A Southern Bell On Wisteria Lane

Dixie Carter In Concert
Never mind those awful stories about your mother-in-law. Dixie Carter plays the maniacal, homicidal Gloria Hodge on "Desperate Housewives," mother of Bree's husband.

"Mean as a snake," Carter told CBS News correspondent Seth Doane. "And no redeeming features."

Lose the wig and trim a few years - and you might remember Carter as the no-nonsense designer from another TV hit. On the seven seasons of "Designing Women" she played Julia Sugarbaker.

But one Hollywood producer knew there was a side to Carter that viewers had yet to discover. Marc Cherry, the creator of "Desperate Housewives," says that after coming up with the role of Gloria Hodge, only one actress came to mind: his old boss. Cherry used to be Carter's assistant 20 years ago.

"The idea of having Dixie do a character that people haven't seen was so attractive to me," he said. "The audience responds to that. It's a fresh thing. And I think that's one of the reasons she got the Emmy nomination."

Even working for Carter was dramatic, Cherry said.

"The new house that we moved into, I had a little office right outside the master bedroom. And every morning, Dixie would make an entrance. Which I thought was odd, because it was just me. But the door would fling open," he said. "And I would hear this 'Marc!' And she would sweep, you know -- down the hallway. And I thought, 'This is just how you walk? Or are you doing it for me?'"

Her flair for the dramatic serves Carter well in her cabaret act. And it didn't take much to convince her to sing for Sunday Morning, a song written by her friend and cabaret partner, John Wallowitch, who passed away just a few weeks ago.

Carter says music - singing, specifically - is her first true love. She knew it when she was still a toddler in McLemoresville, Tenn.

"I was standing up singing when I was two years old," she said. "The summer I was 2 I was singing songs in Sunday school. And Miss Rachael McKenny would give me a quart of strawberries."

A life on stage followed almost naturally - mostly musical comedy. She was briefly married to actor George Hearn in the '70s. She went on to perform in New York as well. Carter seemed destined to be a star until, at 27, her life took what she calls a "detour."

"I met this man named Arthur Carter, and my name was Dixie Carter," she said. She met him in a New York City restaurant. "He sent me a dozen roses the next day. And I married him. And we had two gorgeous girls, Ginna and Mary Dixie, together."

She left show business to be a wife and mother. She says she has no regrets, but when her marriage failed, she was just 35 and she had a problem: She was too old to get an agent.

But Carter managed to get back on her feet and back in the spotlight. At the ancient age of 40, she was wooed to Hollywood - daughters in tow.

"Tears on the faces of everybody, I was leaving in New York 'cause they knew I was too old," she said. "They knew - 40 is too old to go to Hollywood, right? We all know that. But I'm proud of that. I'm proud of being the valedictorian in my class. And I'm proud of coming to Hollywood at 40, and somehow by hook or by crook, and God almighty as my helper, meeting Linda Bloodworth."

Producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason helped make Carter a household name. With her husband, Harry, she created a show about four interior decorators in Atlanta called "Designing Women." Carter had made it at an age when some Hollywood actresses are hanging it up.

"Success, to me, is just wonderful. And yes, the fact that I was older allowed me to appreciate it, not take it for granted," she said. "And I hope and pray I continue to behave well toward people."

Carter would go on to find success in her third marriage, to actor Hal Holbrook, who is currently on the road starring in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" in Hartford. He may be his wife's biggest fan.

"When I watch Dixie on 'Desperate Housewives,' I love the way she created a character which is bizarre," he said. "It's an unreal character. But she made it real. It's like a cartoon but she made it believable. Believable. She's just a damn good actress."

He should know. Holbrook has won five Emmys for his acting. And while Carter doesn't yet have an Emmy of her own to join the collection, she seems to take it all in stride, to a point.

"I'll tell you the way that I look at an award," she said. "An award is absolutely of no importance whatsoever, unless you win one. And then it's great. I haven't won one, but I consider winning a nomination a win."

Besides, Carter is having fun - on stage, on screen and in life. And that is not bad for a Tennessee girl who sang for strawberries.

"You know, growing up in the South, what you want is a good-looking boy, a convertible car, and a string of pearls, and that is a good time," she said. "And I have had many and many a good time!"