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Actress Dixie Carter belied the stereotypical image of a Southern belle with her smart choices in roles that often showcased strong-willed and steely characters. Audiences loved her as the classy-yet-brassy Julia Sugarbaker on "Designing Women" (CBS, 1986-1993), a Southern-flavored sitcom centered on four women who worked together at an interior design firm. On "Designing Women," Carter imbued her character with the perfect combination of wit, charm and beauty, and helped make the series one of the network's most watched shows during its seven-year run. The theater-trained actress' career peaked with the CBS series, but she remained a vibrant figure on television and was highly sought out to play tough characters such as a lawyer on "Family Law" (CBS, 1999-2002) or an overbearing matriarch on "Ladies Man" (CBS, 1999-2001). In 2007, Carter revived her career with a critically acclaimed performance on the comedy "Desperate Housewives" (ABC, 2004-12), playing a Machiavellian mother obsessed with her son. Whether playing the strong women she became known for or belting out a song on Broadway, Carter's long acting career was a testament to her undeniable talent and versatility and her happy marriage to fellow actor Hal Holbrook was an inspiration in an industry sometimes brutal on interpersonal relationships.
Dixie Virginia Carter was born on May 25, 1939 in McLemoresville, TN. As a young child, Carter aspired to be an opera singer; however, a botched tonsillectomy at age seven foiled that dream. In spite of the unfortunate incident, Carter sang, studied classical music, and learned to play the piano, trumpet and the harmonica before graduating with an English degree from Memphis State University. In 1960, she made her acting debut in a local production of "Carousel" and followed that up with several soprano lead performances on "The King and I," "Babes in Arms" and "Oklahoma!" She moved to New York in 1963 and landed a role in an off-Broadway production of William Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale." Carter was slowly making a name for herself in New York, but she left her promising career to get married and raise two children.
After an eight-year absence spent nurturing her family, Carter returned to acting and began a long career on television with a featured role as a lawyer on the popular daytime soap opera "The Edge of Night" (CBS, 1956-1975; ABC, 1975-1984). She appeared as a series regular on the CBS drama "On Our Own" (1977-78), playing a copywriter at a New York advertising agency, as well as in a starring role on the ABC comedy "Out of the Blue" (1979). By the early 1980s, Carter's television career was in full swing. Carter made numerous guest appearances on various TV programs like the action adventure series "The Greatest American Hero" (ABC, 1981-83), the Angie Dickinson crime drama "Cassie & Co." (NBC, 1982), and the mystery thriller "Quincy, M.E." (NBC, 1976-1983), in which she played a doctor. Carter also starred in the comedy series "Filthy Rich" (CBS, 1982-83) as a snobby heiress forced to live with her father's illegitimate son and his family. It was the show that first brought Carter and Delta Burke together as TV sisters. The duo's chemistry did not go unnoticed, but the show soon suffered from competition from other more established hit programs and it was canceled after one season. However, Carter's luck was about to change.
Parlaying her burgeoning fame into a career-defining role, Carter was cast on the top-rated series "Designing Women," which followed four women - played by her former "Filthy Rich" co-star Burke, Annie Potts and Jean Smart - working together in an Atlanta interior design firm. As the company's owner, Julia Sugarbaker, Carter was sophisticated, practical, and an liberal feminist who was often at odds with her self-absorbed and haughty beauty queen sister, Suzanne (Burke). "Designing Women" made Carter a household name and also provided her a chance to work with the award-winning actor Hal Holbrook, who had a recurring role on the show as Julia's suitor. A smitten Holbrook married the twice-divorced Carter in real life in 1984 and the couple began one of Hollywood's happiest unions. While "Designing Women" focused on the lives and loves of the four women on the show, it was also highly praised for tackling timely - even controversial - topics such as racism, homosexuality and spousal abuse. Ironically, the biggest controversy that arose from the show was Burke's falling out with her co-stars - particularly Carter - and the show's producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason over Burke's weight gain and her diva-like attitude on-set during the show's last two seasons. While all four women received top billing and equal screen time, Burke slowly emerged as the sitcom's biggest star, causing tension among the cast and Bloodworth-Thomason. Carter's riff with Burke was perhaps the most bitter as the two women were close friends; Carter was even the maid of honor at Burke's wedding to actor Gerald McRaney in 1989. Ultimately, Burke's litigious relationship with Thomason resulted with Burke being fired at the end of the fifth season and the show ending after a successful seven-year run, during which time it had been cancelled by CBS execs and saved by a loyal and vocal audience.
After her stint on "Designing Women" ended, Carter's popularity waned slightly. In response, she started taking on projects that surprised even her core group of fans. In 1992, she produced and starred in "Dixie Carter's Unworkout," a 70-minute yoga routine that showed a silk pajama-clad Carter guiding viewers through various stretching and breathing exercises while making them laugh with her self-deprecating commentaries. She also wrote the book Trying to Get to Heaven: Opinions of a Tennessee Talker (1996), where she opined about all sorts of topics ranging from her secrets to inner and outer beauty to tips on finding lasting happiness. After an unsuccessful attempt at becoming a fitness trainer and author, Carter went back to her television roots, appearing on various series such as "Diagnosis Murder" (CBS, 1993-2001) as a lawyer and the short-lived comedy, "Ladies Man" where she was a manipulative mother. Carter had a recurring role on "Family Law," playing a Southern belle who had killed her abusive husband before becoming a sharp-tongued lawyer with a deep-rooted hatred for all men.
In 2006, Carter gained a new generation of fans with a memorable role on "Desperate Housewives" as Kyle MacLachlan's devious mother who harbors a very dangerous obsession with her son. The series creator, Marc Cherry, had at one time been Carter's personal assistant years prior and felt she would be the best person for the part. The performance earned Carter an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series in 2007. The following year, she starred in the inspiring made-for-TV drama, "Our First Christmas," about a newly blended family who clash over their conflicting holiday traditions. In 2009, Carter acted opposite her husband in the critically acclaimed film "That Evening Sun," playing Holbrook's long-dead wife who keeps reappearing in his dreams. It would be one of her final performances. Shockingly, on April 10, 2010, Carter passed away of undisclosed causes, with her famous husband releasing only the briefest of statements: "This has been a terrible blow to our family. We would appreciate everyone understanding that this is a private family tragedy. Thank you."
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