Character roles have given Richard Dix a lifetime of work


For 30 years Baltimorean Richard Dix has been earning a solid living in the perpetually uncertain profession known as the legitimate theater. Never a star, he is that sturdy backbone of any play, the versatile character actor.

In this capacity, and without the pressures of maintaining the leading-man image, Dix has enacted hundreds of roles, from Shakespearean heavies and buffoons to a slickly villainous businessman bent on defrauding a promising young black composer.

This latter role is what he is currently portraying in the Center Stage production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," August Wilson's drama on the plight of black musicians battling white management in 1920s America.

Dix attended Forest Park High School and City College, but interrupted his education for World War II. Upon his return home, he earned his high school diploma at Polytechnic Institute.

Dix studied for a while at the American Institute of Theatre at William and Mary College in Virginia. In Baltimore, he trained under Isabel B. Burger, the guiding light behind the Children's Theater Association, of which he eventually became managing director.

The fledging actor appeared in a variety of roles with the Vagabond Players at the group's old Read Street carriage house and, subsequently, at the group's Congress Hotel location.

He has been married to his actress-wife, Nancy, for 39 years. The couple still live in the Baltimore house they purchased almost 40 years ago.

"I have an agent in New York," says Dix, taking a few minutes to relax before the afternoon matinee. "He calls me for auditions in New York and I hop a train up and back. I hate New York," he adds, shaking his thick mane of white hair. "You can't see the sky."

A veteran of many regional theaters, Dix was in the Broadway productions of "Show Boat" (with Donald O'Connor) and "Othello" (with James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer).

In December of 1978 he played the jocular Christmas Present in Center Stage's high-tech adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" (a characterization he reprised last year with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater). He was in Center Stage's 1979 production of "Measure for Measure" and "You Can't Take it With You."

In his international travels, the actor has performed with the Moscow Art Theatre, the Pushkin Theatre in Leningrad and the Jerusalem Theatre in Israel. Movie and television credits include "Black Marble" and "10 Speed and Brown Shoe." He has also appeared in character roles in such television soaps as "Another World."

Dix started his professional performance career as the popular television personality Officer Happy for WBAL-TV. "I was an Irish Keystone Cop," he says, "hosting 'Our Gang' comedies, announcing birthdays and giving safety tips. The children's show ran four years and was highly rated.

"While at WBAL, I played Dr. Lucifer, a grisly host who spoofed the late Saturday night horror movies," says Dix. "Then I was fired," he adds with a laugh. "Too long a story to go into. So I decided to try theater permanently. That was in 1959, and I have been employed in this medium ever since."

The actor works about nine months a year, spending most of that time away from home. "That is what is nice about this play," he says. "I can live at home like a normal person. Believe me, it's lonely eating in restaurants on the road."

His first professional theater job was with Washington's Arena Stage in 1959. "The play was 'The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.' I played the head of the court martial board. When I wasn't on stage they talked about me a lot . . . made the role seem larger than it is."

What about his present role as Sturdyvant, the owner of the studio where Ma Rainey and her backup musicians are having a recording session?

"I am enjoying the experience," he says. "When my character cheats the black composer, Levee, most people see this as racist. I play it not thinking that, but thinking green, greedy. Levee could be anyone."

Getting into character before walking on stage is not a complex process for Dix. "People have ways of whipping themselves up," he says. "For me it happens in the rehearsal room. I don't go off in a corner and meditate if I am popping on and off.

"I don't believe actors are artists," he insists, "they are entertainers . . . unlike a painter or a writer whose works are tangible . . . when the show is over it's gone.

"There are three kinds of actors," he adds. "Actors, good actors and lucky actors. I don't know how good I am but I have been very lucky being at the right spot at the right time."

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