Michael Rooker on the return of Merle Dixon

At the recent Aliens to Zombie convention in Hollywood, fanboy-favorite actor Michael Rooker turned up carrying a large box of life-sized polyurethane severed hands that he planned to dole out as souvenirs.

“Thirty years honing my craft, and it’s come to this,” he joked.

The unusual keepsakes were designed as a homage to Merle Dixon, the character Rooker plays on the hit AMC zombie series “The Walking Dead.” A despicable drug-addled racist and the nastier of two Southern brothers, Dixon sawed off his own hand to escape becoming zombie food midway through the show’s first season. He’s been missing ever since, though a sizable portion of the show’s audience has been clamoring for his return. Now, it appears the character is poised to come back on the scene this coming Sunday — if Internet buzz and teasers for the next episode are to be believed.

Rooker won’t confirm that he’s about to be reunited with Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes and the other survivors of the zombie apocalypse, but he’s the first to express surprise at the following the character has come to enjoy.

Nobody expected this level of Merle worship,” said Rooker with a laugh. “He’s such an out-there, crazy, anything goes kind of guy. There’s an uncertainty about Merle – like he’ll come back when you least expect it. He’s the boogeyman, and viewers love that suspense. The number one question I’m asked is, `When is your character coming back?’ I can’t say when, but I promise it’ll be a wild ride.

“The comic, zombie and gaming fans are a hoot – and they’re really into the plot twists,” he added. “They’re constantly throwing out these theories about Merle secretly stalking the group in the woods or luring zombies to their original camp.”

Rooker has enjoyed a decades-long career in genre fare and in mainstream Hollywood feature films — from “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and “Cliffhanger” to “Days of Thunder” and “Slither” — and he’s recently been able to parlay his “Walking Dead” popularity to open up new professional avenues, he said. Specifically, Rooker’s new undead cred enticed Santa Monica gaming company Activision/Treyarch to tap him to appear in their zombie shooter game Call of the Dead, part of the Call of Duty: Black Ops Rezurrection map pack.

“I’ve gotten more heat from the anticipation of my coming back to the show than any other thing I’ve done,” Rooker said. “Because of that, I found a whole new group of fans, and the gaming company would never have contacted me if it wasn’t for that.”

Appropriately, perhaps, Rooker unwinds by spending time at the gun range. He’s a shareholder in the Angeles Shooting Range in Lake View Terrace — and he happens to be a pretty decent shot.

“Every time I was cast in a role, the director put a gun in my hand, so I figured I’d better learn how to use one. Then I found out I really liked it,” Rooker said with a laugh. “I was 16 when I first realized I intimidated people. Maybe it was growing up in a rough Chicago neighborhood, I don’t know. But I remember heading to school one day, and watching people lock their cars as I walked by. I was really [upset] about it when I got to school until I looked in a mirror and was like, ‘Whoa! I really do look scary.’ “

Reported by Susan Karlin,  L.A. Times

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