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Ball, Alan (b. 1957)  
 
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The off-Broadway production of Five Women caught the attention of a Hollywood talent scout, who recommended Ball for a job on the writing team of the situation comedy Grace under Fire, which starred comedian Brett Butler.

Ball's initial experience of the television industry was not a happy one. He called his one season (1994-1995) with Grace under Fire "in a lot of ways . . . the perfect first job to have because nothing will ever be that bad." He was dismayed that "writers were just considered to be expendable and the script was kind of secondary to the persona of the star," unlike the situation to which he was accustomed in the theater, "where writers have a certain amount of respect and control."

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Ball subsequently spent three years--1995-1998--writing, and also serving as story editor and producer, for the sitcom Cybill, where he encountered "a really volatile working environment" because of another demanding star, Cybill Shepherd. Nevertheless, he stated, "I make jokes about those years being unpleasant, but they taught me so much, and I am a much better writer because of it, and so I really don't regret them at all."

Due to his work on Cybill Ball was courted by television production companies to create a new comedy series. Building on the situation in Bachelor Holiday--three single male friends as housemates--he launched Oh Grow Up in 1999 on ABC.

Although the play had not alluded to the sexual orientation of the men, the television show made it clear that two of the friends were heterosexual and the other gay. Ball saw "more . . . to mine for comedy" in having both gay and straight characters in the show and was pleased to be able to move past "1970s, Three's Company-type humor" (alluding to a sitcom in which a straight man made a campy pretense of being gay so that he could share an apartment with two women friends) and present a "responsible and mature" gay character.

Ball was grateful for the support of his concept for the show by the ABC network. "I didn't have to do anything that I felt compromised the integrity of the original idea," he stated. Unfortunately, the show did not do well in the ratings and was dropped after a short run.

Meanwhile, Ball had been working on a film script. American Beauty (1999, directed by Sam Mendes) was his cinematic breakthrough. The film won five Academy Awards in 2000, including one to Ball for Best Writing in a Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. Ball also won a Golden Globe Award for his screenplay.

Of the story of a discontented and dysfunctional suburban family whose lives are spinning out of control Jeff Millar of the Houston Chronicle wrote, "Alan Ball's original screenplay misdirects you into thinking it's a black comedy--that we could never find ourselves doing anything with these pathetic, caricature characters but sneering at them." Although at the end of the picture "the film's heart is still in darkness, what's been added is resonance, harmonics of immense complexity. After we've ingested them, we find ourselves hurting for these people." Millar added that Ball's "work is extraordinary: mercilessly inquisitive, widely observant, emotionally diverse."

Jay Carr of the Boston Globe commented that amid the "bleak isolation" and unhappiness pervasive in American Beauty's suburban community, "its best-adjusted characters are a homosexual couple who live down the street."

Despite his less than happy experiences in the television industry, Ball returned to it in 2001. This time, however, as creator, executive producer, head writer, and occasionally director, he had much more control over bringing his vision to the screen, and audiences greeted his efforts with great enthusiasm.

Ball's HBO series Six Feet Under was a hit from the start of its five-year run. It received numerous honors, including 9 Emmy Awards, one of them to Ball as the Best Director of a Drama Series, and a Golden Globe Award. Ball also won awards for his work as director from the Directors Guild of America and for his work as executive producer from the Producers Guild.

Six Feet Under is the story of another dysfunctional family, the proprietors of Fisher & Sons Funeral Home in suburban Los Angeles. The series begins with the death of paterfamilias Nathaniel Fisher, who does not disappear from the scene but rather returns periodically to observe his widow, two sons, and daughter from beyond the grave. Each subsequent episode except the last also begins with the death of someone whose funeral takes place at Fisher & Sons and whose circumstances afford the family members the opportunity to reflect upon various issues in their own lives. With all the problems and complexities in their relationships, the Fishers never lack food for thought.

The Fisher brother who runs the funeral home, David (played by Michael C. Hall), is gay and in a romantic relationship with an African-American police officer, Keith Charles (played by Matthew St. Patrick). In a 2005 interview Ball stated that as he envisioned the characters for the show, "David was just always gay." Echoing the title of Andrew Tobias's memoir, he said that David "was the brother who was 'the best little boy in the world' who did everything to please everybody, and that's such a classic gay thing."

Ball was pleased to be able to make the story line concerning David and Keith an important one in the series and "felt really proud to be involved with a show that dealt with this gay relationship in such a sophisticated, rich way."

Ball was particularly gratified by the reaction of one viewer, his brother, a Republican "good ol' boy redneck from Georgia," who, at the end of the show's first season, had only one question for him: "Are David and Keith going to get back together?" Ball said that it was obvious that his brother "really want[ed] this interracial same-sex couple to work."

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