Sunday, April 11, 2010


April truly is the time of showers. Last April it was Bea Arthur. And now it’s Dixie Carter. All my icons are dying. Donna Summer and Mary Tyler Moore, take care of yourselves, see your doctors just as a precaution.

Bea and Dixie both starred in sitcoms, portraying strong women who spoke their minds as Maude Findlay and Julia Sugarbaker respectively. I loved their characters for their candor, their sense of justice and a raw compassion that viewers could see through their tough exteriors. “Maude” was a show I had to catch in glimpses. When the show wandered into too controversial territory, my mother would send me to my room, the items (continually) spilling from my closet suddenly requiring urgent attention.

By the mid-’80s, I was on my own and no one could control my channel choices. Bea and I got reacquainted when “The Golden Girls” debuted in 1985. “Designing Women” came along a year later. Both shows were must-see programming for me. When I moved to L.A. and finally came out, I wouldn’t go to the clubs on Saturday nights until I’d had my single slice of cheesecake with Rose, Blanche, Sophia and Dorothy. In truth, Rose was my favorite simply because she was so batty (and, yes, it was a delight to see Betty White shed her Sue Ann Nivens). Still, Dorothy was the rock, the one making sense of the insanity. With all the chaos swirling around my life, Dorothy was the one with whom I most identified—right down to the frumpy dating pariah characterization “gently” perpetuated by Blanche.

I bounced around in trying to decide which of the four original “Designing Women” characters I loved the most. Suzanne Sugarbaker was a younger Blanche right down to the Southern accent, Charlene was Rose and Mary Jo and Dixie Carter’s Julia split the Dorothy duties, with a few traces of Sophia thrown in. (Later, Alice Ghostley’s Bernice added another beloved Rose-like voice.) Much of the credit to the strong characters has to be given to writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, but Dixie Carter brought Julia to life. Julia regularly got on her pulpit, spouting off lengthy rants about justice and decorum. Her character inspired and empowered me. I daresay Julia Sugarbaker even contributed to my going to law school. (Not that I shared that with any of my fellow students! No, I went with the standard answer, citing “L.A. Law”. Everything is a little different in Los Angeles—even law school.)

While in L.A., I was impressionable with my new gay freedom. I remember meeting a very attractive man at Rage in West Hollywood and thinking I’d found my life partner. During our alcohol-infused conversation, I mentioned that I loved “Designing Women”. He did too! I was shocked and devastated when he failed to return my calls after our one-night fling.

I wrote a spec script for “Designing Women”, but I never dared to show it to anyone other than a jealous partner of mine who had recently given up his dream of becoming a television writer. His feedback was muffled. He did redeem himself by calling David Steinberg (a frequent director on the show and for whom he’d previously worked as a personal assistant) and getting us tickets to a taping of the show. By then, Jan Hooks and Judith Ivey were part of the revolving cast, but Dixie Carter was still there. I sat in a prime seat in the studio audience right beside her husband, Hal Holbrook. I did not dare speak to him, but it was obvious he enjoyed watching her perform as much as I did.

In later years, I did check out “Family Law”, strictly because Dixie Carter was in the cast and I was thrilled to see her surface as the wicked Gloria Hodge on “Desperate Housewives”. But Dixie will always be a beloved icon to me for the life and depth she breathed into Julia Sugarbaker.

Gone too soon.

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