At a time when few black actors were seen in regular roles on American television, Ivan Dixon was one of the first, playing US Staff Sergeant James Kinchloe, the communications officer for the prisoners-of-war held by the Germans, in the sitcom Hogan's Heroes.
As part of the captured men's espionage and sabotage operations against the Nazis, Kinchloe's role was to encode messages and send them to Allied Headquarters in London, submarines or the German underground – something that was not hard to do under their captors' very eyes in the face of the incompetence displayed by the bungling officers running Stalag 13, headed by Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer). Extra laughs came when Sergeant Kinchloe displayed his skill at mimicking German officers – and even Hitler – on the radio or telephone.
In one episode, in an attempt to get money from the Germans to open a submarine base, "Kinch" was disguised as an African prince, whose "kidnap" was organised by the American PoWs' leader, Colonel Hogan (Bob Crane). On another occasion, in a re-enactment of a famous Joe Louis-Max Schmeling heavyweight fight, he took to the ring against the Luftwaffe's champion boxer – with the need to "go the distance" as a diversion tactic while Hogan's latest exploits were underway.
Dixon decided to leave the popular sitcom, which was screened around the world, after 145 episodes and five series (1965-70), reportedly feeling that his talents weren't being fully used. He was the only original cast member to depart and the programme itself lasted for only one further run.
Born in New York in 1931, the son of a grocer who later started a bakery, Dixon graduated in theatre from North Carolina Central University in 1954, before studying drama at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio, then at the American Theatre Wing, in New York City.
He made his Broadway stage début with three roles in The Cave Dwellers (Bijou Theatre, 1957-58), then appeared in the ground-breaking A Raisin in the Sun (Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1959, and Belasco Theatre, 1959-60), the first Broadway production to be written by a black woman, Lorraine Hansberry, and the first with a black director, Lloyd Richards. He took the role of Asagai, the Nigerian boyfriend of Beneatha (Diana Sands), whose brother was played by Sidney Poitier in the starring role.
Poitier and Dixon reprised their roles for a 1961 film version, having already appeared together on screen in Porgy and Bess (1959). (Dixon had also been Poitier's stand-in for Something of Value, a 1957 picture about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, and his stunt double for the 1958 crime drama The Defiant Ones.) His other film roles included that of a struggling Alabama railroad worker in the racial drama Nothing But a Man (1964).
In 1961, he became active in the civil rights movement and, four years later, president of Negro Actors for Action. "This is the most powerful medium operating in the world today and we must have access to it to discuss our problems and concerns," said Dixon, talking about television. "And we must have access to it in terms of control – not just 'Give the spooks an hour.' We have to be able to choose the material ourselves and see that it's done in a way that befits the black ethos."
By then, Dixon was himself in demand on television, appearing in many popular series of the day. He also earned an Emmy nomination for his performance in The Final War of Olly Winter (1967) as a veteran of the Second World War and Korea who decided that Vietnam would be his last conflict.
Standing around for so long on set during his run in Hogan's Heroes, Dixon gained a knowledge of television production that led him into directing programmes, beginning with The Bill Cosby Show (1970). "I had directed The Blacks at the Mark Taper Forum, starring Maya Angelou, Roscoe Lee Browne, Robert Hooks and Cicely Tyson, and it received great reviews," recalled Dixon. "Bill Cosby happened to read the reviews and a few days later we ran into each other on the Warner Bros lot. He said: 'Ivan, when are you going to do my show?' I said: 'Tomorrow, if you're ready!' Cosby told me: 'Well, why don't you come on the set and start observing and I'll give you a shot?'"
Over the next 23 years, Dixon's directing credits included hit series such as The Waltons (1974-75), Starsky and Hutch (1975), McCloud (1977), The Rockford Files (1975-79), The A-Team (1984) and Magnum P.I. (1982-86).
His appearances as an actor after 1970 were rare, but he was most prominent – although almost unrecognisable – as Lonnie, the sane boss among a bunch of oddballs in the cult film comedy Car Wash (1976).
For many years, Dixon owned the radio station KONI-FM, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. He sold it in 2002.
He won the National Black Theatre Award and the Black American Cinema Society's Paul Robeson Pioneer Award. North Carolina Central University named its resident drama company the Ivan Dixon Players in his honour.
Ivan Dixon, actor and director: born New York 6 April 1931; married 1954 Berlie Ray (one son, one daughter, and two sons deceased); died Charlotte, North Carolina 16 March 2008.