Among the Broadway veterans performing in Connecticut Repertory Theatre's latest production is Ed Dixon. He has written a memoir that chronicles his 40-plus years in the theater, including a time in the late 1980s when he was addicted to drugs.
In his book Secrets of a Life On Stage...and Off, Ed Dixon counts himself as a lucky guy. Born the son of an Oklahoma tent revival minister, he left home at 19 and moved to New York to become an actor and singer. Dixon said success came quickly.
“I was very lucky because I got into No No Nanette when I was 20, and then I was hired by Leonard Bernstein to open the Kennedy Center when I was about 21,” he told Connecticut Public Radio.
Not long after the Bernstein premiere, he was cast in a production of The Student Prince with the legendary British character actor George Rose.
Rose became Dixon's mentor and friend, but his idolization of the actor took a big hit when Rose, who was gay, adopted a 14-year-old boy who lived near his vacation home in the Dominican Republic. Dixon visited Rose, and suspected the relationship with the boy was sexual.
“Confronted with the shortcomings of one's idol, I didn't know what to do,” he said. “So I did nothing, and I have to live with that. I did say to him I think you are in grave danger, and I returned to the United States and shortly afterwards he was murdered.”
Rose was tortured and beaten, allegedly by his adopted son and the boy's biological father. Rose's death, coupled with the death of another close friend from AIDS sent Dixon in a downward spiral.
“I was going through a grave personal crisis of my own,” he said. “But given my upbringing, given my fundamentalist revival minister background, and the divergent life that I chose, there was going to be a reckoning at some point, and the point was 1988. I went on a journey that very few people have survived. I feel lucky to have survived it.”
Dixon became addicted to drugs.
“I lost everything,” he recalled. “I became homeless. The curious thing is, I was in show business the entire time even though I was destroyed.”
Dixon was performing as Thenardier in the original cast of Les Miserables on Broadway during his addiction - and was often high when he performed. Homeless, Dixon was secretly living in the theater, and even scored drugs from his temporary home by showing dealers his headshot at the front of the theater to prove he could pay for the drugs.
“I actually talked people into giving me drugs on credit,” he said. “You can't do that, they don't give drugs on credit, but I did. I would have a man come to the stage door and take my whole check.”
Dixon's life was in a free fall. But what he describes as a moment of grace led to his eventual recovery.
“I had tried everything to get out,” he said. “I had fallen into a pit and I just couldn't get out. And then one day, it just let me go. I had never had an experience of grace.”
Ed Dixon has been sober since 1991, and said all of the good things in his life, professionally and personally have happened since his recovery.
Along with a thriving acting career, he also came to terms with the death of his friend and mentor George Rose. In 2016, he wrote and continues to star in an award-winning one-man show called Georgie: My Adventures with George Rose.
Dixon said the three years he was in the throes of drug addiction has helped him as an actor, especially when he plays dark, complex characters like Sweeney Todd's Judge Turpin.
“I am armed with information that other people do not have,” he said. “I know things. I can draw on things. I can show people things. Judge Turpin is one of the most disturbing parts. I've played a lot of bad people, but Judge Turpin is disturbing in a way that is really upsetting.”
Dixon plays Judge Turpin in Connecticut Repertory Theatre's production of Sweeney Todd, which runs through Sunday at UConn's Jorgensen Theater in Storrs.