March 19, 2008

Actor Ivan Dixon Dies

Sgt. James Kinchloe of Hogan's Heroes

Ivan Dixon, best known to TV viewers for his five-year run as Sgt. James Kinchloe on Hogan’s Heroes, died recently of a brain hemorrhage in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dixon, a one-time stunt double for Sidney Poitier, was also known throughout the television industry for his steady work behind the camera. He was 76.

Dixon got his start directing an episode of The Bill Cosby Show in 1970 before going on to direct close to 40 different series, including Magnum P.I., The Rockford Files and The Waltons.

Born on April 6 in Harlem, where his family owned a grocery store, Dixon was heading towards a life of crime before he discovered acting as a teenager at a North Carolina boarding school.

He continued to study acting at North Carolina Central University, where he earned a drama degree in 1954. Three years later Dixon was appearing in William Saroyan’s Cave Dwellers on Broadway. During 1957 Dixon also made his first appearances on television (in Armstrong Circle Theater) and film (with Sidney Poitier in Something of Value).

A year later Dixon worked on the movie The Defiant One as Poitier’s stunt double, a relationship that blossomed into a lifelong friendship and yielded acclaimed collaborations on stage and screen.

“As an actor, you had to be careful [because] he was quite likely to walk off with the scene” recalled Poitier, who co-starred with Dixon in the stage and screen versions of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In the Sun, the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway.

He was especially proud of his work in 1964’s Nothing But a Man, a film the New York Times would later hail as “way ahead of its time.” Dixon played an aimless railroad worker who quits his job to marry a minister’s daughter in the hauntingly realistic story of black life in the Deep South during the early 1960s. “That was me,” Dixon once said of his character Duff. “I had lived every moment…I was relieving my whole life on film.”

His acting also earned DIxon a 1967 Emmy nomination for best single performance by an actor for his work in the TV movie The Final War of Olly Wiinter. He also guest starred in numerous television shows, including The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. But by 1970 Dixon was embarking on what would become a successful 20-year career directing episodic television—between the occasional acting gig in film (Car Wash) or on TV (Love American Style, Father Dowling Mysteries).

Dixon was also known for his tireless activism for black actors. His efforts in pitching for better roles for himself and black actors won him numerous honors over the years, including four NAACP Image Awards, the National Black Theatre Award and the Paul Robeson Pioneer Award from the Black American Cinema Society.

He is also a member of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. His friend and fellow actor Hal Williams told the Los Angeles Times Dixon was “just a champion and a fighter and all in a very, very positive way.”

Dixon is survived by his wife of 53 years, Berlie Ray Dixon, who he met when both were college theater students in North Carolina; his son Alan Kimara Dixon; and daughter Doris Nomathande Dixon, who made the 2006 film Retrospective: Lincoln Academy 1948-1950, a documentary about the all-black boarding school where her father was first inspired to take up acting.

Bob Makela

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