Ivan Dixon: He Did It Well!
Chances are if you know Ivan Dixon at all. It was due to his recurring role as Staff Sgt. James “Kinch” Kinchloe on the long-running “Hogan’s Heroes” television show from the late 1960’s. While that show was a comedy, they occasionally touched on some of the serious aspects of what it was like for a black man in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. In spite of his position as a prisoner, we never saw “Kinch” taking any smack from the Nazi’s or his fellow prisoners. The same could be said about his whole career.
When I was a young boy, my mother liked to watch the Perry Mason series where he solved a murder every week. In those days of few television channels and usually one set per household, that meant I watched Perry Mason too. Recently, to take a break from politics, Trump, writing, and other forms of madness, I watch old reruns of Perry Mason which both entertain and take me back to a place. I’ve recorded them chronologically and made the following observations.
The early episodes of Perry Mason had no black people whatsoever. Based in Los Angeles, they managed to show Mexican’s, South American’s, Chinese Nationals and immigrants, farmers, miners, ranchers, and Native Americans…but nobody black. Then around mid-1962, I started to see black people. Not in major roles by any means, but almost always in a positive manner, providing key information, occasionally making it as far as the witness stand to say a few words. They were never the defendant, suspect, judge, attorney, or murderer, I considered it baby steps. Then one episode we saw Ivan Dixon briefly as Board of Pharmacy Inspector Maurice Parnell. He must have made a good impression because the following year he returned as John Brooks (pretending to be Caleb Stone) and had perhaps more lines on screen than all the black people combined that had ever appeared before on the show.
I got interested in his career and found he grew up in Harlem, on the same block as Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) and near the Hines Brothers, Gregory, and Maurice. He moved to North Carolina where he graduated from North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and studied drama. The current theater troupe carries his name, The Ivan Dixon Players. While there he pledged Omega Psi Phi Frraternity, Inc.
He went back to New York and appeared on Broadway including in Lorraine Hansberry’s, “Raisin In The Sun.” Taking his craft to Hollywood he co-starred with Dorothy Dandridge in a TV episode, doubled for Sidney Poitier in, “The Defiant One,” and got roles on “Laramie,” “Twilight Zone,” and,”The Fugitive” before getting the roles on Perry Mason. In 1964, he starred in an independent film, “Nothing But a Man,” with Abbey Lincoln, which Dixon thought of as his finest work. Shortly afterward he landed his role on “Hogan’s Heroes,” for which he’s best known.
Two things were quite noticeable as I reviewed Dixon’s career. He worked… a lot. Maybe that era’s Samuel L. Jackson he stayed busy. And the roles he played were of serious men, no cooning for him. Ivan Dixon played doctors, judges, military men, and entrepreneurs. When he mostly finished acting, he directed, including episodes of “The Waltons,” “The Rockford Files,” “Magnum, P.I.,” “The Bionic Woman,” and “The A-Team.” He directed the film, “Trouble Man,” with the Marvin Gaye soundtrack and the controversial, “The Spook Who Sat By The Door.” That film was largely suppressed, with the help of the FBI because it made some people uncomfortable about the prospect of black revolution.
Later in life he owned and operated a radio station in Maui, Hawaii before moving back to North Carolina where he died in 2008. It’s not Black History Month yet but there’s never a wrong time to notice a man’s work, or too late. Ivan Dixon, you make me proud. Job well done!