Ossie Davis, an actor distinguished for roles dealing with racial injustice on stage, screen and in real life — and perhaps best known as the husband and partner of actress Ruby Dee — has died at the age of 87.
Davis was found dead on Friday in his hotel room in Miami, where he was making a film called "Retirement," according to Arminda Thomas, who works in his office in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Davis, who wrote, acted, directed and produced for the theater and Hollywood, was a central figure among black performers of the last five decades. He and Dee celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998 with the publication of a dual autobiography, "In This Life Together."
Their partnership called to mind other performing couples, such as the Lunts, or Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Davis and Dee first appeared together in the plays "Jeb," in 1946, and "Anna Lucasta," in 1946-47. Davis' first film, "No Way Out" in 1950, was Dee's fifth. They shared billing in 11 stage productions and five movies during long parallel careers.
Both had key roles in the television series "Roots: The Next Generation" (1978), "Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum" (1986) and "The Stand" (1994). Davis appeared in three Spike Lee films, including "School Daze," "Do the Right Thing" and "Jungle Fever." Dee also appeared in the latter two; among her best-known films was "A Raisin in the Sun," in 1961.
In 2004, he and Dee were among the artists selected to receive the Kennedy Center Honors.
When not on stage or on camera, Davis and Dee were deeply involved in civil rights issues and efforts to promote the cause of blacks in the entertainment industry. They nearly ran afoul of the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the early 1950s, but were never openly accused of any wrongdoing.
Davis, the oldest of five children of a self-taught railroad builder and herb doctor in tiny Cogdell, Ga., grew up in nearby Waycross and Valdosta. He left home in 1935, hitchhiking to Washington to enter Howard University, where he studied drama, intending to be a playwright.
His career as an actor began in 1939 with the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem, then the center of black culture in America. There, the young Davis met or mingled with some of the most influential figures of the time, including the preacher Father Divine, W.E.B. DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright.
He also had what he described in the book as a "flirtation with the Young Communist League," which he said essentially ended with the onset of World War II. Davis spent nearly four years in service, mainly as a surgical technician in an Army hospital in Liberia, serving both wounded troops and local inhabitants.
Back in New York in 1946, Davis debuted on Broadway in "Jeb," a play about a returning soldier. His co-star was Ruby Dee. They had even appeared in different productions of the same play, "On Strivers Row," in 1940. It marked the beginning of a collaboration on and off the stage.
Dee once CBS News her first impression Davis was "a country bumpkin." "He was tall and skinny and his clothes didn't fit. His sleeves landed in the middle of his arms and his pants didn't fit him."
In December 1948, on a day off from rehearsals from another play, "The Smile of the World," Davis and Dee took a bus to New Jersey to get married. They already were so close that "it felt almost like an appointment we finally got around to keeping," Dee writes in "In This Life Together."
As black performers, they found themselves caught up in the social unrest fomented by the then-new Cold War and the growing debate over social and racial justice in the United States.
"We young ones in the theater, trying to fathom even as we followed, were pulled this way and that by the swirling currents of these new dimensions of the Struggle," Davis wrote in the joint autobiography. "Black revolutionaries fighting, just like the Russians, to liberate the workers and save the world, against the black bourgeoisie fighting, at the behest of rich white folks, to defeat the Communist menace and save the world."
Davis says he "had no trouble identifying which side I was on." He lined up with black socialist reformer DuBois and singer Paul Robeson, remaining fiercely loyal to the singer even after Robeson was denounced by other black political, sports and show business figures for his openly communist and pro-Soviet sympathies.
While Hollywood and, to a lesser extent, the New York theater world became engulfed in McCarthyism and red-baiting controversies, Davis and Dee despite their leftist activism in causes ranging from labor rallies to saving the accused atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — emerged from the anti-communist fervor unscathed and, in Davis' view, justifiably so.
"We've never been, to our knowledge, guilty of anything — other than being black — that might upset anybody," he wrote.
They were friends with baseball star Jackie Robinson and his wife, Rachel — Dee played her, opposite Robinson himself, in the 1950 movie, "The Jackie Robinson Story" — and with Malcolm X.
In the book, Davis told how a prior commitment caused them to miss the Harlem rally where Malcolm was assassinated. But Davis delivered the eulogy at Malcolm's funeral, and reprised it in a voice-over for the 1992 Spike Lee film, "Malcolm X."
Along with film, stage and television, their careers extended to a radio show, "The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour," that ran on 65 stations for four years in the mid-1970s, featuring a mix of black themes.
Both wrote plays and screenplays, and Davis directed several films, most notably "Cotton Comes to Harlem" (1970) and "Countdown at Kusini" (1976), in which he also appeared with Dee.
Other films in which Davis appeared include "The Cardinal" (1963), "The Hill" (1965), "Grumpy Old Men" (1993), "The Client" (1994) and "I'm Not Rappaport" (1996), a reprise of his stage role 10 years earlier.
On television, he appeared in "The Emperor Jones" (1955), "Freedom Road" (1979), "Miss Evers' Boys" (1997) and "Twelve Angry Men" (1997). He was a cast member on "The Defenders" from 1963-65, and "Evening Shade" from 1990-94, among other shows.
Both Davis and Dee made numerous guest appearances on television shows.