Carol Wallace
April 16, 1984 12:00 PM

In the course of their adventurous three-and-a-half-year romance, he slooped to conquer the Tennessee actress-singer with, among other seemingly uncharacteristic derring-do, an ocean voyage from Fiji to New Zealand aboard his 40-foot sloop. Yet when it came time for Hal Holbrook to share center stage last year with true love Dixie (Diff’rent Strokes) Carter, togetherness nearly doomed the duo. As vicious rivals in the New York and London productions of Thomas Babe’s coolly received drama, Buried Inside Extra, Holbrook brought his character home with him, while Carter left her role at the stage door. Explains Holbrook, who played a city editor to Carter’s spunky women’s-page editor, “I got terribly jealous because she had these big flirting scenes with [actor] Billy Roberts, who is the nicest fellow going. He used to just drive me nuts. But I couldn’t stop watching it. It was like boring a nail into my heart.”

Carter, 43, and Holbrook, 59 (who appears this week as John Adams in CBS’ George Washington miniseries), patched things up during a trip to Austria last summer. And come May, they plan to marry—the third time for each—in the First Methodist Church in Dixie’s hometown of McLemoresville, Tenn. (pop. 311). The jitters over marrying again have already surfaced. “We’ve both lived by ourselves for so long that privacy could be a problem,” concedes Dixie. Interjects Holbrook, “Worried? Lord, yes. Good God! I have fears floating through my ears all the time. But I want very much to be happy with Dixie.” If wishfulness doesn’t make the marriage stick, perhaps Carter’s house rule will. “Every evening at 6:30 I say, ‘No phone calls. I don’t care if it’s the Pope; that’s it. Break out the wine!’ We’re both dead set—not in a crazy way—on having fun every day,” she explains.

Carter’s vivaciousness is a perfect foil to Holbrook’s born-to-worry nature. And his support boosts Dixie’s precarious self-esteem. As she observes, “I believe that the dissolution of a marriage comes about by the breaking down of self-esteem.” Notes Hal: “There is something about this that encourages me to use the better sides of my nature.” That’s not to say I haven’t sometimes been terrible.

However, the pair’s previous marriages have left wounds. Carter’s 10-year first marriage, to handsome Wall Street financier Arthur Carter, ended in 1977, but the two had separated often before the final crash. (She has custody of their daughters, Ginna, 14, and Mary-Dixie, 13.) In December 1977 she married Broadway star George (La Cage aux Folles) Hearn, 49, whom she met 16 years earlier in a Memphis production of Carousel. Their 11-month union was tumultuous and painful. “We had these extremely Byronic, romantic ideas about each other,” says Dixie. “I guess we found out, to our heartbreak, that it was a fairy-tale romance too fragile for the real world. The wounds will never heal.”

As for Holbrook, he too is well acquainted with frustrations of failed unions. His first marriage, to actress Ruby Johnston, ended after 21 years in 1966 and produced two children, Victoria, 31, and David, 28. And in 1977 he split with his second wife, actress Carol Rossen, with whom he has a daughter, Eve, 13. After one failed stab at reconciliation, Holbrook and Rossen were divorced last December. He met Dixie in 1980, when they played husband and wife in the made-for-TV movie The Killing of Randy Webster. Both believe that the timing of their encounter was fortuitous. “Hal and I recognize something in each other that wouldn’t have been possible to understand if we had met 15 years ago,” explains Carter. “We both have a deep melancholy in our natures and haven’t been able to shrug off or laugh off what’s happened to us in our lives. We battle against that sadness, that melancholy.”

Their professional lives should give them little cause for concern. Holbrook, a three-time Emmy winner best known for his one-man Mark Twain Tonight! show, just ended a 14-city tour with that showcase and is hosting cable TV’s Portrait of America. Born Harold Rowe Holbrook in Cleveland, he and two sisters were raised by their paternal grandparents in South Weymouth, Mass. after his father, a shoe salesman, abandoned the family when Hal was 2, and his mother, a vaudeville dancer, left her children to continue a theatrical career. He began acting professionally in 1942, then entered Denison University, where he earned a degree in theater arts. Since his Mark Twain show opened in a New York nightclub in 1955, he has performed as the humorist some 1,500 times, and concedes, “I’ll probably keep doing it until I die.”

Carter grew up in McLemoresville, where her parents, Halbert and Virginia, still run the H.L. Carter & Sons grocery. She moved to New York to study singing and acting in 1963, after graduating from Memphis State University. But her 1967 marriage to Arthur Carter and the raising of two daughters forced her into a reluctant seven-year hiatus from performing. “She feels she lost out on a chance to have a big movie career. She’s not bitter about it, but she’s sad sometimes. It’s not easy when you come back at her age,” says Holbrook. Dixie puts it more simply: “It was a choice I made for my girls.” She returned to the stage in 1974 and appeared in such plays as Pal Joey and Fathers and Sons (opposite Richard Chamberlain, who remains a close friend). In 1979 she moved to Los Angeles, where she survived the forgettable series Out of the Blue and did guest spots on Lou Grant, Quincy and Best of the West. Her role as the imperious, bitchy Carlotta Beck, wife of a plantation owner, on the short-lived series Filthy Rich last season won her long-delayed acclaim. Still, singing remains her first love (Mabel Mercer is her idol), and at Holbrook’s urging, she recently created a critically acclaimed cabaret act.

Once they marry, Holbrook will move out of his Brentwood apartment and into Dixie’s newly rented, four-bedroom Westwood home, situated on an acre of land dotted by orange, guava and kumquat trees. Sharing the accommodations are Dixie’s daughters. They have become friendly with Hal’s offspring Eve, who lives with her mother in Pacific Palisades. Dixie admits to cooking “only occasionally” (“the best Southern fried chicken you’ve ever tasted,” she says). But to make sure the family is well fed, Dixie has a live-in couple who do the cooking and housework. Though Carter says she and Holbrook are “basically hermits,” they sometimes chow down with such close pals as the Robert Culps. In fact, during a recent visit by Dixie’s mother to L.A., Dixie called Culp’s wife, Candace, to warn her husband not to use any expletives during an upcoming dinner. “My mother won’t tolerate any four-letter words,” says Dixie.

Despite the ebbs and flows in the relationship, Carter and Holbrook are intent on making marriage No. 3 work. “Hal makes me feel talented, that I’m a good singer, a good mother, but most of all a good human being,” observes Dixie. “With my first two husbands, I always kinda sensed they thought there was something wrong with me. Maybe I was too flighty, or whatever. I think Hal is an absolute prince. So as long as we keep these shimmery attitudes toward each other, I think we’ll be in good shape.”

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