A longtime stage actor, Michael C. Hall had never been in front of a television camera when he was cast as David Fisher, the closeted heir to his family's funeral business, on HBO’s Six Feet Under.
“Luckily, I was playing a character who was very tense,” Hall tells mental_floss, “so I didn’t have to pretend I wasn’t. I could funnel that nervousness into the performance.”
The critical and commercial success of Six Feet Under, which ran from 2001 to 2005, was due in large measure to Hall’s depiction of David as a man who often seems to be choking on his own repressed tendencies. While all of the Fishers had neuroses—his mother, Ruth (Frances Conroy) was a terminal people-pleaser, while wayward brother Nate (Peter Krause) struggled with inheriting their recently-departed father’s funeral home—David’s sexual identity kept him on an emotional ledge.
With the series celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, Hall spoke with us about the show’s legacy, David’s impact on gay and lesbian culture, and the emotional torture of trying to binge-watch a show this heavy.
Thinking back on what could be some of your key memories from the show, it seems like getting the call you’d been cast would be the first. Do you remember how you found out?
I was back in New York playing the Emcee in Cabaret on Broadway. I remember walking home on 100th Street and getting a call from both my manager and my agent. They were both on the line, which I took as a good sign. It’s usually good news when people call collectively.
They asked if I was sitting down. I wasn’t. They told me I got the job. I probably let out some sort of scream or some noise of celebration and relief. I’d invested so much in the audition process and really wanted to be a part of it.
David had a few “coming out” scenes on the show. Was there one that stood out for you, or helped you to understand the character in a more complete way?
Because of how well-drawn the character was, who he was, I often had a sense of where he was coming from. But the first scene and first person where he came out was to his mother. Playing that with Frannie [Conroy], what I remember is her hand, her fingers, touching mine on the couch in a way that was affectionate but also skittish. It was surprising and perfect.
His was always a journey toward self-acceptance. I think he really needed to come out to himself.
David’s relationship with Keith [Mathew St. Patrick] was often referred to as a new standard for a depicting a complex gay relationship on television. You wound up on the cover of The Advocate. Did you get a sense the character could be a catalyst for changing minds about same-sex couples?
I felt enormously proud and humbled being charged with playing a character who was unique in the television landscape. And maybe remains unique, I don’t know. But it’s a gratifying thing, as gratifying as anything I’ve done. People saying that spending time with the character, seeing that relationship, helped them change their idea of a gay couple, or to have people say the existence of David and his story gave them strength at a formative time, is amazing.
One of the show’s most divisive episodes is season four’s “That’s My Dog,” where David is carjacked, forced to take drugs, and generally tortured psychologically for an hour. Were you surprised by the reception?
I knew it was a departure for the character and in terms of storytelling of the show. We would usually go from story to story. In this case, David was kidnapped, the story was kidnapped, [the audience] was kidnapped. It was crafted with that awareness.
A lot of people discover shows on streaming services like HBO NOW now, gorging on them. How do you think Six Feet Under holds up to that kind of marathon viewing?
Whatever people can stomach, I say go for it. If you want to watch five seasons in a week and a half, more power to you. But it was definitely one of those shows where, when it originally aired, people got together with friends or loved ones and made it kind of a Sunday night party. It was exciting to be part of something that brought people together. That was true of Dexter, too.
But yeah—by its nature, it might be harder to take in big, heaping shovelfuls.
The show also missed the era of the multimedia crossovers. Would David have fit in on any other HBO show?
[Laughs] It would be fun to see him on Game of Thrones. No, I don’t know. I could see him making funeral arrangements for the victim of a mob hit on The Sopranos, or his personality being exploited for comic effect on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Were you aware HBO posted character obituaries following the finale?
I was not.
Apparently David went on to appear in several theater productions following his retirement from Fisher and Sons. He played Ebenezer Scrooge in a stage production of A Christmas Carol.
That sounds about right.
All images courtesy of HBO.