Back From the Dead

Photo: Art Streiber/Grooming by Johnny Hernandez for Fierro Inc.

‘Fart machines have become ubiquitous, it seems, in Hollywood,” says the actor Peter Krause. “Naomi Watts used one on me when we were filming We Don’t Live Here Anymore. She put a fart machine in the bed while we were supposed to be making love.”

He’s telling this story in part as a semi-defense of his own penchant for fart-machine-centric pranks, like one he pulled on the set of Six Feet Under and which he’s fond of recounting. He was doing a scene with Michael C. Hall, who played the uptight, closeted brother, David Fisher, to Krause’s rakish, womanizing Nate. They were leaning in close to an elderly woman in a casket, who was pretending to be dead. Krause, with the help of his co-conspirator, Kathy Bates, had placed a fart machine in the casket. “I pushed the button,” says Krause. “The crew laughed, and Michael got very upset at the crew. Because he thought, she’s an older woman and she can’t control herself.”

On Six Feet Under and in his other best-known work, from We Don’t Live Here Anymore to Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, Krause, 42, has shown a special aptitude for playing rakes, rogues, and cads. This skill set—dry charm, wry humor, a mischievous streak—is one he evinces in real life as well. As when he notes, humorously, that many of his major life decisions were based on “chasing skirt.” For example, his decision to try acting in the first place. He was a high-school track star in Minneapolis, but he’d hurt his back pole-vaulting. “So I auditioned for this play because there was this hot girl with green eyes I wanted to meet. I didn’t like the part I got in the play. But I wound up taking her to the prom.”

All of which makes his new role, in ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money, a bit surprising, because here he plays the moral center of the show. He’s the one sane man in an insane world, with the insanity embodied in the Darling family, a superrich Manhattan clan that’s part Kennedys, part Royal Tenenbaums. Donald Sutherland plays the patriarch, Tripp Darling, and Jill Clayburgh the matriarch, Letitia, with Billy Baldwin as the JFK Jr.–ish favored son and future senator who’s also having a gay affair. With a transsexual. It’s quite an outlandish show, with quite the ensemble cast. It’s also, I suggest to Krause, the perfect setting for an on-set fart-machine prank. Who hasn’t longed to pull such a stunt on Donald Sutherland? Surely Krause has tried.

“No, I haven’t,” he says. “There’s no reason for that.” Long pause. Long laugh. He considers whether to continue before he decides, what the hell. “Donald’s digestion kind of takes care of all that for us.”

You might not guess this, but Peter Krause started in comedy. Not the quirky, oh-the-macabre-absurdity-of-life comedy you might associate with Six Feet Under and, if all goes well, Dirty Sexy Money. He started out doing, as he says, “funny voices and funny walks” when he was cast, straight out of NYU’s Tisch graduate program, in Carol & Company, a sketch-comedy comeback vehicle for Carol Burnett that premiered in 1990. “I actually replaced Jeremy Piven, of all people,” says Krause. “He was the original ‘young guy’ on the show. I guess they chose to go in a more apple-pie direction, in terms of looks.”

Krause is, in terms of looks, very apple pie. This is part of the reason he can get away with playing so many rogues and cads: not because he’s a believable cad (though he is) but because he’s a lovable, even irresistible one, the kind you’d set up with your little sister even though you know deep down it’s not going to turn out well. And this is not too far from his role on Dirty Sexy Money. Yes, he plays the virtuous lawyer Nick George, but he’s a virtuous lawyer with a not particularly deeply buried scoundrel’s streak.

The show, at first glance, looks like a standard nighttime soap—rich, scandal-plagued family in constant state of turmoil—but it owes as much to Arrested Development’s dysfunctional Bluths as it does to Dynasty’s Carringtons. Krause plays the son of the Darlings’ longtime, and morally compromised, lawyer, and he vows never to become like his dad—a vow that is broken about fifteen minutes into the first episode, when he’s seduced by a $10 million salary and Sutherland’s Mephistophelian purr.

At its core, Dirty Sexy Money is a gleeful toboggan ride down Nick George’s slippery moral slope. The show was created by Craig Wright, a playwright (Recent Tragic Events) and former Six Feet Under writer who, like Tripp Darling, had to woo Krause over many months before he’d agree to sign on. “I love the Faustian tale within the television soap,” says Krause. “I just didn’t know if I wanted to commit to another six or seven years of television work. The film opportunities that were coming my way were great in the independent world, but in the feature world—well, if I hadn’t had any other things going on, I may have very much wanted to play Nancy Drew’s father. But they weren’t exactly roles that were calling out to me.”

Peter Krause as Nick George in the pilot episode of Dirty Sexy Money.Photo: Patrick Harbron/Courtesy of ABC

Krause might seem fortunate, in that his best-known TV roles represent the crème de la crème of the medium, including not only Sports Night and Six Feet Under but also a memorable guest spot on Seinfeld (as a white supremacist who inadvertently shares a limo ride with Jerry and George). Dirty Sexy Money, as a series, has the potential to continue that streak, thanks mostly to Wright’s pedigree and his excellent cast. But what Wright’s attempting here has an extremely high degree of difficulty. Ideally, Money will deliver the frothy pleasures of a nighttime soap with the sharp psychology of a Six Feet Under—all on ABC, in prime time, in a network climate that doesn’t typically allow nuanced shows more than two or three weeks to find an audience.

If Dirty Sexy Money doesn’t work out, though, Krause’s got another idea. He’s got a pitch for Sorkin. The two of them met in New York, when Sorkin was managing the bars at the Palace Theatre, where Krause was a bartender. (It conjures a too-perfect mental image: Sorkin, the manager, fretting in his paper-strewn office, with Krause out front, at the bar, mixing drinks and charming patrons, especially the prettiest ones.)

So here’s the idea: “I’d pitch him a news show. Like Mary Tyler Moore, in a national-news setting. I honestly think that if Aaron had set Studio 60 in the world of news rather than in the world of satirical weekend comedy, it would still be on the air.” As for his role, “I’d play a very egotistical broadcaster. Not an idiot, but his ego makes him stupid. The size of his ego makes him blind to the truth.” Something comic, but also serious; a little bit global crises, a little bit fart machine. “What I think I’m pitching would resemble Broadcast News: The Series,” he says. “That to me is a very funny movie, but it was also very poignant. Like Aaron, I tend to look at life like that.”

Back From the Dead