He's built a legion of fans as a roughnecked, softhearted fighter on ''The Walking Dead,''but the man behind Daryl Dixon isn't who you'd expect. Sure, he owns a longbow, but he's also an artist and a doting dad. We go home with Norman Reedus

By Dalton Ross
Updated March 08, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST

So this is what Daryl Dixon’s bedroom looks like. A zebra rug that appears to have been freshly skinned sits in the middle of the hardwood floor next to a turntable and a stack of records including everything from Minor Threat to the Rolling Stones. A photo of Sid Vicious eating a hot dog hangs on one wall while a seven-foot Japanese longbow rests in the corner, in case its owner needs to deal with any intruders — human or otherwise. Seems about what you’d expect from everyone’s favorite badass redneck in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. But this is far from Dixon country — it’s the posh New York City penthouse apartment of the man who plays Dixon, Norman Reedus.

As he sits on the edge of his bed, Reedus points to the longbow with pride, revealing that he used it for the first time a week ago on live Japanese TV, where he was challenged to hit a small target 30 feet away. ”The instructor’s talking, and he goes, ‘The arrow will never even reach that far.’ And as he says that — FWAP! — I hit the target.”

Does this guy ever miss? The 44-year-old Reedus has built up a devoted fan base with a career whose highlights include a cult film (The Boondock Saints), appearances in several music videos (from Radiohead to Lady Gaga), and now a starring role on the biggest series in basic-cable history, AMC’s The Walking Dead (which is averaging an incredible 13.6 million viewers). Not bad for a guy who was discovered while causing a drunken scene at a party and later got into an accident so terrible he thought he’d never be able to act again.

Back in the early 1990s, Reedus was making a living fixing bikes in Venice, Calif., at a shop called Doctor Carl’s Hog Hospital. ”One day I went to work and [one of the guys] was beating one of his dogs. We got into a big fight about it, and I quit,” recalls Reedus. He needed to blow off some steam. ”A friend took me to a party in the Hollywood Hills, and I got really drunk and started screaming at a bunch of people. Someone asked me if I’d ever thought about being an actor. And I was like, ‘What? Get away from me.”’

His friends talked Reedus into appearing as a Midwesterner new to New York City in a play called Maps for Drowners at the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles. (Also starring in the production: a pre-Friends Lisa Kudrow.) A William Morris agent was in the audience that first night, and…presto! New career! After small parts in films like Mimic and a starring turn as a hitman in the indie Six Ways to Sunday, Reedus landed a lead role as a vigilante in the film The Boondock Saints. Originally a hot property after being bought by Harvey Weinstein, the movie — which opened in just a few theaters in 2000 — was DOA at the box office. But then something odd happened on the way to complete obscurity: Saints found a passionate following on DVD, and Reedus’ first fan base was born. ”The film, just because of word of mouth, became this giant cult film,” says the actor. ”I’ve seen hundreds of tattoos of myself on people in Boondock Saints poses. You go to a Hot Topic store, most of the stuff there is Boondock Saints stuff. It’s nuts!”

But after Reedus scored supporting roles in Blade II and The Notorious Bettie Page, everything came to a crashing halt — literally. While attending the Berlin Film Festival in 2005, he left an R.E.M. concert in a car provided by frontman Michael Stipe. ”We drove a few feet and just — BLOOSH! — an 18-wheeler went right through us,” recalls Reedus. ”I went out the window into the street unconscious. Woke up upside down with this big German lady wiping glass out of my face.” Reedus underwent a series of operations on his face, including the addition of a titanium left-eye socket and four screws in his nose. ”My whole head was like hamburger. It was just gnarly. I thought, ‘I’m never going to be an actor again. This is over.”’

Following four months of recuperation in a German hospital and later at a hotel across the street, Reedus was able to make his way back in front of the camera in a variety of projects, including a once-unthinkable Boondock Saints sequel in 2009. But real stardom did not come until he picked up a crossbow and a Southern accent.

It may be Reedus’ apartment, but Daryl Dixon has his own room. He needs one to store the gifts and offerings obsessive fans send him. ”I get a lot of drawings from little kids,” says Reedus as he steps carefully through a maze of overstuffed suitcases filled with an assortment of fan-made items. ”I get blankets that have Daryl Dixon sewn on them. I get a ton of T-shirts and coffee mugs and stuffed squirrels, stuffed owls now, too, after I shot and killed that owl. Crossbow-related stuff, redneck stuff, heavy metal stuff, motorcycle stuff. I get lots of whiskey. I get lots of sex toys — handcuffs and whips and naked pictures of people. One girl sent me her silicone boob, which I use as my phone cradle in my trailer. I get bags of squirrel meat — all sorts of crazy things.” Unfortunately, he’s unable to keep most of the tributes due to the sheer volume. ”I fill up my whole trailer maybe twice a week,” he says of the fan mail he receives on set. ”I mean, like, to the ceiling.”

It’s ironic that Daryl Dixon has become such a fan favorite, considering he wasn’t even supposed to be on The Walking Dead to begin with. Reedus originally came in to read for the show even though no parts were still available. However, producers liked him so much they created a new role — that of Merle Dixon’s younger brother, a badass with a heart of gold. ”Norman brings a cool factor,” says outgoing showrunner Glen Mazzara (who won’t comment about the ”creative differences” that led to his decision to leave the show after this season, but has plenty to say about Reedus). ”He kicks ass. He’s fearless. We’ve seen him heartbroken. He’s emotional, but he is afraid to show that. We’ve never seen him afraid of the physical danger, and yet we’ve seen him pull away when something becomes too emotionally painful.”

In Reedus’ hands, Daryl has become so beloved that he even starred in his own Super Bowl commercial for Time Warner Cable and is the focal point of The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, a new first-person-shooter videogame out March 26. On a show known for killing off main characters left and right, Daryl just may be the closest thing to immortal there is. As Mazzara — who received hate mail after the younger Dixon’s role was reduced for a few episodes in season 2 — concedes: ”Who wants to be known as the writer that killed off Daryl? Is that a good thing?”

The outcry is equally strong against any actor who dares to hurt Reedus on screen, as Laurie Holden (who plays sharpshooter Andrea) found out when her character clipped Daryl on the side of the head with a bullet in season 2. ”She started getting death threats,” marvels Reedus. ”She came to the set and was freaking out: ‘People want to kill me!’ I was like, ‘Come on.’ And the next day: ‘Norman, I’m terrified. People are threatening my life!’ So [exec producer] Gale Anne Hurd came to me and said, ‘You’ve got to take a picture with her and say, Hey, we’re buddies. Don’t be mean to her, she’s just playing a part.’ So we did. We took photos together and sent them out to the universe saying, ‘Please be nice, she’s playing a part.”’

Reedus is playing a part as well, but is quick to note the similarities between him and his character. ”We’re both pretty awkward socially, loyal, wear our hearts on our sleeves, mean what we say…. The thing with Daryl is women — he doesn’t know what they mean and he hasn’t figured them out yet. He’s got no confidence with them at all. I’m kind of like that. I mean, I can figure them out to a certain extent, but by no means do I have game.” His legion of female fans — who populate appreciation societies with PG-13 names like Dixon’s Vixens, Dixon’s Dolls, Daryl’s Dolls, Boondock Betties…you get the point — would disagree. Plus, anyone who gets to sit in a bathtub pouring a can of beer all over Lady Gaga’s backside (as Reedus did in the 2011 video for Gaga’s ”Judas”) must have some game. And we haven’t even gotten to the fact that he dated supermodel Helena Christensen for five years.

Reedus’ relationship with Christensen produced the one thing that separates him the most from his alter ego: his 13-year-old son, Mingus. Whether making the entire audience at The Walking Dead‘s New York Comic Con panel sing ”Happy Birthday” to Mingus last October or discussing the way his son dominates at chess and plays guitar and sings in a band called Unibear, Reedus has a bond with his son that could not be more different from the onscreen family dysfunction between Daryl and Merle. ”I’m the biggest goofball when I’m with him,” says the proud papa. ”I think I took myself way too seriously before he came around. I always joke that I used to be so insecure that I used to scowl at everyone, and somehow that scowl turned into an acting career. Like, ‘Get that guy, the guy with the dirty looks.’ But he’s made things more fun. To get up and make someone breakfast and hear about their day and watch him grow up and get interested in things — I love it.” That noise you just heard was the sound of a million fans swooning. (And at the risk of causing a massive follow-up swoon: Yes, he is currently single.)

When he’s not killing zombies, spending time with Mingus, or working on other acting projects like Sunlight Jr. — he plays Naomi Watts’ seedy ex-boyfriend in the movie, which will premiere next month at the Tribeca Film Festival — Reedus indulges in some artsy hobbies. He’s a photography nut who sold out a show of his work in New York City. (Granted, the work consisted of pictures of various forms of roadkill — something we have a feeling Daryl could get behind — but still.) He’s also dabbled in sculpture, his most recent piece being a polyurethane-foam life-size statue of himself holding a knife and surrounded by rats and bugs in a giant Plexiglas box. (Okay, sure, that sounds vaguely Dixonian too.) Well, has Daryl ever modeled for Prada? Reedus has! (Then again, when asked if he is interested in fashion, the actor responds matter-of-factly, ”Not at all.”) All right, so maybe Daryl and Norman do have a fair amount in common. After all, fans can’t get enough of either of them. And they both shoot a pretty mean bow. Just ask Japan.

Spoiler Alert: Coming Up on The Walking Dead

Exec producer Robert Kirkman offers cryptic clues about the action ahead

1 Rick has been scared straight

Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln, above) journey to Crazytown took a detour when he came across an even crazier Morgan (Lennie James). ”He sees this fun house there — who he could eventually be if he keeps going down this path,” says Kirkman. ”He could have a relapse, but he is getting a handle on what is going on within him.”

2 Andrea becomes the key player

”The rest of the season really is about what Andrea [Laurie Holden, right] is doing,” says Kirkman. ”The fact that she wasn’t able to kill the Governor [David Morrissey] is going to play into a lot of the upcoming story for the rest of the season.”

3 More deaths are around the corner

Says Kirkman: ”I’m afraid there may be a casualty or more still to be experienced by the end of this season.” Gulp.

4 The endgame is near

”There is a resolution” to the Rick-Governor conflict, promises Kirkman. ”And it will set things up nicely for season 4.”