Ivan Dixon, who died over the weekend at age 76 of complications from kidney failure, is best known to American television audiences as Sgt. James Kinchloe, the only non-weird member of the group of American POWs in the World War II sitcom Hogan's Heroes that aired on CBS from 1965 to 1971. He also had a memorable role as the leader of a band of anti-communist guerrillas in the 1987 ABC miniseries Amerika, set in a United States conquered by the Soviet Union. And viewers who obsessively study the fine print of the credits know that he later worked behind the camera, directing countless episodes of shows like Magnum, P.I. and The Rockford Files. (The photo to the right -- with actress Diana Sands -- is from a 1967 guest role on The Fugitive.)
But I'll always remember him for a CBS Playhouse production called The Final War Of Olly Winter. Airing in early 1967, it was almost certainly the first television drama to deal with the Vietnam War, and among the first to intelligently grapple with America's growing racial divide. Winter gave a stunning performance as Sgt. Olly Winter, a career GI left alone in the jungle after a Viet Cong ambush wipes out his unit. As he tries to make his way back to safety, he's joined by a young Vietnamese girl of uncertain intentions who speaks no English. Winter nonetheless carries on a conversation with her as they creep toward American lines, musing about his life, his family, the wars he's fought in and his future -- if, as Winter is painfully aware, he has one.
The Final War Of Olly Winter was a work of extraordinary ambition and courage in both political and dramatic terms. A TV show in which only one character spoke English -- for 90 minutes! -- was unheard of, and so was a TV show that voiced doubt (however mild it would probably seem in retrospect) about an ongoing American war. Watching it was my first clue that television might mean something more than a few laughs or an hour of flying lead. Dixon's performance (nominated for an Emmy) was so remarkably affecting that, four decades later, it was the first thing I thought of when I heard of his death.
Sadly, there was some kind of screwup over the rights to the screenplay, and The Final War Of Olly Winter has never been seen again since it was broadcast on Jan. 29, 1967. The only surviving copy I've ever heard of is in an archive of Vietnam War films at Wellesley College. I don't know if the legal complications can ever be untangled at this late date, but some enterprising DVD company ought to give it a shot. It was too powerful a work to be lost forever.