Ivan Dixon

March 20, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

A few years ago, I was stuck in a motel room one morning. My son,14, was flipping through the TV channels and hit upon a Twilight Zone marathon on F/X or Sci-Fi. The episode when we turned on the TV had only about ten minutes left, but at once I realized, in some Twilight Zonish dej√† vu way, that I had seen this episode long ago when I was fourteen. It was about a small-time boxer at the end of his career, a man facing the reality of the limitations of his life. Not the sort of thing that a kid would understand, certainly not a kid like me. The twilight of a career was not the “twilight” that the the show had in mind. On the contrary, the message of this episode, delivered by a young boy who looks up to the fighter, is that he should believe in the impossible and keep boxing.

But there was something about the performance, the way the actor conveyed the sense of exhaustion and acceptance. Here was a man, a real grown-up, coming to grips with the realities of his life and his situation. That was the message that came through, not the call to ignore reality and live in the fictional Zone. The actor’s performance transcended the silliness of the scripted plot, making the character so real that I still remembered him decades later.*
BOLIE: You know, a fighter don’t need a scrapbook, Henry. You want to know what he’s done and where he’s fought? You read it in his face. He's got the whole story cut into his flesh. St. Louis, 1949. Guy named Sailor Leavitt. A real fast boy. And this, Memorial Stadium. Syracuse, New York. Italian boy. Fought like Henry Armstrong. All hands and arms, just like a windmill on the wind. . . .
The actor was Ivan Dixon, who died Sunday.

I never saw him in Hogan’s Heros, but I did see “Nothing But a Man” when it was released. I didn’t recognize him then as the boxer I had seen on The Twilight Zone just a few years earlier. That realization didn't happen until decades later in a motel room in western Massachusetts.

If you haven’t seen “Nothing But a Man,” you should rent and watch it immediately. If you teach sociology, you should use it in class – for what it says about race in the US, for what it says about how social arrangements affect the interior life of marriages and of individuals. You should watch it for the performances by Dixon, Abbey Lincoln (who doesn't sing a note), Yaphet Kotto and others.

When I first saw “Nothing But a Man,” I thought it was the best black-themed film I’d ever seen. I still do.

* Another blogger has linked to the Twilight Zone episode on YouTube. If you want to see it, you can find it here.

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