Ivan Nathaniel Dixon III was born in Harlem, the son of a grocery store owner. When he was young, Dixon lived in the brownstone at 518 West 150th Street in Harlem, on the same block with Josh White, Ralph Ellison, and the Hines brothers, (Gregory and Maurice). He graduated from the Lincoln Academy in Gaston County, North Carolina, and went on to earn a drama degree from North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in 1954, where the theater troupe is now known as the Ivan Dixon Players. While at NCCU, he joined the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.
In 1957, Dixon appeared on Broadway in William Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers, following this in 1959 with an appearance in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. In 1958, he was a stunt double for Sidney Poitier in the film The Defiant Ones, and went on to television roles on The Twilight Zone (in the episodes "The Big Tall Wish" and "I Am the Night—Color Me Black"), Perry Mason, and other series. On February 20, 1962, Dixon co-starred with Dorothy Dandridge in the "Blues for a Junkman" episode of Cain's Hundred, which was the highest-rated episode of the series. An expanded version was released as a feature film in Europe entitled The Murder Men, and became Dandridge's last screen appearance.
On September 25, 1962, he portrayed Jamie Davis, a livery stable groom, in the episode "Among the Missing" of NBC's Laramie western series. In 1963, he played the role of John Brooks, alias Caleb Stone IV, in the Perry Mason episode "The Case of the Nebulous Nephew."
In 1964, Dixon starred in the independent film Nothing But a Man, written and directed by Michael Roemer; it was Dixon's performance in this film he was most proud of. He also appeared in an episode of ABC's The Fugitive entitled "Escape into Black".
In his best-known role, Dixon appeared as POW Staff Sergeant James "Kinch" Kinchloe in the ensemble cast of the television sitcom Hogan's Heroes. "Kinch" was the communications specialist, a translator of French, and Hogan's default second in command. Dixon played Kinchloe from 1965 to 1970, the only one of the series' long-time cast not to remain for the entire series. Kenneth Washington succeeded Dixon for the last year of the show's run, albeit with a different character name.
From 1970 to 1993, Dixon worked primarily as a television director on such series and TV-movies as The Waltons, The Rockford Files, The Bionic Woman, The Eddie Capra Mysteries, Magnum, P.I., and The A-Team. Dixon's first feature film as director was the blaxploitation thriller Trouble Man. He also directed the controversial 1973 feature film The Spook Who Sat by the Door, based on Sam Greenlee's 1969 novel of the same name, about the first black CIA agent, who takes his espionage knowledge and uses it to lead a black guerrilla operation in Chicago. The New York Times wrote in 2008:
Although The Spook caused controversy and with suppression facilitated by the F.B.I., was soon pulled from theaters, it later gained cult status as a bootleg video and in 2004 was released on DVD. At that time Mr. Dixon told The Times that the movie had tried only to depict black anger, not to suggest armed revolt as a solution.
Occasionally returning to acting, Dixon played a doctor and leader of a guerrilla movement in the controversial 1987 ABC miniseries Amerika, set in post-Soviet invasion Nebraska.
He also served as Chairman of the Expansion Arts Advisory Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978.
After his career as an actor and director, Dixon was the owner-operator of radio station KONI (FM) in Maui. In 2001, he left Hawaii for health reasons and sold the radio station in 2002.
Ivan Dixon died on March 16, 2008, aged 76, at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina, of complications from kidney failure.