Ruby Dee (1922-2014)

Some years ago, a friend invited me over to watch a movie. We settled on Long Day’s Journey into Night. However, this wasn’t the movie version. It was a new production. Earle Hyman played James Tyrone, former Guthrie actor Peter Francis James was Edmond, and Tommie Blackwell was Jamie, but what really captured our attention was Ruby Dee, playing the pivotal role of Mary Tyrone. It was an outstanding performance.

Born in Cleveland, raised in Harlem and educated at Hunter College, Ruby Dee established herself as one of America’s finest actors when she apprenticed at the American Negro Theater. Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were colleagues. Following a brief marriage in the early 40s, she married Ossie Davis in 1948.

While she made a variety of movies, it was her performance in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in 1961 that brought her fame. Two years later she co-starred with Davis in his play, Purlie Victorious (later made into a rousing musical). The film version, Gone Are the Days, is available on YouTube.

Much of Dee and Davis’ achievements were firsts. For example, she became the first African American woman to portray lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival. She appeared on such TV series as Peyton Place, Police Woman, The Golden Girls, Roots: The Next Generation and Decoration Day. She earned eight Emmy nominations along the way. She was also nominated for the Oscar once, however she holds the distinction of being the second oldest nominee, after Gloria Stuart.

Having Our Say

In 1993, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years was published. This is the remarkable story of Sadie and Bessie Delany, sisters whose lives added new insights into the Civil Rights Movement. Sadie taught Domestic Sciences in the New York Public Schools, and Bessie was the second African American woman to practice Dentistry in New York. Bessie passed on at 103, and Sadie at 109. Former Guthrie playwright and director, Emily Mann, now Artistic Director at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, dramatized the book, and wrote the screenplay for a television movie. Diahann Carroll played Sadie and Ruby Dee played Bessie in Lynne Littman’s beautiful production, which featured Amy Madigan, Audra McDonald, Lonette McKee, Richard Roundtree and Della Reese. It can be rented on YouTube and is an acting treasure.

Ossie Davis (1917-2005)

Ossie Davis was born in Georgia and attended Howard University. He left because he wanted to pursue acting. He attended Columbia University and worked with a theatre company in Harlem. Following a stint in the Army Medical Corps, he appeared in a movie with Sidney Poitier, No Way Out. Like his wife, Davis built a career in theater and film, as well as TV.

Broadway

Following several short-lived productions, Davis’ career took off when he joined the cast of No Time for Sergeants. He appeared with Ricardo Montalban and Lena Horne in the musical, Jamaica, replaced Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, wrote the script and played the lead in the aforementioned Purlie Victorious, as well as contributing to its musical adaptation. His last Broadway show was Herb Gardner’s I’m not Rappaport.

Among his films of the 1950s and 60s are Gone are the Days, The Cardinal, Let’s Do It Again, and Benjamin Banneker: The Man Who Loved the Stars. He directed such films as Cotton Comes to Harlem, Black Girl and Gordon’s War. He had a recurring role on the Burt Reynolds TV series, Evening Shade, and worked with Spike Lee on Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X. He was in the cast of Grumpy Old Men and repeated his role in the film version of I’m Not Rappaport. In a guest star role on The L Word, his character dies. Sadly, this episode, aired following Davis’ 2005 death from heart problems.

Awards and Honors

Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were honored multiple times during their life together. Among them are awards for the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame (1989); were awarded the National Medal of Arts (1995) and were recipients of Kennedy Center Honors (2004).

Renowned for their work on civil rights, Dee and Davis were close friends of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Davis delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral. As late as 1999, the couple was arrested at NYPD headquarters for protesting a police shooting. They were also involved in protesting the invasion of Iraq.

Together in life and death

When Ruby Dee passed on from natural causes at 91, her ashes were mixed with those of her husband. They are interred at Ferncliff Cemetery, the final resting place for famous elite, including Joan Crawford, James Baldwin, Minnie Gentry, Moss and Kitty Carlisle Hart. Until recently, Judy Garland was also buried there.

The life, career and love story of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis is one of the greatest in show business history.