“Designing Women” star Dixie Carter, whose Southern charm and natural beauty led to dozens of roles on the screen and stage, died on Saturday. She was 70.
The news was released by her publicist Steve Rohr, who also represents Carter’s husband, actor Hal Holbrook. The couple, who married in 1984, lived in the L.A. area but Rohr declined to disclose where Carter died or the cause of death.
“This has been a terrible blow to our family,” Holbrook said in a statement. “We would appreciate everyone understanding that this is a private family tragedy.”
A Tennessee native, Carter was most famous for playing wisecracking Southerner Julia Sugarbaker in CBS sitcom “Designing Women” (1986-93). The series was the peak of a career in which she often played wealthy and self-important but independent Southern women.
Born in Memphis, Carter trained to be an opera singer but was stopped by a botched tonsillectomy. Still she learned several musical instruments and studied classical music.
Carter’s stage debut was in a 1960 Memphis production of “Carousel.” Three years later, she made her Gotham debut in “A Winter’s Tale,” helmed by Joseph Papp. On Broadway she starred in 1974’s “Sextet” as well as a revival of “Pal Joey.”
Following her marriage to a businessman she left showbiz for eight years to raise two daughters. Returning proved difficult, but Carter secured roles in soaps “One Life to Live” and “The Edge of Night.”
In 1977, she made it to primetime as copywriter April Baxter in the CBS sitcom “On Our Own,” a comedy about two young women trying to make it on Madison Avenue. Other TV credits include “Quincy, M.E.,” “The Greatest American Hero,” “Family Law” and “Lou Grant.” In 1982, she joined the Eye’s “Filthy Rich,” playing snooty Carlotta Beck. Carter had auditioned for the role of the low-class Bootsie Winchester but impressed the producers so much that they gave her the heavier role. She also played fitness instructor Maggie McKinney who marries Conrad Bain’s Phillip Drummond in the later episodes of “Diff’rent Strokes.”
As Southern feminist Sugarbaker who ran an interior design firm in “Designing Women,” Carter became the voice of showrunner Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. However, Bloodworth-Thomason’s liberal views were the opposite of her own conservative leanings, giving Carter leverage to strike a deal allowing her to sing on the show, according to Playbill.
Among guest stars on the show were members of Carter’s family, her two daughters and husband Holbrook, with whom she appeared on stage in later years.
She was nommed for an Emmy for “Designing Women,” as well as for a seven-episode guest stint on ABC hit “Desperate Housewives,” where she played the scary and mean mother-in-law to Bree (Marcia Cross).
Carter also received a Drama Desk nom for 1979’s “Fathers and Sons” Off Broadway and a Theater Desk kudo for “Jesse and the Bandit Queen.”
She appeared on Broadway in 1997 play “Master Class,” where the once-aspiring opera singer played Maria Callas, and 2004 tuner revival “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Elsewhere, she was featured in D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater’s productions of Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan” and “A Woman of No Importance.”
Carter also sang professionally at the Carlyle and the Oak Room in Gotham.
Her film credits included roles in “Going Berserk” with John Candy, “The Big Day” with Julianna Margulies and “That Evening Sun,” her last outing, with Holbrook.
Besides Holbrook, survivors include daughters Ginna Carter, an actress, and Mary Dixie Carter, a screenwriter, from her first marriage.