’s golden age in the late 1990s and early 2000s without mentioning Six Feet Under. The hit series made its debut on June 3, 2001 and ran for five seasons as audiences watched the Fisher family run their Los Angeles funeral home while dealing with the stress and drama of everyday life — and death. Created by Oscar-winning American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball, the show received widespread critical acclaim and won nine Emmys, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, three Golden Globes and a Peabody Award.
Ball assembled a mesmerizing group of actors to play the dysfunctional Fisher family: Richard Jenkins as Nathaniel (who — TWO-DECADE-OLD SPOILER ALERT — dies in the pilot); Frances Conroy as his tightly wound wife, Ruth; Peter Krause as the prodigal son Nate; Michael C. Hall as closeted son David; and Lauren Ambrose as free-spirited teenage daughter Claire, who’s high on meth when she learns of her dad’s death. Rounding out the cast were Freddy Rodríguez as the staff mortician Rico; Mathew St. Patrick as David’s boyfriend Keith; Rachel Griffiths as Brenda Chenowith, a bohemian woman who shags Nate after meeting him on a flight; Jeremy Sisto as Billy Chenoweth, Brenda’s younger brother who struggles with bipolar disorder.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the debut episode of Six Feet Under on June 3, 2021, we are sharing 20 things that you might not have known about the show that raised the bar for storytelling on TV and then left us with (arguably) the most satisfying series finale in television history.
Six Feet Under was originally inspired by a 1948 book
Carolyn Strauss, then head programmer of HBO, wanted her network to do a show about death after watching the 1965 movie adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s satirical book The Loved One, which was based on the Los Angeles funeral business. She contacted Alan Ball, who was about to be in high demand when the Oscar nominations were announced, even though his sitcom, Oh, Grow Up, had just been cancelled. Ball spent Christmas of 1999 in his childhood home in Marietta, Georgia, sleeping in his late sister’s bedroom and writing the pilot script for Six Feet Under.
Alan Ball was given one piece of feedback on his first draft
After reading the first draft of Ball’s pilot, Strauss remarked, “You know, this is really, really good. I love these characters, I love these situations, but it feels a little safe. Could you just make it just a little more fucked up?” (To address the note, Ball had Claire steal a foot from the basement morgue and put it in her boyfriend’s locker in episode three.)
Alan Ball lost his father at a young age. His older sister, Mary Ann, was killed in a car accident when Ball was 13; she was driving him to piano practice and a car crashed into the driver’s side door, killing her on her 22nd birthday and leaving him mostly unscathed. The accident was the inspiration for Nathaniel’s death in the pilot episode.
Anna Faris was too funny to be Claire?
Anna Faris originally auditioned for the role of Claire Fisher, but according to her she was unintentionally too funny. During her audition Alan Ball couldn’t stop laughing at her attempt to enact the scene in which Claire, who is high, finds out that her father is dead. Lauren Ambrose eventually won the part.
Peter Krause, Adam Scott and Jeremy Sisto all auditioned to play David
Peter Krause originally auditioned for the part of David, but eventually accepted that he was much better suited for the role of Nate than he had originally realized. Adam Scott also auditioned for the role of David and recalled that for his audition: “It was me, Michael C. Hall, and Jeremy Sisto testing for the role that Michael ultimately got.” Hall won the role… but there was a consolation prize for both actors: Sisto became a regular character when he was cast as Brenda’s unstable brother, Billy, while Scott played David’s boyfriend for two episodes at the start of the second season.
It was Michael C. Hall’s first on-screen role
Though Michael C. Hall was a New York theater mainstay before Six Feet Under—most notably after taking over for Alan Cumming as the emcee in Cabaret in 1999—the series marked the actor’s Hollywood debut.
Frances Conroy thought Alan Ball was focusing too much on her shoes when she auditioned
When she got the callback to potentially play Ruth, Frances Conroy decided not to wear the pink shoes she had worn to their initial meeting, as Ball had fixated on them (her future boss did inquire about their whereabouts). Also, Conroy believes that Ruth wore white anklets on the show because she wore white anklets to her audition.
HBO didn’t want to fly Rachel Griffiths out from Australia to audition
HBO didn’t want to fly Rachel Griffiths out from Australia to audition for Six Feet Under, but Griffith’s was so enamored with the role, she struck a deal with the network: She’d pay to fly herself out, and they’d pay her back if she landed the role. After her audition with Peter Krause the role was hers.
The show is set in Los Angeles for a specific reason
Alan Ball said: “I purposely chose Los Angeles to set the series in because, in a show about death, why not set it in the world capital of the denial of death, which has got to be Los Angeles? Los Angeles is where you come to re-create yourself and to become immortal.”
The opening sequence was shot in Seattle
American Beauty composer Thomas Newman wrote the music first, before the video and images were filmed and created. The tree was shot near Lake Washington, but only after being purchased for $400 from a Seattle resident’s yard, uprooted, relocated to the desired area, and held up by wires.
Those fake commercials
Nathaniel Sr.’s death in the series pilot was the only one in the series not to be announced by an obituary. Instead a fake funeral ad played immediately after the scene, which was meant to be a running gag in the series. The pilot episode featured several ridiculous fake ads for funeral home products, but then the idea was scrapped after the pilot.
The James Dean connection
Nikolai’s flower shop is not only real, it was once the gas station that James Dean used to fill up on the day that he crashed his car and died.
Lili Taylor didn’t know about Lisa’s affair
Lili Taylor played Lisa Kimmel Fisher, Nate’s Seattle roommate-turned-wife and mother of his child, Maya. In a dark plot twist at the end of season 4, it was revealed that Lisa was having an affair with her brother-in-law, Hoyt,—a fact that Taylor herself wasn’t aware of until “the third episode from when it happened.” She claimed she would have played the part differently had she known. (It is implied that Lisa was murdered by Hoyt, the husband of Lisa’s sister Barb, but this was never confirmed)
The carjacking episode
One of Six Feet Under‘s most shocking episodes was when David was kidnapped at gunpoint by a hitchhiker he picked up en route to delivering a dead body to the funeral home and taken for a ride. Remember the traumatic, agonizing scene towards the end of the episode in which David is soaked in gasoline and has a gun forced into his mouth? Because of time and budgetary constraints, Michael C. Hall had to impressively pull that entire scene off in one single take.
Few anticipated that Nate would die of a stroke with three episodes of the series yet to air… but, that’s what happened. Fans were distraught with Nate’s death, but apparently Ball always planned for the beloved character to die from his AVM; it was just a matter of how late in the final season it would be. According to Ball the character who brought the show together and reunited the Fisher family at a time when it was sorely needed was also the show’s sacrificial lamb. He claimed Nate’s death was the necessary symmetry to be a catalyst for anyone close to him to start anew.
Only three episodes didn’t begin with a death
During the five seasons of Six Feet Under, there were only three episodes that didn’t begin with a death: 1) because it was a two-parter that continued with the death from the previous episode; 2) because the lack of deaths was a plot point in the episode, and 3) the finale, which began with the birth of Nate and Brenda’s daughter Willa.
Only one episode didn’t feature the face of the deceased
Only one episode didn’t feature the face of the deceased during the opening death scenes: “The Trip,” the 11th episode in the show’s premiere season which included the death of a three-week-old baby from SIDs: Dillon Michael Cooper (2001-2001). The scene was shot through the child’s point of view and the baby was never actually seen on screen. The death was pretty controversial in the writers room with one writer objecting to the fact that a baby was killed in the episode, noting that you couldn’t kill a baby on TV without losing your audience. Alan Ball fired that writer at the end of the season.
Someone in the writers room said “we should just kill everybody”
The idea of flashing forward to depict how each member of the Fishers and their loved ones would pass on seemed revolutionary in 2005, but Alan Ball — who would write and direct its final episode — uses another word for it — inevitable.
“In the writers’ room — I beat myself up for this constantly because I can’t remember who it was that suggested it — we were talking about how we should end the show and someone said, ‘We should just kill everybody,’” Ball said in 2015. “They said, ‘No, we should flash forward in time and be with each one of these characters when they die.’ Something in my head just went, ‘Click. Of course. How else could you possibly end this show?’”
Sia’s “Breathe Me” almost wasn’t in the finale
It seems hard to imagine now… But, the series finale’s death montage almost didn’t feature Sia’s “Breathe Me.” Gary Calamar, Six Feet Under‘s music supervisor, said: “We chose the Sia song for the fifth-season promo. Alan did tell me it might lead to what’s going to happen in the final episode, but he was very vague about it. The direction he gave was, ‘They’re driving to the final journey of life, for the characters and for the show.’ He wanted something hopeful and wistful, but with a certain feel that they’re searching for something…. But one interesting thing is, we had Arcade Fire write a song for that promo. This was when Arcade Fire was a little more open to things like that. They wrote a song called ‘Cold Wind,’ which we actually got a little late or it might have been in that promo.”
The exposure from having “Breathe Me” play a prominent role in the final moments changed Sia’s career. At the time, Sia had been disappointed with the sales of Colour the Small One, the album on which “Breathe Me” first appeared. Its inclusion at such a critical and unforgettable moment of Six Feet Under meant she was indelibly linked to the biggest moment from one of television’s most popular dramas, and the success she’d sought finally arrived.
An extra played 101-year-old Claire in the death montage
On August 21, 2005, Six Feet Under concluded with an extensive montage of flash-forwards revealing how each of the remaining main characters die. While every other actor wore prosthetics to play their older selves, Lauren Ambrose stopped portraying Claire once she was on her death bed. Matthew Mungle (who did the aging makeup and prosthetics for the episode) said in a 2015 interview: “We didn’t age Claire to her oldest because they knew they were going to go so old. It was a random extra — I think she was in her seventies and we had to age her to 101. We used contact lenses for that final shot of her eyes.”