The epitomical “Southern belle,” radiant with finesse, grace, and an aura of down-home hospitality, Tennessee-born actress and chanteuse Dixie Carter received her broadest exposure on television thanks to two memorable sitcom roles: that of TV exercise hostess Maggie McKinney, spunky romantic partner and wife of millionaire Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain), on Diff’rent Strokes, and that of Julia Sugarbaker, Atlanta fashion designer extraordinaire, on the long-running Thomason-produced sitcom Designing Women.
Carter was born in McLemoresville, TN, the daughter of two grocery-store proprietors. As a young lady, she projected a heightened gift for song. She studied music at Rhodes College in Memphis, then moved to Manhattan in 1963 to launch herself as a musical-theater star, but her career stalled for seven years given her 1967 marriage to Wall Street financier Arthur Carter (no blood relation to her; the common surname was a coincidence). Carter returned to the stage in 1974, with pivotal roles in such productions as Fathers and Sons and Pal Joey, and landed the part of Brandy Henderson in the soap opera The Edge of Night. In 1979, the actress moved to Los Angeles to commence film work. In the mean time, the marriage to Carter, and then a subsequent marriage, to Broadway star George Hearn, dissolved.
By the late ’70s and early ’80s, Carter started racking up occasional bit parts and guest appearances in such series as Lou Grant, Out of the Blue, and Quincy, M.E. The Diff’rent Strokes part (which lasted only one season — Carter withdrew from the series and was replaced at the start of the 1985-1986 season by cover girl and one-time Miss America Mary Ann Mobley) represented her highest billing up through that time. Then came the Sugarbaker role. Carter was one of the few members of the ensemble (alongside Annie Potts and Meshach Taylor) to actually remain with the program through the end of its run (in 1993), and fans still indelibly associate her with the series. In the mean time, Carter’s third husband, actor Hal Holbrook (who signed for a supporting role alongside his wife on Designing Women), encouraged her to resuscitate her singing career, and she mounted a well-received cabaret act, modeling her approach to old standards after the esteemed Mabel Mercer.
Carter’s resumé of onscreen work also includes appearances in such long-form projects as the feature The Killing of Randy Webster (1981) and the miniseries Dazzle (1995). She gained additional acclaim and recognition with her portrayal of Gloria Hodge on the prime-time black comedy series Desperate Housewives.