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Peter Krause on Parenthood and How Nothing Can Match Six Feet Under

Peter Krause stars in Parenthood, which premieres tonight on NBC and is loosely based on the 1989 Ron Howard movie in which Steve Martin plays a wacky father surrounded by his brother, sisters, and parents. Krause plays the Martin character, though with a more serious edge, which makes sense, given that Krause is known for his darker television work in iconic shows like Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night and Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under. We spoke to Krause about returning to TV after the cancellation of Dirty Sexy Money, the bumpy start to his new show, and how his own parenthood affected his work on Parenthood.

The show was originally scheduled for fall, but then Maura Tierney left for health reasons. How much of a setback was that?
We reshot large portions of the original pilot. I don’t want to call it a blessing in disguise, but it’s been all right. There have certainly been tough moments along the way — my good friend, Nora O'Brien, actually suddenly died on the set, which was a very weird night for all of us — but once we got into production and Lauren Graham joined the cast, it’s been a great process. It allowed the writers to retool the entire season arc. Plus, we’re benefiting from going on now, in March, after the whole Leno-O’Brien fiasco at NBC, and we get a nice promotional bump from the Winter Olympics.

How did they retool the show?
Like a lot of TV dramas nowadays, Parenthood has a large comic element, and I think that was something that changed from the original pilot — the ratio of comedy to drama was increased. It was more a mission-control decision, something that [executive producers] Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and [creator] Jason Katims decided: Let’s have a little more fun with this.

But your character is more serious than Steve Martin’s version.
There might be glimmers here and there of that character, but it’s also very different. And comparing Steve Martin and me in terms of acting style is also very different.

True. You’re known for shows like Six Feet Under and Sports Night, which aren’t really family-friendly fare.
Well, if I look at my four big series — Sports Night, Six Feet Under, Dirty Sexy Money, and now Parenthood — they’re all essentially about family. There’s a theme running through that, I guess.

So what happened with Dirty Sexy Money? Creator Craig Wright had issues with ABC, right?
Originally, according to both Craig Wright [of Six Feet Under and Lost] and ABC, he was going to get to do what he wanted with the show. So there was a flashback scene in the pilot where a young Nick George is running through the house with a paper snowflake. He’s looking for his mom, and he sees steam coming out of the bathroom door, and he opens it, and his mother’s lying dead in the bathtub. He drops the snowflake, which hits the floor of the bathroom and instantly goes red with blood. It was this very poetic metaphor for the loss of innocence at a young age, and the scene was really the crux for me, because I was rooting my character in that traumatic experience. But ABC pulled back, and instead we ran a scene of Nick’s mother driving away in a taxi saying, ‘It’s not your fault!’ That was really where the network started to pull the show away from its intended life. Ultimately, it was not a show that was going to survive the ABC grinder.

So why return to a network?
Look, I keep trying. I’m trying to get a show out that there that I’d watch and be interested in. Also, because of Six Feet Under, returning to cable would have to be for something really special.

You’re a dad. How does that affect your work?
The most interesting and lovely people I know right now are my son and his friends. Getting to do a show like this at this point in my life makes great sense, and after having done so much darker material, I’m happy to be moving into a point where I’m doing more PG work. It’s also made me more sensitive to what Hollywood is doing, and I’m more aware now of how much violence there is portrayed. So I’m glad to get to be a part of sensitizing people to their relationships.

So you’re in a good place in life now.
Well, there are these moments I have when I’m flying between L.A. and home, when everything in my life is peaceful and together, and then when I land, there’s always something there waiting for me to disrupt my peace and calm.

What do you think about your old boss Alan Ball’s new show, True Blood?
I’m not the biggest vampire fan to begin with, and I certainly don’t think it has the cultural relevance that Six Feet Under did — but I don’t think that many shows do.

You're jogging in your first scene in Parenthood, which seems like such a clear reference to your Six Feet Under character.
Yeah, I don’t know about that. I always seem to play characters that run.

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images