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TV Note: Munhall native relishes role on 'Six Feet Under'

Tuesday, August 07, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

On HBO's "Six Feet Under," he plays a Russian florist named Nikolai, a role originally intended for a few episodes that got extended to almost the entire season.

Frances Conroy runs a funeral home and Munhall's Ed O'Ross plays a Russian florist who woos her in "Six Feet Under."

In real life, actor Ed O'Ross is no Russian. He's a native of Munhall who first mastered a Russian accent when he appeared in the 1988 Arnold Schwarzenegger film "Red Heat."

In auditioning for "Six Feet Under," O'Ross found himself competing with actual Russians.

"I thought, I don't have a shot at this," O'Ross recalled in a phone interview last week. "But I went in there and really did a number on them. I read maybe three scenes for them, did the accent, the mannerisms, the whole deal."

Immediately following the audition, O'Ross drove to film a small part on the now-defunct WB comedy "Grosse Pointe." Afterward, as we was driving home, O'Ross got a message from his agent that he had won the part of Nikolai.

"I almost wrecked the car," he said.

On "Six Feet Under," Nikolai is sweet on Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy), widowed matriarch of a family that runs a funeral home. In coming episodes, their relationship will continue to evolve. O'Ross has been told his character will be back for season No. 2, which begins filming this fall for airing on HBO next year.

"This is the first good series I've done, let's put it that way," O'Ross said. "When you get up in the morning and you can't wait to go to work and you're just loving every minute of it, it really is heaven. And Frances Conroy is the most wonderful lady in the world. I absolutely adore this lady. She's a pro and she's so good."

O'Ross also sang the praises of series creator/writer Alan Ball ("American Beauty").

"Alan is such a great guy. He lets you fly as an actor; as an artist he lets you go," O'Ross said.

With its funeral home setting, every week "Six Feet Under" tackles a subject long considered taboo: death. O'Ross sees that as the show's strength.

"Death is so much a part of life and nobody deals with it," he said. "It really has the opportunity to use this window to reach out and show people it isn't that bad. Look how funny it is when we do these crazy situations to take a really good look at ourselves."

O'Ross was back in Pittsburgh late last month. He'd been invited to play in a golf tournament at the Beaver Valley Country Club by old friend Rick Alberti. His sister, Eileen Battistone, lives in Muse, Washington County.

O'Ross graduated from Munhall High in 1964, the same year he won the Golden Gloves amateur boxing championship. He attended Point Park College and Carnegie Tech before leaving for New York, where he embarked on his acting career.

It's there he tweaked his name at the suggestion of an acting teacher who thought his birth name, Edward Oross, wouldn't look good on a marquee. "Boy, if anybody thinks I look Irish, they need glasses," he said, laughing. "I'm pure Czechoslovakian and proud of it."

He lives in Los Angeles and New York, "wherever the work is."

O'Ross isn't the only hometown person making an impact on national TV this month. Other locals or expatriates showing up on TV include:

Tom Stechschulte, a Mt. Lebanon native, has a lead role on the best reality show of the summer, Fox's "Murder in Small Town X" (9 tonight).

Stechschulte plays William Lambert, business partner of the murdered Nate Flint. Investigators (i.e. the contestants) try to solve the mystery of who killed Flint, his wife and daughter. Lambert is a suspect.

Stechschulte said he doesn't usually enjoy watching himself and he's not a fan of reality shows, but he and his wife have been tuning in to "Murder." There was a particular aspect of playing Lambert he found challenging: "I've never played Republican before," he said. "It's hard for me."

"Murder" is an unusual hybrid that mixes real people with actors who must improvise most of their performance.

"It was unlike anything I think anybody had ever done before," Stechschulte said. "They would give you a basic situation and in some instances they'd give you a few lines, but more often than not they'd come running in seconds before we were about to shoot it saying, 'Change this to that and we're not doing this other thing anymore.' A lot of times we were doing Ralph Kramden's hummina, hummina."

Stechschulte graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School in 1967 and has appeared on Broadway, on film (including "What About Bob?"), on TV (he'll be seen this fall on an episode of NBC's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent") and he records books on tape.

His sister, Lundy Valentine, and younger brother Bob Stechschulte still live in the Pittsburgh area.

The Travel Channel's upcoming documentary "To Survive" (9 p.m. Sunday) was executive produced by Pittsburgh native Mark Finkelpearl, who is also Travel Channel's director of production.

"To Survive" follows adventurer Alvah Simon on a two-week trek getting to and traversing Panama's Darien jungle, a dense wilderness.

Prior to his role at Travel Channel, Finkelpearl was a supervising producer on "National Geographic Explorer" on TBS and began his career in 1986 at WQED Pittsburgh.

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