Over the past several years, there have been a number of street renaming ceremonies, including one for A. Philip Randolph, W.E.B. Du Bois, John Henrik Clarke, James Baldwin and James Brown. There may come a time when such an honor is bestowed on the actor and director Ivan Nathaniel Dixon III, who, like Baldwin, was born in Harlem before going on to international acclaim.
As a youngster, Dixon lived on 150th Street in the same block with folk singer Josh White, author Ralph Ellison and dancers Gregory and Maurice Hines. Since Ellison has already laid claim to the street, perhaps the brownstone at 518, where Dixon lived, could at least get a plaque or a marker.
If being born in Harlem April 6, 1931, is not enough to gain such recognition, Dixon certainly earned it elsewhere, as he began his journey to fame after graduating from Lincoln Academy in Gaston County, North Carolina, and then went on to earn a drama degree from North Carolina Central University in 1954. He would leave a portion of his theatrical legacy at this institution when the troupe there became known as the Ivan Dixon Players.
For many television viewers, Dixon is best remembered for his role as Sgt. Kinchloe on the series “Hogan’s Heroes,” but for film buffs, he made a lasting impression in “Nothing But a Man” (1964). Starring opposite Abbey Lincoln (Aminata Moseka), Dixon played a formidable, convincing character, according to noted film critic Donald Bogle.
“The performances of Dixon, [Julius] Harris and Gloria Foster are all striking and often remarkable,” Bogle wrote in his book “Blacks in American Films and Television.” “Watching Dixon and Lincoln coming to terms with one another and their own lives, we realize, more than ever, how much of the Black experience has been ignored or evaded by the American commercial film.” Yaphet Kotto also made his debut in the film, and the Motown soundtrack enhanced the performances and gave the film additional historical cache.
Three years later, he had the title role in a CBS Playhouse drama, “The Final War of Olly Winter,” about a veteran of World War II and the Korean War who is fed up with conflict. He received an Emmy nomination for this portrayal.
You would think there would be producers knocking at his door, but they didn’t come as he thought they would. Even so, there was no way American commercial film could completely ignore Dixon. Both as an actor and director, he found those rare opportunities to express his uncompromising integrity and artistic genius. Such television shows as “The Rockford Files,” “The Waltons,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “Magnum, P.I” and “In the Heat of the Night” all benefited from his vision and guidance.
His acting credits were equally impressive and unforgettable. There were memorable appearances in “A Raisin in the Sun,” “A Patch of Blue,” “Car Wash” and “Something of Value,” with Sidney Poitier in 1957.
Poitier said they became friends after Dixon was his stunt double in the 1958 movie “The Defiant Ones.” “As an actor, you had to be careful,” Poitier said of Dixon. “He was quite likely to walk off with the scene.”
Stealing scenes was an early preoccupation of Dixon, who made his debut on Broadway in 1957 in William Saroyan’s “The Cave Dwellers.” However, a scarcity of meaningful roles limited Dixon’s chances to become a major actor, which may have been a factor in his becoming one of the most reliable directors, demonstrating his prowess at the helm of such films as “Trouble Man,” starring Robert Hooks with a title song composed and sung by Marvin Gaye, and Sam Greenlee’s “The Spook Who Sat by the Door.” It was Dixon’s determination and contacts that were largely important in getting Greenlee’s book to film.
Bogle believed that Dixon was a solid actor and in possession of all the qualities to make him such a rewarding performer in “Porgy and Bess” and “Clay Pigeon.”
Still, it was his role in “Hogan’s Heroes” that has endured and with which he is immediately identified. His character always displayed the utmost intelligence with none of the stereotypical crap that permeated the film industry for years.
This role as Sgt. Kinchloe, said his daughter Doris, “was a pivotal role as well, because there were not as many Blacks in TV series at that time. He did have some personal issues with that role, but it also launched him into directing.”
Into the late 1980s, he was still fairly active, finding occasional roles in such productions as the ABC miniseries “Amerika,” set in a post-Soviet invasion of Nebraska. He portrayed a doctor and the leader of a guerilla movement. After he ended his career as an actor and director, he owned and operated a radio station in Maui, but by 2001, his health became a factor and he sold the station a year later.
Dixon accumulated a trove of honors, including four NAACP Image Awards, the National Black Theatre Award and the Paul Robeson Pioneer Award from the Black American Cinema Society. He was a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild of America and the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
He died March 16 at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte, N.C. He was 76.