Dale Dickey: Working Girl

Typecast or not, actor Dale Dickey makes a living in Hollywood, but it's not easy

When people recognize Dale Dickey in the street, it's usually for her role as Patty the Daytime Hooker. It happened during our interview in her hometown, when a woman approached our table at Little Havana and asked for her autograph—for her husband, or so she said, who was a big fan of My Name Is Earl, the offbeat NBC comedy which just finished its four-year run. And Dale obligingly signed her name, then "Patty" in quotation marks.

It's okay with her, even though this week she's "Blanche," a somewhat weightier role, in Clarence Brown Theatre's production of A Streetcar Named Desire. She's appeared in dozens of serious roles on stage, in indie films, in major motion pictures, and on prime-time TV, but Patty was her most durable role. It happens even in Los Angeles, where she lives. "I was in Kinko's, and this boy whispered, ‘Are you the Hooker?'"

"It's flattering and kind of fun, and weird," she says, but adds she's sometimes taken aback and how suddenly she's recognized. As Patty, she always wore bizarre coats of makeup. In simple summer clothes on a hot day, her blonde hair clean and free, and without makeup to accentuate her light-blue eyes, she doesn't look much like Patty. Lately, some recognize her for another TV role, a couple of episodes as a junkie in extreme circumstances in the AMC drama Breaking Bad.

"It's the chin," she says, pointing it a little away from you, as if it were loaded. "I have an angular face." And to casting directors, it tends to suggest hard-edged characters: drug addicts, mountain women, bag ladies, prostitutes, sometimes outdoorsy types, like the game warden she played in an episode of The X Files. If it's limited her potential as a leading lady—Hollywood likes its faces to be a quick read—at 48 she accepts that it may have brought her roles, too.

"If that's what they see me as, there's where I want to go," she says. She was already in her mid-30s when she started in Hollywood, an age when some starlets are already giving up. Harder-looking women may find more work as character actors in middle age than fading beauties might. IMDB lists 47 credits for Dickey since 1995, most of them TV shows, but several major motion pictures, like The Pledge, with Jack Nicholson, and Domino, about a female bounty hunter, with Keira Knightley and Mickey Rourke. She had a minor role in last year's The Changeling.

Counted one for one, she has more 21st-century credits than many major movie stars have, but most were small character parts, and it takes more than credits in major motion pictures and prime-time TV shows to make a living in Hollywood.

Early in her career, when she was working on stage in New York, she attended an acting workshop led by television producer David Tochterman. In a discussion of the Southern playwright Beth Henley, she protested, "But I don't want to get typecast...."

Tochterman interrupted her. "Yes, you do want to get typecast," he said. It's a tough business: getting typecast often means getting cast. "You read Southern, you look Southern, you're even nice like you're Southern."

She doesn't sound particularly Southern today. She seems to have taken on what sounds like an upper Midwestern accent—she blames her Detroit-raised husband Steve, who she actually met in Knoxville when he was working as a bartender at Lucille's, the late-night jazz club in the Old City in the mid-1990s. She was shooting Christy, the inspirational television series, in which she had a recurring role as strong-willed mountain woman Opal McHone. The filming was done on location in the Smokies, but Dickey came into town every night off for drinks at Lucille's. The two finally married last year.

It's hard to define what "looking Southern" might imply; her parents are from New Orleans and North Carolina, sure enough, but some of her ancestry is Russian Jewish.

None of that's to deny that she's Southern. Dale Dickey grew up in the Bearden area, the daughter of David Dale Dickey, a writer known for his outdoor work, and Missy Dickey, who ran for the state legislature in 1974. Though divorced, her parents both still live here, and she remains close with both of them. Her Southern accent is still in there somewhere; she says it tends to emerge unsummoned when she talks with her mom.

She hasn't lived in Knoxville full time in almost a quarter century, but in a walk around Fort Sanders and downtown, every corner brings memories, and a story. She's staying in an apartment building near what's now known as the Ronald McDonald House; 25 years ago, the old Victorian brick home at the corner of Clinch and 17th was the Theater House, where she lived for several years. Living with theater people is fittingly dramatic; they celebrated birthdays with flair, and certain invented holidays, like the Spring Fling and the Fall Ball, punctuated with an occasional naked tree-climb in the magnolia in front. (She claims she didn't participate, but it sounds as if she enjoyed them nonetheless.)

We walk by the Laurel Theater, site of some of her first plays with The Play Group, an independent and earnest troupe best known in the '70s. She remembers a long-ago production of Romeo and Juliet there. The Clinch Avenue viaduct takes us by the Sunsphere, and she recalls scaling it, with a band of intrepid theater people, before it was finished, before it even had proper stairs. She hasn't been up since the World's Fair, and is surprised to learn it's open. Emerging from the elevator onto the otherwise empty observation deck, she says, "Oh, my God, I haven't been here in so long. There's the Humanities Building!" and recalls putting on a play there. "On a clear day, I bet you can see Mount LeConte." It's not a clear day, but the possibility prompts memories of when her father pulled her and her brother and sister out of school to spend the day hiking it.

She was in a 1982 production of The Mikado, and showed up in costume at the Fair to promote it. "We wore big wigs and Kabuki makeup. All the Korean and Asian tourists wanted their pictures taken with the funny American trying to look like them."

Downtown she stops, unexpectedly, in Krutch Park, the green space on Market Street that was developed about the time she left town.

"Mr. Krutch lived in our neighborhood," she says. "His goldfish pond was lined with stones, like this." She may be the only person in Krutch Park today who knew Charlie Krutch, the reclusive photographer who died in 1981, and then surprised the city with a million-dollar bequest for an urban park. Some of her fondest childhood memories, she says, are of playing in Mr. Krutch's back yard on Sherwood Drive. Krutch was in his 80s when they were neighbors; he had a formal garden in the back yard, bounded by a hedge of thick boxwoods, with a goldfish pond in the middle. "It was our Alice in Wonderland playground," Dickey says. She and her friends played back there, sometimes put on performances for each other. Mr. Krutch would sometimes sit on his porch, in a wheelchair, and wave, as his caretaker brought the children cookies and drinks. "It was a little sanctuary for us," she says, and wipes her eyes.

And she remembers doing a turn on Market Square, during a Dogwood Arts Festival, as a clown, with stiff Pippi Longstocking braids. "What a foolish little idiot I was," she says. The memory of being an over-the-top clown at Dogwood Arts can make her cringe in a way that playing the Daytime Hooker for a national audience doesn't.

Surprisingly, given her experience with gritty Southern roles, she has never been in a Tennessee Williams play until this one. She grew up hearing stories about the playwright's Aunt Ella, an eccentric who ran a dress shop downtown.

Sitting on a bench, she talks about her own differences with Blanche Dubois—Dickey never thought she had the looks to play Blanche, and never fell for some of Blanche's illusions. But she's familiar with the plight of a middle-aged woman at a crossroads. Praising director Cal McClain and her co-stars, some of whom she's worked with before, she talks about the deceptive complexity of the emotions in the play, which is overtly a story between four people dealing with some basic, even crude, emotions, overlaid with fragility. "It gets more and more complex the more we explore it," she says. It's a 13-night play. The cast sounds tightly wound around the script's complexities, with little room for error. "There's the possibility of a mistake, and all that going to hell," she says. "It's really thrilling. And quite terrifying."

Sitting on a bench talking about her craft when a truckdriver built like Stanley Kowalski sets down a beer keg on the concrete with a clang. She jumps, and apologizes that the role has made her a little edgy.

In rehearsals, she finds herself weeping. "It costs me, because it has to. I have to embody it as much as I can."

MY NAME IS EARL was different. "That kind of came out of the blue," she says. "I never had a recurring role in a comedy." She gives the credit for the show's success to creator/producer Greg Garcia, "whom I adore." The comedy about a likeable doofus trying to make up for a careless life, sometimes described as post-modern or absurdist, was popular, at least for a while, and may have broken ground in America's prime-time consciousness for other offbeat, no-laugh-track comedies like 30 Rock.

"It was like a family working together every single day," she says of the Earl crew, an unusually happy set. Actor Jason Lee, a jokester, made every shoot seem like a party. Dickey was especially fond of fellow Southerner Jaime Pressly. Pressly's character Joy was uninhibited on the show, but Pressly was continually reminding her colleagues, when the ad-libs got out of hand, "This is an 8 o'clock show." Kids would be watching.

She still sounds excited about the day they introduced Patty's mother. "We got someone really great for your mom," the directors said. "I almost fainted when they said Betty White." On set, they worked crossword puzzles together.

Patty didn't appear in every episode, four or five per season; each took about a week to shoot. Four or five weeks of 12-hour days was something like living salary in Hollywood, and a rarity. "It was the first time I was making a living as an actor," she says. "The second year I got to quit my day job," she says. Office work for a non-profit was one of the better sustaining jobs she'd found in her years in Los Angeles, which have included time as a car-parking valet and a waitress. Once while parking cars for a party, she encountered actor Jack Nicholson, with whom she'd worked on The Pledge. "What are you doing here?" he asked. He corrected himself quickly, and said, "You're making a living, aren't you." He sat down with her and talked about his early days; it turned out he used to park cars, too.

She says her valet-parking colleagues were appalled. They had strict rules never to talk to celebrities.

Dickey has repeatedly depended on the kindness of celebrities. Her most conspicuous Broadway credit was a minor chorus-type role in a 1989 production of The Merchant of Venice starring Dustin Hoffman. Half the fun of it was meeting other actors who came to see the show. She got to meet Paul Newman ("so gorgeous") and Morgan Freeman ("so friendly and kind"). Michael Jackson came in, with dramatic secrecy, wearing his surgeon's mask. She met Stephen Spielberg and Denzel Washington. But her best story has to do with a rash.

She suspects it had something to do with the fact that she'd been bitten by a copperhead—hardly an occupational hazard for a New York actor, maybe, but one for Dale Dickey, who, wherever she's living, can't stay away from the woods. Hoffman noticed she was having a skin problem, and gave her the name of his dermatologist. She politely accepted, but didn't make the appointment; she didn't have money for a doctor. Hoffman was checking up on her, though, and demanded, "Why didn't you call my doctor?" Hoffman told her she was "much too pretty a woman" to neglect her skin. "He picked up the phone and made me an appointment with his dermatologist within a week." Nervously she kept the appointment, then, when it was over, asked about the bill. "No, no, Mr. Hoffman is covering it," responded the receptionist. "I burst into tears. Dustin Hoffman paid for the treatments. I was overwhelmed and thankful."

"People are wonderful, big as they are," she says.

When she talks about Patty—"There's a tragedy underneath her, but she carries it all with humor"—you can't help thinking she's talking about herself, and all actors who devote themselves to a wildly uncertain business.

For now, she lives in Los Angeles, but doesn't like the city much. The best parts of the city, she says, are some developing pedestrian arts districts which are developing something along the lines of downtown Knoxville.

"There's not a sense of community," she says. "Everybody's in their little bubbles." She likes living near the ocean, and needs to live near the studios. "And you can't beat the weather," she admits, but adds, "I do miss my rainstorms." Emerging from a rehearsal into the rain, Streetcar colleagues were surprised when she turned down an offer of a ride to her apartment a few blocks away. No, she said, "I want to walk."

Whenever they can, she and her husband get away on camping trips to Yosemite, Sequoia, or Joshua Tree, or sometimes closer natural areas like Big Deer Lake or the Kern River Valley. "It's very similar to the Smokies, just not as green," she says.

"Steve and I love East Tennessee," she says. "I don't want to grow old in L.A. But I am growing old in L.A. I don't want to grow much older there." Her ideal, she says, would be to keep a cabin in Townsend.

EARL'S CAST AND CREW found out in May that the show wouldn't be renewed. Shows were broadcast through the summer, as deals to make it work on cable fell through. The final day was an unexpected shock. "It was the saddest news about Earl," she says. "We all left the set wondering if we'd see each other again." Her recent two-episode part in Breaking Bad, a drama about meth addiction in which she plays a junkie, is probably the grimmest character she's ever played, but isn't a regular thing.

She has a small role—typically, as "Earth Momma"—in A Perfect Getaway, a violent thriller released last month.

When this Clarence Brown production is over, she admits, "I don't have a job." Several movies are in the works, like Southern Baptist Sissies, based on a controversial play about homosexuality in a conservative community written by Del Shores, a writer/producer (Dharma and Greg, Queer as Folk) with whom Dickey likes to work. But that project is a couple of years behind scheduled, stalled at the moment, as are many movie projects right now, waiting for financing.

It's part of the business. She has access to medical insurance through the Screen Actors Guild, but has to work a certain amount each year in SAG-approved projects to maintain it.

For now, though, she's concentrating on Blanche, trying to squeeze as much as she can into its necessarily short college-theater run. She does some live theater in Los Angeles, and says she sometimes doesn't fully discover her characters she's playing until six weeks into the run; she doesn't have that luxury here. "It'll be hard to let go of," she says.