How Six Feet Under Led To The Office’s Most Iconic Character

By Jeffrey Rapaport | Published

six feet under

In the wide world of beloved television characters, very few indeed are as immediately recognizable as Dwight Schrute. But perhaps Dwight’s legions of fans might not know that as unlikely a show as HBO’s Six Feet Under inspired the character we all know and love from The Office

As Collider reports, Rainn Wilson developed the iconic character while working on the HBO dark comedy a year before NBC’s hit comedy sitcom skyrocketed Wilson to fame. 

Rainn Wilson On Six Feet Under

six feet under rainn wilson

For its part, Six Feet Under remains one of the most acclaimed family dramas on television. A dark comedy about an off-beat family running a funeral home, the distinctive show and its unique sensibility helped set the HBO standard for excellence in the early days of prestige TV.

It was a program characterized by understated brilliance—qualities Wilson would embody through his work on the series, then contribute to The Office a year later. 

Rainn Wilson Is Arthur Martin

six feet under

In Six Feet Under, Wilson portrayed Arthur Martin, an intern for Fisher & Diaz Funeral Home, whose eager ambition is to become a licensed funeral director one day.

Fans of The Office will readily recognize much of Dwight in Arthur. The likeness is mainly observable in Arthur’s shy, staccato, and awkward demeanor, particularly in his interactions with the wizened matriarch of the funeral home, Ruth Fisher, portrayed brilliantly by Frances Conroy. 

Rainn Wilson Is Excellent

Wilson’s performance is a masterclass in infusing a tense dark series with light-heartedness, presaging his comedic excellence on the NBC hit.

Arthur’s awkward romance with Ruth, surmounting their age gap and radically different life experiences, allowed Wilson to workshop the comedic timing and character development he would master alongside the likes of Jim and Pam.

Becoming Dwight Schrute

Ultimately, Wilson’s experience cultivating his craft on Six Feet Under involved the one-of-a-kind character work fans would come to adore on The Office, particularly Dwight’s weird personality traits and ticks.

The transformation from Arthur to Dwight—like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly—is most evident in scenes highlighting Arthur’s naïveté and lack of worldliness.

These call to mind Dwight’s unironic earnestness, zeal, and commitment surrounding office protocol (yet without Dwight’s typical, blinkered confidence, even arrogance).

Dwight Coming To Life

An illustrative and memorable instance in the sixth episode of Season 3, “Making Love Work,” involves Arthur handling a workplace mishap—accidentally dropping an obese corpse to the floor (the show is indeed the darkest of comedies).

Arthur’s absolute eagerness, his dead-serious insistence on apologizing ceaselessly, might inspire fans to leap from their chairs and exclaim: “Dwight!?” 

In those telling moments on Six Feet Under, Dwight springs to life in real time despite preceding The Office by a year. 

Six Feet Under On HBO

Created by Alan Ball, Six Feet Under is widely celebrated for manifesting a profound, poignant exploration of life and death. The series delved into the lives of the Fisher family, who struggle to operate a family-run funeral home after the death of their patriarch, as each family member contends with their own personal and existential crises. 

The series helped put HBO’s name at the top of the prestige TV heap and earned renown for its deep character development, bleak humor, and frank exploration of heavy themes, including morality, family dynamics, and sexuality. Its impressive use of surrealism and fantasy sequences (like another HBO giant, The Sopranos) also won its accolades.