Mother Superior

Frances Conroy's house in Los Angeles has become known throughout the local cat community as the place to go when you're down on your luck. Tom, a striking black tomcat, wandered over eight months ago, starving. "He was just this bony little thing running through the yard," says the 49-year-old star of HBO's hit drama series "Six Feet Under." "It was so depressing. Now he's fat and follows me everywhere." Nicky, another stray, is FIV-positive, but so far she's doing fine. There's also Blue, and Alice, and Homer and... out of curiosity, just how many cats are we talking about? Conroy laughs. "Well, I have a little tribe. I should leave it at that," she says, clearly worried that several million NEWSWEEK readers will begin to wonder about her. "Some of them are friends that just eat and leave." It's worth noting that, aside from her husband, Jan, there are no other humans in the Conroy household. No kids. If that's surprising, given her spot-on portrayal of Ruth, the matriarch of the Fisher clan, just think about all those cats. Conroy may not be a mother, but she's got maternal instinct to burn.

After a tentative start, "Six Feet Under" blossomed in its second season, surpassing even "The Sopranos" in some critics' minds and leading all shows last year with 23 Emmy nominations, including nods for all six major cast members. Awards aside, though, Conroy remains the forgotten woman. She's rarely a profile subject and is seldom even quoted in stories about the program. Between now and this Sunday's third-season premiere, the show's stars will appear on a number of magazine covers--but not Conroy. That's how it goes when your character is over 50 and wears an apron. But the actress just shrugs it off. "Oh, does it really matter?" she asks, sounding so amiable that you feel a bit silly.

But it does matter. Conroy's Ruth Fisher is the kind of familiar face that, paradoxically, we never see on TV: a hesitant, fiftysomething widow who's slowly deciding that her life isn't over. She's not a wisecracking old dame or a face-lifted man-eater. She's not June Cleaver--or Livia Soprano. She's one of us. In the very first episode of "Six Feet Under," Ruth's world imploded when her husband, a funeral-home director, was killed in a car crash. Then she had to adjust to her children--Nate, the aimless, oldest son; David, the gay middle child; Claire, the willful 18-year-old--having outgrown her. "She doesn't need to prepare them to live in the world," says series creator Alan Ball. "In a way, they're all better at it than she is. It's time for her to become a parent to herself."

The second season of "Six Feet Under" ended with a cliffhanger: Nate is facing life-threatening brain surgery. On any other series, it would be obvious that he survives--after all, the actor who plays him, Peter Krause, is still in the cast. But Nate's dead father is still hanging around as a ghostlike presence. So let's just say that Sunday's season premiere is a shocker. It's also TV at the peak of its powers. Drama, at its best, confronts us with the truth of our lives, and it's hard to think of any series on television doing a better job of that than "Six Feet Under." Forget "Joe Millionaire." This is reality TV.

With or without Nate, life goes on for the rest of the Fishers in season three. David (Michael C. Hall) has entered couples therapy with his partner, Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), who's been booted out of the LAPD and is now a rent-a-cop fishing drowned rats out of rich people's pools. Claire (Lauren Ambrose) is in art school, perfecting her talent for dating the wrong guys. Brenda, Nate's ex-fiancee, played by the scalding Rachel Griffiths, is MIA until the fifth episode--and when she finally does reappear, it hits you like a shovel to the chest. Meanwhile, Ball keeps her chair warm with a trio of terrific actresses in guest appearances, including Lili Taylor, who returns as Lisa, the mother of Nate's baby girl, and Catherine O'Hara ("Best in Show") as an infantile producer who hires Lisa to be her personal assistant.

Then there's Ruth, who begins the season back in caretaker mode, with both her granddaughter and her Vicodin-addicted sister--until a new friend (Kathy Bates, in full guns-ablazing mode) roars onto the scene and shakes her up so thoroughly her hair bun pops loose. Conroy is magical in these moments, finding every drop of comedy and pathos in this clenched woman finally lightening up.

When you spend time with Conroy--everyone calls her Franny--you see no trace of Ruth Fisher. It's as if the two women both came of age in the late '60s, and then split in opposite directions--Ruth into family life and Conroy into a world of bohemian friends and quirky tastes, like the dragonfly pin and neon pink galoshes she wears to meet you. The Juilliard-trained actress spent 15 years as a favorite of Arthur Miller and Edward Albee. She was finishing up Miller's "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan," for which she earned a Tony nomination in 1999, when she landed her role on "Six Feet Under."

Conroy says she's often asked if being childless makes it more difficult to play Ruth. The question puzzles her: for one thing, she's anactor. But also, she says, "everyone's been a mother to someone. I was my mother's mother at one point." Long before Conroy's mother died, in 1997, she'd begun suffering from dementia and spent 11 months living in Conroy's walk-up in Manhattan's Washington Heights. "I know what it's like to have someone in my every waking thought," Conroy says. "I wasn't dealing with a child growing up, learning to walk. But I was dealing with someone learning how to do new things. I remember putting her on the subway one day and I said, 'OK, Mom, what are you going to do? You're going to call me when you get home, right? You're going to unlock the door, and then you're going to go in and call me'." She laughs. "We had a system, and it worked pretty well. She was my baby doll."

Conroy hasn't appeared on stage since "Six Feet Under" began three years ago, but unlike most theater actors who find success in another medium, she doesn't lament the separation. Last summer, during the series' hiatus, a friend asked her to perform a monologue in a play he was producing. Conroy begged off but went to see the production. "And I was so glad to be in the audience and not up on stage," she says, with a guilty laugh. "I know I'll come back to it. But I feel like I'm in a full-time job right now." Bad news for theatergoers. Conroy isn't going to be out of work any time soon.