Jennifer Armstrong
April 16, 2010 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Brashness defined Dixie Carter’s best-known television roles, from the refined and witty Julia Sugarbaker on Designing Women to Bree’s crazed mother-in-law on Desperate Housewives. But it was that hint of sweet-tea charm underneath that endeared her to fans — the way she would launch into a drawling tirade one minute and serve up some down-home hospitality the next.

Carter died on April 10 at age 70, according to a statement released by actor Hal Holbrook, her husband of nearly 26 years. The cause was complications from endometrial cancer. ”From the day I met Dixie, I wanted to cast her in everything I had,” says Designing Women creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. ”She wasn’t like anybody else. She had such charisma.”

Born in McLemoresville, Tenn., Carter started her career doing stage and soap opera work. In 1982 Bloodworth-Thomason cast her on the short-lived CBS comedy Filthy Rich, and she did a two-season stint as Mr. Drummond’s wife on Diff’rent Strokes. But Designing Women, which debuted in 1986, made her a star. The CBS sitcom about four women running an interior design business garnered a passionate following during its seven-season run, and Carter’s rants served as a series hallmark. ”With a lot of other people, those would’ve seemed strident,” says Bloodworth-Thomason. ”She lifted everything I wrote.”

Carter appeared as a similarly outspoken divorce attorney on Family Law from 1999 to 2002 alongside Kathleen Quinlan and, later, Tony Danza. ”She went out of her way to welcome me with open arms,” Danza recalls. ”She had that Southern hospitality that she spoke of all the time.” More recently, Carter had a memorable guest stint on Desperate Housewives, which earned her an Emmy nomination in 2007. Carter’s final screen appearance was with her husband in the 2009 independent film That Evening Sun.

And while she’ll live on as Julia Sugarbaker in fans’ memories, friends remember her as ”far more of a lady, more traditional than that character she played,” says Designing Women costar Jean Smart. Just days before Carter’s death, Smart ran across a note Carter had written to her son for his high school graduation. ”It was the sweetest letter,” Smart recalls. ”I said, ‘This is precious. We have to put it in a special place.’ Because she was such a cool lady. She just exuded joy and loving life. If she loved you, you were a lucky person.”

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