Frances Conroy is the Rodney Dangerfield of ''Six Feet Under.'' She gets no respect. Not on the show, playing mortuary mom Ruth Fisher, and not off: Of the terrific cast, she's one of the least interviewed. Some of the corpses get more attention.
This doesn't seem to bother Conroy, and it certainly hasn't prevented a more discriminating viewer from singling her out. ''I've been doing plays in New York forever, but no one ever approached me,'' says the modest 49-year-old of her celebrated stage work. (A favorite of Arthur Miller's, she was nominated for a Tony in his ''The Ride Down Mt. Morgan'' and has won an Obie and a Drama Desk award.) ''But after two seasons of 'Six Feet Under,' that's really changed. People in New York are yelling, 'We love the show! We love Ruth!'... They've been hit in the gut about what's happening in this woman's life, and they're really protective of her.'' According to Conroy, ''Six Feet'' creator Alan Ball wrote her character to reflect a woman generally ignored by prime-time TV. ''She's a real person who isn't all glammed up,'' says Conroy. ''I see middle-aged women all over L.A. with long hair, jean skirts, and cotton anklets. I look at them and say, 'That's Ruth's sisterhood.'''
Ruth's sisterhood will expand this season (beginning March 2): Academy Award-winner Kathy Bates (''About Schmidt''), who's directed three episodes, will guest-star as a new friend, offering a ''wonderful friendship that will surprise everybody,'' says Conroy, who can't elaborate under penalty of death. Also slated for this season: Ruth's expanding relationship with Lisa (Lili Taylor), a more mature connection with daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose), and the usual parade of stiffs. ''I read one of the death scenes at the beginning of an episode,'' teases Conroy, ''and I thought, 'Oh, my God, you can die that way?' And evidently you can.'' Come on, spit it out. We'll take it to the grave.