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Ivan Dixon: Beyond Hogan's Heroes

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Ivan Dixon: Beyond Hogan's Heroes

When Ivan Dixon died March 16, 2008, at 76, many remembrances identified him primarily as the actor who played prisoner of war Staff Sgt. Ivan Kinchloe on TV's "Hogan's Heroes."

But Dixon's career went far beyond that one sitcom, which ran from 1965 to 1970. Active in the civil rights movement, he served as president of Negro Actors for Action. His political and organizing efforts "helped to integrate television," according to "Reel Black Talk: A Sourcebook of 50 American Filmmakers."

"This is the most powerful medium operating in the world today and we must have access to it to discuss our problems and concerns," Dixon said, according to his obituary on Independent.co.uk.

During Dixon’s "Hogan's Heroes" days, he was one of only a few African-American men on television. (Bill Cosby was another.) While he reportedly left the show because he felt he was underutilized, and he considered other acting roles more definitive of his career, he didn’t mind being recognized for the role of Kinchloe, his daughter, Nomathande Dixon, told The Associated Press after his death. "It was a pivotal role as well, because there were not as many blacks in TV series at that time,” she said. “He did have some personal issues with that role, but it also launched him into directing."

As a director, too, Dixon was a pioneer. After receiving positive press while directing Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson in a Los Angeles production of "The Blacks," Cosby told Dixon to try his hand at TV, and Dixon did just that.

"In the ’70s and ’80s, when it was still very rare to see blacks behind the camera in movies, Dixon was quietly racking up dozens of directing credits on episodic TV, including such series as 'The Waltons,' 'The Rockford Files,' 'The Greatest American Hero,' and 'Magnum, P.I.,'" Entertainment Weekly noted.

Dixon, who was born April 6, 1931, grew up in Harlem. In 1954 he graduated with a degree in drama from North Carolina Central University, where the drama group is still called the Ivan Dixon Players.

Dixon made his Broadway debut in 1957 in "The Cave Dwellers." A few years later, he played Nigerian student Joseph Asagai in the original 1959 Broadway production of "A Raisin in the Sun," then reprised the role in the 1961 film. His co-star in both, Sidney Poitier, became a lifelong friend.

"As a fellow actor, one had to be on one's toes, otherwise he was quite likely to walk away with the scene," Poitier told the Los Angeles Times after Dixon's death.

Dixon "steadfastly refused to play roles that he felt were stereotypical in nature," according to IMDb. In 1964, he was the male lead in the civil rights drama "Nothing But a Man." "Long after its initial release, Dixon continued to see the movie as an example of film's potential to more accurately reflect black life. He encouraged the making of more honest films," the Los Angeles Times said. Entertainment Weekly said many Dixon fans considered this his finest performance, "the supreme example of what he could do when he wasn’t trapped in that prison camp."

In 1967, Dixon was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of the title character in the CBS Playhouse drama "The Final War of Olly Winter." Winter was a veteran of World War II and determined to make Vietnam his last conflict. When his fellow soldiers are killed in an ambush, he must find his way to safe ground. The New York Daily News called the teleplay “a haunting, mordant work of infinite pathos, with a memorable virtuoso performance by Ivan Dixon.”

"Even among black directors today – and I'm not saying these guys haven't done good work – there is more concern with making movies that make money, that titillate, and get people to the box office," Dixon told Newsday in a 1993 interview. "And I think that is the kind of horror of black American life that we have accepted that struggle for the dollar instead of struggling for humanity. For honor."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."