The Original Dixie ChickDixie Carter’s strong Christian faith and her admiration for The Salvation Army make her a standout on and off camera.
A look at the tabloids paints a poor picture of Hollywood divas, from on-set tantrums to outrageous demands and atrocious behaviour. But Dixie Carter exudes a grace, charm and humility not often seen in Hollywood. “She’s like that with everyone,” says a longtime friend and co-worker. “It doesn’t matter if you are a hair stylist, grocery clerk, driver, assistant or famous actor. She treats everyone with immeasurable kindness.”
A talented stage, screen and television actress as well as a gifted singer and dancer, Dixie is best known for her portrayal of Julia Sugarbaker on Designing Women (1986-1993). As the strong-willed and outspoken owner of an interior-design firm in Atlanta, Georgia, Dixie captivated television audiences with her passionate portrayal.
Recently, Dixie made a new generation of fans with her memorable guest appearances on the highly rated Desperate Housewives, where she played the disturbed and very disturbing Gloria Hodge.
Singer turned actor
With an impressive resumé of stage and screen performances that span five decades, one could easily assume that Dixie always had the acting bug. “Quite the contrary,” she replies. “I had a singing bug.”
Born Dixie Virginia Carter in tiny McLemoresville, Tennessee, she grew up listening to the New York Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcasts and singing along with the records of opera great Maria Callas. “By the time I was four,” she recalls, “I was resolved that my destiny was to be a great opera singer. I never dreamt of being an actress or a comedian.” After graduating from university, she followed her dream to New York City in 1963, and within two weeks starred in a production of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale.
For almost a decade, Dixie gave up the stage for her marriage and children. When she returned to show business in the 1970s the type of singing she loved was no longer in vogue. “The jobs I got were not singing ones,” explains Dixie. “At this point in time, I realized my marriage had failed. I had two little girls, I was a grown woman and I had to find a way to have a career. It was very difficult. I couldn’t even get an agent because 35 was considered too old!”
After months of knocking on doors, Dixie landed an audition for a role in a television soap opera. “I thought, How can I get this part? I did my fairest imitation of Bette Davis. Of course, it didn’t come out like Bette Davis at all, but I suppose it had a certain amount of authority because I got the job,” Dixie laughs. “That’s how I went from believing in a future as a singer to grabbing what I could, which turned out to be in acting. Acting was simply thrust on me.”
A quiet faith
While singing was her passion, Christianity was a part of Dixie’s life from the day she was born. As a child, she memorized Scripture, and her grandmothers read selected passages from the Bible at breakfast and suppertime. “It was a given, a fact of our lives,” Dixie recalls. “It was a big deal, of course, but it wasn’t something anybody ever discussed.” It was only as a grown woman in New York City that Dixie encountered people who were not religious. “That was so far from my experience,” she says, “yet I never saw any reason to change the beliefs I was brought up with, because nothing in the behaviour of my parents or grandparents or any of the other members of my family ever gave me reason to doubt that what they had taught me was true.”
Likewise, Dixie declares, her faith was not challenged when she entered the acting profession. “I didn’t get into arguments. I wasn’t confrontational about it,” she continues. “I went to church and everybody knew that. I never stopped saying that I was a Christian. I believe that if you live a certain way, that bears witness better than anything else.”
When Dixie and her future husband, actor Hal Holbrook, were dating, he once asked her, “I’m curious. No matter how late you stay up the night before, you take your little girls to the nine o’clock church service on Sunday. I figure you get a lot out of it. But what? What do you get out of going to church every single Sunday?”
Dixie answered, “It makes me happy. That’s all I can tell you, Hal. The truth is, I feel better when I’m leaving the church than when I came in, every single time, without fail.”
“Well, that is a compelling reason,” Hal mused. A few minutes later, he asked her, “Would you mind if I went along sometime?”
“This is what I had dreamed of, what I had hoped would happen,” smiles Dixie. “So now he goes to church with me.”
“Angels on earth”
Dixie’s quiet faith enables her to stand her ground when it comes to performing roles that she is not comfortable with or that insult her Christian faith. “And I’ve always been treated well,” Dixie says. “More often, the case has been that I’ve asked not to say a line because of the offensive or crude nature of the piece. In those cases, the writer just hasn’t put any thought into it and settled for the cheap laugh. That’s a very low, stupid source of humour.”
While Dixie has turned down many roles, when The Salvation Army contacted her to do a series of promotional commercials Dixie jumped at the opportunity. Her father, a U.S. Army medic in the Second World War, had been deeply moved by their work overseas on the battlefields of Europe. He was utterly devoted to the organization and his love of The Salvation Army was inherited by his daughter. Dixie is now a national celebrity spokesperson for The Salvation Army in the United States and has received numerous awards in recognition of her efforts.
“They’re angels on earth,” says Dixie of the Salvation Army members she has worked with. “When you meet people whose only idea of what they’re about, from the time they wake up in the morning until they go to bed at night, is to do good for somebody else, that’s powerful. Few of us have the stamina to stay that good and that focused on something outside of ourselves for any period of time. But it makes you try to be better yourself.”
During April 2007, The Salvation Army’s National Advisory Board in the United States recognized Dixie Carter for her significant contribution to its ministry.
Ken Ramstead is the associate editor of Faith & Friends.
Originally published in Faith & Friends, June 2007.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2008 Christianity.ca.