Ed Dixon’s emotional pendulum — as one might expect from an actor — swings wide.
During an hour-long interview in the lobby of Signature Theatre where he’s on the boards each night as Max in “Sunset Boulevard,” Dixon laughs uproariously and heartily several times recanting tales and dropping names from his four-decade career. And though no tears appear, two of the stories he tells involve copious sheddings thereof.
One even came during “Sunset,” though it was during his initial encounter with the musical 14 years ago when he toured with it for a year with Linda Balgord as Norma.
“In the movie it cuts away from (Max) all the time, but on the stage he’s up there a lot of time in the background just suffering,” Dixon says. “At the end of act one there was a part where I stand behind a fringe curtain at the part where Norma pulls Joe down on top of her and I would just release the curtain down on my face. Well after standing there for six months or whatever it was in that condition, feeling this wretched, painful condition, it’s like your body doesn’t know you’re only kidding. It’s like you’re really experiencing that. This one night I just started crying and cried all during intermission. People were going, ‘Are you OK? I was like, ‘Uhh, not really.’ It had really built up over the run. So how do you deal with that every day for a year? It makes you kind of crazy.”
This production, which runs through Feb. 13 and has been the second-biggest hit in Signature’s 21-year history (after “Les Miserables”), hasn’t been as emotionally draining, Dixon says. But it has been taxing. Returning to the role has been rewarding and challenging, he says.
The lessons Dixon, 62, uses to coach actors and singers for auditions in New York, where he lives on the Upper West Side, have come in handy.
“It feels different doing eight shows a week than it did 14 years ago. I was really vocally stronger 14 years ago but I’ve also been very pleased to see how much agility I still have. … I went into daily training months ago.”
It’s the most vocally challenging part Dixon — who has extensive opera and musical theater credits — has done in years.
The Anadarko, Okla., native and son of a Church of Christ revival minister, knew early on he liked boys, even before he had the language to articulate it. Asked at church as a pre-schooler whom he would someday marry, he matter-of-factly answered Jimmy DeLong, a boy from his neighborhood.
“They said, ‘You can’t marry a boy.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ I remember that, but I didn’t know that I was gay. I just knew I liked Jimmy DeLong.”
Later, he had no idea what taunts (“Hey, queer ass!”) in middle school meant.
He arrived in New York (“Oklahoma is a wretched place,” he says) in the late ’60s and never looked back. Never even to visit his parents, from whom he was estranged and only saw twice in adulthood.
His big break came in the chorus of “No No Nannette,” a popular musical revival in 1970. Even though New York, and especially the theater world, was filled with gays at the time, it wasn’t an especially gay-friendly environment.
“Things were so different then you can’t even imagine it,” he says. “Even in the theater, you didn’t really talk overtly about it. And I was even more behind the times because I was coming from the Dark Ages. I remember in the dressing room of ‘No, No Nannette,’ there was an old queen who only spoke to us in the voice of Bette Davis and used to scare the fuck out of me. I was just like, ‘Oh god, please don’t let me end up like that, you know?’”
Even as recent as his first run with the touring version of “Sunset,” a role he’d eyed since it debuted in London in 1993, there were hints of homophobia in the casting process for the straight part. He knew everyone in the room and was chatting them up between readings. Before the callback, he was tipped off to tone it down.
“I’d had a big career by then,” he says. “One night at a party one of them pulled me aside and said, ‘They really want to know that you were married to her.’ I thought, ‘Are you kidding?’ I’d just been laughing and joking and being myself, you know, before and after I read. So I stayed Max through the whole callback and got it.”
This run, Dixon says, has been draining but creatively satisfying. He and co-star Florence Lacey have worked together several times before and enjoy a special camaraderie.
“We’re like an old married couple,” he says. “You know, I always go spend time with her in her dressing room before the show. She always tells me she loves me. She calls me Daddy and I call her Baby. It’s really sweet. She’s just one of those people who’s so sweet you think, ‘Is that real?” And with her it’s totally real.”
The feelings are mutual.
“Speaking about Ed Dixon, I’m always a gushing mess,” Lacey says. “Ed is a man of extraordinary talent with a big voice and a heart to match. He has a laugh that makes the whole world join in and he can break your heart with a look. He’s tough and sensitive both as an artist and in his friendships. I feel proud to call him my dear, dear friend.”
He’s worked non-stop since he came to New York except for a stint in rehab in the ’80s when he beat a cocaine addiction. Dixon just celebrated 20 years of sobriety.
After “Sunset” ends its run, Dixon will tour with the musical “Curtains.” And a comedy he wrote called “Scenery,” which explores the inside tract of a showbiz Lunt/Fontanne-esque couple in which the husband is gay, is getting rave reviews in Cleveland where it just opened.
Dixon says a life-defining moment came watching his mentor, the character actor George Rose, from whom he learned much about acting and life.
“He was middle aged, this gay, effete, Englishman, and he came into the room and he was just the most powerful man I had ever been in the presence of. That was a big moment for me. Because of him I realized, ‘Oh, you can be gay and still powerful.’ I didn’t know that before.”