Actor Ivan Dixon appeared in the original Broadway production A Raisin in the Sun, worked as a director on some of the biggest series in TV, and was nominated for an Emmy for his work in the 1967 TV movie, The Final War of Olly Winter. But he is best remembered today for his performance as POW Staff Sergeant James “Kinch” Kinchloe, the only black character in the World War II-era sitcom Hogan’s Heroes.
While the entire original cast of Hogan’s Heroes stayed together for the six season run of the series, Dixon elected to leave after his fifth. Here’s why.
Dixon was born and raised in New York City in 1931, and was neighbors in Harlem with writer Ralph Ellison and tap-dancer/actor Gregory Hines. He earned a drama degree from North Carolina Central University, a historically black college, whose theater troupe was named “The Ivan Dixon Players” in his honor.
In 1957, Dixon got his first break on Broadway in William Saroyan’s experimental play, The Cave Dwellers, which ran for 97 performances. In 1959, he appeared in A Raisin in the Sun, a hit Broadway play by Lorraine Hansberry, the first black female playwright to have her work produced on Broadway. In 1961, he reprised his role in the film version with Sidney Poitier and Louis Gosset, Jr., and Ruby Dee.
Work in TV and film followed, including getting cast in Hogan’s Heroes in 1965, a show with which he would stay until 1970.
In 1965, CBS premiered Hogan’s Heroes, a sitcom set in a World War II prisoner-of-war camp. Bob Crane played U.S. Colonel Robert Hogan, whose squad uses their imprisonment in (real life) Stalag 13 as a cover to run covert operations against the German army. To insure that the Nazi higher brass have no reason to investigate so their cover won’t be blown, they secretly help the camp’s commandant, the incompetent Colonel Wilhelm Klink (Werner Klemperer, a Jewish actor who in real life had fled the Nazis to the US), run it with 100% efficiency and zero escapes.
Dixon played Kinch, the squad’s communication expert and connection to the underground. He also had to ability to imitate Klink perfectly. In 1970, at the end of the show’s fifth season, he left and was replaced by black actor Kenneth Washington as Sergeant Richard Baker.
Why did Dixon leave?
He was bored. After five seasons, he felt his character didn’t have enough to do, and he wanted to explore new challenges in his career. While for some actors, it can be a huge mistake to leave a hit sitcom (see: Shelley Long), for Dixon it proved to be the right move.
For one thing, he’d never stopped accepting gigs outside the show. He guest-starred on hit shows of the mid-to-late 1960s, including I Spy, The Fugitive, and It Takes a Thief. In addition, he appeared on the CBS Playhouse anthology series in The Final War of Olly Winter, playing the titular role of an American soldier in Vietnam. He was nominated for an Emmy for his performance.
After leaving Hogan’s Heroes, he also began a directing career, beginning with the the back-to-back blaxploitation classics, Trouble Man and The Spook Who Sat by the Door, in which he also starred. He then moved into television, directing episodes of a diverse spectrum of hit shows such as The Waltons, Starsky and Hutch, and Wonder Woman.
His final film as a director was the 1993 James Earl Jones-starring TNT original Percy & Thunder, which also starred Courtney B. Vance and Billy Dee Williams.
Ivan Dixon passed away March 16, 2008, from complications related to kidney failure at the age of 76.