Ivan Dixon, honored last week by the Directors Guild of America for an extensive body of work as an actor and director, believes his fellow filmmakers should not shy away from social messages in movies and TV.
“It behooves us to say a lot more than we’ve been saying,” Dixon told those attending the event, organized by the DGA’s African-American Steering Committee. “We need to stop wanting to belong and stand on our own two feet.”
The two-hour program included tributes from Sidney Poitier, Robert Hooks, Tom Selleck, Vonetta McGee, Robert Hooks, Bill Duke, Roger Mosely, Michael Schultz and DGA president Jack Shea. Prevailing theme of the event was Dixon’s graciousness to associates, commitment to the craft and determination to battle racial stereotyping.
“Ivan and Bill Duke were able to bring a seriousness to their relationship in ‘Car Wash’ that really sustained what could have been a fluff movie otherwise,” Schultz said.
Dixon began his Hollywood career as a stand-in for Poitier in “The Defiant Ones” and recalled buying elevator shoes so he could match the star’s height. He said his most satisfying role came in 1964’s “Nothing But a Man” as a Southern railroad worker, and admitted that he quit “Hogan’s Heroes” after five seasons because he was not comfortable with his role.
“‘Hogan’s Heroes’ was fun but I didn’t really enjoy being that character,” he said.
Dixon began directing TV in 1970 with “The Bill Cosby Show” and would go on to helm more than 100 episodes of shows such as “The Rockford Files,” “The Waltons” and “Magnum P.I.” He directed a blaxploitation film, “Trouble Man,” in 1972 –“Where did we get those suits?” he wondered — and then directed and produced “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” a story of black revolutionaries that rattled United Artists into pulling the film from distribution after a few weeks in release and giving it back to Dixon.
“I think a lot of people misunderstood ‘Spook,'” Dixon said. “It was a fantasy, and I said everything I ever wanted to say about race in it.”
Dixon also became active in challenging minority hiring practices and helped form the DGA’s Ethnic Minority Committee in the early 1980s.
Selleck recalled that on “Magnum P.I.,” Dixon’s sets were calm and noted that the director was particularly sensitive toward Hawaiian crew members. “He fell in love with Hawaii and it fell in love with him,” Selleck said.
Dixon eventually moved to Maui and began building a radio station, partly to help him recover from the death of one of his sons. Now 68, he currently operates adult-contemporary radio station KONI-FM and refuses offers of work from the mainland.