LOS ANGELES Being a redneck during a zombie apocalypse can be hazardous to your health.
Remaining among the living often depends on overcoming the traditional redneck worldview. One challenge is to recognize the urgent need to work, play and kill well with others of different races and ethnicities. Another is remembering that flesh-eating zombies come in all colors, even white.
For survivalist Daryl Dixon of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” which returned Sunday for the second half of its fourth season, these were life lessons learned the hard way. Dixon’s ability to grow beyond the limits of a childhood of neglect and poverty – not to mention his pinpoint accuracy with a crossbow and sex appeal – has made him one of the most popular characters on the most popular scripted show on television.
Despite the frequency with which major characters are being knocked off in other marquee dramas these days, the character played by 45-year-old Norman Reedus is one of the few often regarded as unkillable. Conventional wisdom holds that if the “redneck with the heart of gold” goes, so will a good part of the sizable female audience that watches the highly rated program.
“It’s not because Daryl is a redneck,” said Reedus, 45, in explaining his character’s renown. “I think people are drawn to him because they see a man who is trying to become a better person in the worst circumstances possible.”
“Daryl has finally found a sense of self-worth,” he added. “He has learned it’s OK to be himself, and he’s found people who trust and rely on him.”
Although he started out as a peripheral character, Dixon, who endured a troubled relationship with his gleefully racist brother Merle, has quickly worked his way into the hearts of viewers and the show. Thanks in no small part to fan appreciation, which includes websites like Dixon’s Vixens, Church of Norman, and Reedusexual, Reedus now receives prominent billing in the series.
Playing Dixon has been a career-changing role for Reedus. Previously, the Florida native was best known for his roles in the quirky misadventures “The Boondock Saints” and “Boondocks Saints II: All Saints Day.”
Amid other high-profile cast members like Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira, Reedus still collects the most fan mail and attention at promotional events for the show.
And that’s not all he gets. Fans are fond of sending him the panoply of Daryl merchandise, which includes dolls, T-shirts, action figures and mugs.
“There are these toys that look exactly like me!” he said. “And there’s all this cool Daryl stuff I get sent. There’s this one room in my house that has all these little Daryls from all over the world. It’s a blast.”
The fan frenzy has become so intense that some observers argue that the show’s producers would not dare to kill him off as they have with so many other key characters. According to the show runner of “The Walking Dead,” this may be wishful thinking.
“There is no one who is untouchable in this universe,” said executive producer Scott M. Gimple, who took over the creative reins of the show this season.
“I don’t say that with any excitement or pride. I would love to make all of the characters untouchable. But the fact is, whatever happens is a function of the story.”
Still, Gimple quickly added how impressed he is with Reedus in the pivotal role.
“Whenever I see Norman do something, it’s always in a way that I didn’t expect or didn’t predict,” Gimple said. “He always surprises me, but it’s always appropriate to the character.”
As the series returns from its mid-season break, Gimple added that Dixon will have beefy story lines ahead.
Even with his tougher new circumstances, Dixon is a long way from the redneck he was in the show’s first season.
“Daryl was destined to become like his brother,” Reedus said. “There were some early scripts, especially in the second season, where Daryl was saying racist things and doing Merle-type stuff. I went to the producers and writers and said, ‘I don’t want to say racist things. I want to have Daryl grow up, as if he’s embarrassed by who he is stuck becoming.’ ”
“They all liked that idea,” Reedus said, smiling.