Top to bottom: Ivan Dixon in “Hogan’s Heroes”; with Bill Cosby in “I Spy”; with Julius Harris in “Nothing But a Man”; left, with Diana Sands in an episode of “The Fugitive.” Sands and Dixon were co-stars in “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway.

Ivan Dixon

d. March 16, 2008

Ivan Dixon, the actor and television director best known for his five-year run as “Kinch” in Hogan’s Heroes, died March 16 at a Charlotte, N.C., hospital from brain hemorrhage and kidney failure. He was 76.

His notable roles in a performing career that was most active in the 1960s included the premiere episodes of both The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy.

Dixon was born in Harlem but grew up in North Carolina, where he graduated from Central University in Durham with a 1954 drama degree. His first break came on Broadway in “The Cave Dwellers,” a 1957 William Saroyan comedy. He then appeared with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee in the acclaimed drama “A Raisin in the Sun” in 1959 and 1960. He got his first television exposure in the days of live New York drama on Studio One and Armstrong Circle Theatre in 1957.

In Hollywood, Dixon and Poitier recreated their roles in the 1961 film version of “A Raisin in the Sun.” They had first worked together in 1957’s “Something of Value,” which led to Dixon’s job as Poitier’s stunt double in “The Defiant Ones” in 1958. Dixon also had small parts in Poitier’s “Porgy and Bess” (1959) and the Audie Murphy World War II saga, “Battle at Bloody Beach” (1961), and won praise for his leading role in the gritty drama “Nothing But a Man” (1964). He and Poitier worked together again in 1965’s “A Patch of Blue.”

At the same time, Dixon was accumulating television credits as producers and networks made a concerted effort to begin integrating the casts of TV programs. He appeared in episodes of Have Gun Will Travel, Laramie, Cain’s Hundred, The New Breed, Follow the Sun, Stoney Burke, Going My Way, Perry Mason, The Twilight Zone, Dr. Kildare, The Defenders, The Eleventh Hour and The Outer Limits, among others.

The World War II comic-adventure series Hogan’s Heroes premiered in September 1965, with Dixon as S/Sgt. James Kinchloe, one of Col. Robert Hogan’s four regular operatives in the underground activities carried out from the most unlikely of headquarters, a POW camp in the middle of Germany. Dixon played Kinch for five years before moving on to other parts, and increasingly to directing. The role was renamed Baker and filled by Kenneth Washington in Hogan’s sixth and final season.

Bill Cosby’s role in I Spy is a TV historic landmark, the first true co-starring series role filled by a black actor, while the part of Kinch was obviously secondary to the Hogan leads played by Bob Crane, Werner Klemperer and John Banner. Ironically, Dixon was the primary guest star in the first episode of I Spy, which premiered two days before the debut of Hogan’s Heroes. One year earlier, Dixon appeared in the pilot for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as one of three African dignitaries whose country is threatened with a coup.

On Hogan’s Heroes, Kinch was the radio and electronics whiz. The undeniable fact that he was black formed the basis of jokes about his inability to pose as a German on missions outside the camp, but one of his (and Dixon’s) amusing talents was the ability to mimic German voices on the telephone or radio — including, in more than one episode, Adolf Hitler’s. But oddly, the fact that Kinch was there at all was never commented upon by other characters. Historical purists note that the series never explained how a black U.S. Army non-com became a prisoner in a German luftstalag early in World War II. Far more critics were offended by the very idea of setting a comedy series in a Nazi prison camp. Most viewers simply accepted the show as the light entertainment it was meant to be.

During the run of Hogan’s Heroes, Dixon sought meatier roles in episodes of The Fugitive, It Takes a Thief, The Felony Squad, The Name of the Game, The Jonathan Winters Show, Ironside and The Mod Squad. His starring role in the 1967 CBS Playhouse drama, “The Final War of Olly Winter,” earned him an Emmy nomination.

Also during this period his interests turned to directing. In the 1970s, he largely gave up acting in favor of directing numerous episodes of The Bill Cosby Show, Monty Nash, Room 222, The Waltons, The Rockford Files, McCloud, Wonder Woman, Quincy, The Bionic Woman, Magnum P.I., In the Heat of the Night, Bret Maverick, The Greatest American Hero, Trapper John, M.D. and others. He also directed the controversial 1973 feature, “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” about a black CIA agent who uses his spy skills to aid the Black Power movement.

Dixon appeared in an episode of The FBI immediately after leaving Hogan’s Heroes, and in a 1971 segment of Love, American Style. He was in “Clay Pigeon,” a 1971 urban crime feature starring Telly Savalas and Robert Vaughn, and the 1976 cult comedy, “Car Wash.” His last performance appears to have been in a 1991 episode of Father Dowling Mysteries. He then moved to Hawaii, where he operated a radio station for several years before returning to California and then settling in North Carolina.