Dixie Carter, Spirited Actress and Chanteuse, Dies at 70 | Playbill

Obituaries Dixie Carter, Spirited Actress and Chanteuse, Dies at 70
Dixie Carter, the stage and television actress who played the tempestuous and fiercely dignified Julia Sugarbaker for seven seasons on television's "Designing Women," and carved out a late career as a nightclub singer, died April 10. She was 70.
Dixie Carter
Dixie Carter

Of the four spirited females that ran the Atlanta-based Sugarbaker interior design company—the others were played by Annie Potts, Jean Smart and Delta Burke—Ms. Carter's Julia was the most authoritative and opinionated, and clearly the mother hen. Many episodes climaxed with her launching into a comical tirade about the bad behavior of her fellow human beings, the clear intimation being that the end of civilization was just around the corner.

Ms. Carter sometimes complained that the liberal politics espoused by Julia—shared by the show's creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and her husband Harry Thomason (both friends of President Clinton)—were in direct opposition to her own conservative views. She forged a deal with Bloodworth-Thomason that, for every time she was an unwilling leftish mouthpiece, she would be given an opportunity to sing on the show.

The actress took her life-long love of singing to a new professional level after leaving "Designing Women," appearing at such select New York cabarets as Cafe Carlyle and the Oak Room. She was known for championing the work of composer John Wallowitch, who often joined her as accompanist. The two artists met in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, when Ms. Carter had just moved to New York. She also sang as the villainous Mrs. Meers in the Broadway musical Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Dixie Carter made her professional stage debut in a Memphis production of Carousel. Moving to New York in 1963, she won a part in A Winter's Tale. An eight-year hiatus from acting soon followed, during which she married businessman Arthur Carter and gave birth to two children. She returned to her profession by taking on work in the soap operas "One Life to Live" and "The Edge of Night."

Meaningful success started to come as she approached her mid-30s. She received a Theatre World Award for Jesse and the Bandit Queen in 1976, and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for her performance in Fathers and Sons Off-Broadway in 1979. Around this same time, she made two brief appearances in Broadway musicals, 1974's Sextet and a 1976 revival of Pal Joey. Dixie Carter was born May 25, 1939, in McLemoreville, TN, (her first husband shared her last name and was no relation). Her earliest dreams were of becoming an opera singer. A botched tonsillectomy when she was seven, however, ruined her chances. Still, she studied singing and classical music and learned to play the piano, trumpet, and harmonica. She graduated from Memphis State with an English degree. Ms. Carter retained her southern accent in most her performances, adding a headstrong, subtly sexy tinge to the characters she portrayed.

"I started performing for a quart of strawberries when I was two," she told Playbill. "I sang a song in Sunday school, and my reward was a quart of fresh strawberries. I don't know whether it had to with that or, probably, more with my parents being very loving individuals. I always come to an audience expecting that they're just gonna love what I have to do for them and [love] me, too. I'm scared to death and very nervous, but I love the audience, the people in the audience."

If she never got to be an opera singer, she did get to play one on stage, being the third and last actress to play Maria Callas in the hit Broadway production of Master Class.

Dixie Carter was married three times. She and Arthur Carter were married in 1967 and divorced in 1977. Her second union, to actor George Hearn, lasted from 1977 to 1979. Actor Hal Holbrook, whom she wed in 1984, and who had a recurring role as Julia Sugarbaker's love interest in "Designing Women," and frequently performed together on stage, survives her. She is also survived by Mary Dixie and Ginna, daughters from her first marriage.

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