Question: When I was a kid, one of my favorite shows was Room 222. I had such a huge crush on Mr. Dixon and wanted him to be my teacher. I thought I remembered reading the actor who played him died. Did he? Thank you for the answer. ˜ Karen E., Alton Bay, N.H.
Televisionary: Sad to report, Karen, that Lloyd Haynes, who played Walt Whitman High School history teacher Pete Dixon during the show's 1969-74 run on ABC, lost his battle with lung cancer at the age of 52 on New Year's Eve, 1986.
And you weren't alone in your affection for the character. Matter of fact, in 1971, real-life teacher Hal Lenke wrote a column for TV Guide about the frustration of having to live up to his TV counterpart. "I'm not like Mr. Dixon, huh?" he recalled asking his class. "No!" a few of his students fired back. "Mr. Dixon is educated," said one. "Mr. Dixon has more sense," said another. "He knows anything you ask him," said a third. "He can solve more problems than Mr. Lenke can." Poor Lenke, trying to stand up under such a barrage, put together the best defense he could, pointing out that unlike Mr. Dixon, he was dealing with real life.
"Mr. Dixon and his students aren't really caught up in the problems they seem to have at school," he wrote. "They've read the script and know how things will come out, and it doesn't matter to them."
Well, not quite. Not to take anything away from Lenke's argument how was he supposed to compete with educators who could straighten out kids' lives in 30 minutes, after all? but Haynes's work with kids went beyond simply pretending. In his downtime, the actor and pilot taught underachieving teens about aeronautics, navigation, weather, radio communications and aircraft engines via Education Through Aviation, a project he started in 1972. He also handed out career advice and took students on field trips. "We get kids who are in trouble," he said at the time. "Hostile kids the kind who get into fights or throw things in class, kids whose energy turns them the wrong way."
Haynes looked at his program as a way around bad parenting and an ineffective education system he thought a lot of school work was too "dull" to reach troubled kids and he had no problem speaking his mind on the issue. Asked if he'd like to be a real teacher, Haynes shook his head and gave an answer that was (to my mind, anyway) unfair, but was certainly unequivocal: "I'm a doer." When striking L.A. teachers invited him to speak to them, they expected sympathy from Mr. Dixon. Instead, they got Haynes, who told them: "You're acting like a mob. Where is the dignity of your profession?"
Haynes's tell-it-like-it-is ways were honed in '60s- and '70s-era marathon encounter groups where attendees would try to find themselves and each other by screaming, talking and touching, all the while going without sleep for days on end. "I think they're a gas," he said in 1969, recalling a three-day session where he was the only black person there. "A lady looked over at me and said, 'I hate you.' I asked why and she said, 'Because you're black.' She lived at Newport Beach or somewhere like that, you know, lily white. She figured if she could attack me, it would keep the others from finding out what was really wrong with her."
His own group of friends consisted of many people who'd had the same experiences, so it was no wonder he never sugar-coated anything. "Our relationships are based upon how honest we can be," he explained. "They'll say, 'I don't like you today, Lloyd,' or 'Is something wrong?' because I get very evil if I haven't eaten."
It made for, colleagues explained, an interesting flip-flop of what you'd expect from a performer. "His facade is not being a nice guy," one unnamed observer who knew him for years said. "With most actors it's the reverse they try to make you think they're nice guys when they're really not."
Co-star Michael Constantine, who played Whitman principal Seymour Kaufman, agreed. "He can be tough," Constantine said. "But he's a good person, and that's more important. If you ask him how he's feeling, he may say, 'Why do you want to know?' When he bothers to talk to you, it means he wants to talk, not exchange clichés."
And that kind of straightforwardness was a hallmark of the show, which, while collecting accolades and awards from education groups for its treatment of contemporary teen issues, wasn't what ABC expected when it first talked about putting the show on the air. "At first the network wanted a situation comedy," said show creator Gene Reynolds. "They didn't get what they expected, but they liked what they got. Their philosophy is, keep it amusing. Ours is to keep it honest."
As you and and other fans would probably agree, Karen, they certainly managed that.