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Ossie Davis, whose rich baritone and elegant, unshakable bearing made him a giant of the stage, screen and the civil rights movement — often in tandem with his wife, Ruby Dee — has died. He was 87.
Davis was found dead Friday in his hotel room in Miami Beach, Fla., according to officials there. He was making a film, “Retirement,” said Arminda Thomas, who works in his New Rochelle office and confirmed the death.
Miami Beach police spokesman Bobby Hernandez said Davis’ grandson called shortly before 7 a.m. when Davis would not open the door to his room at the Shore Club Hotel. Davis was found dead, apparently of natural causes, Hernandez said.
Davis wrote, acted, directed and produced for the theater and Hollywood. Even light fare such as the comedy “Grumpy Old Men” with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau was somehow enriched by his strong, but gentle presence. Davis and Dee celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998 with the publication of a dual autobiography, “With Ossie & Ruby: In This Life Together.”
Their partnership rivaled the achievements of other celebrated performing couples, such as 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.
Both had key roles in the TV series “Roots: The Next Generation” (1978), “Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum” (1986) and “The Stand” (1994). Davis appeared in several Spike Lee films, including “Do the Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever,” in which Dee also appeared.
Davis had a guest role as the father of two women characters in Showtime’s dramatic series, “The L Word.” He appeared in one episode in the first season, then returned for three episodes for the season about to begin, where his character takes ill and dies.
Among Davis’ more notable Broadway appearances was his portrayal of the title character in “Purlie Victorious” (1961), a comedy he wrote lampooning racial stereotypes. In it, he played a conniving preacher who sets out to buy a church in rural Georgia. In 1970, Davis co-wrote the book for “Purlie,” a musical version of the play. A revival of the musical is planned for Broadway next season.
“He’s my hero,” actor Alan Alda, who appeared in “Purlie Victorious,” wrote in e-mail to The Associated Press. “I am sorry for his family and for all of us who have benefited from ... his art and from his service to his country.”
Actors’ Equity Association issued a statement Friday calling Davis “an icon in the American theater” and he and Dee “American treasures.” House lights for Broadway marquees were to be dimmed Friday at curtain time.
In 2004, Davis and Dee were among the artists selected to receive the Kennedy Center Honors.
Promoting cause of blacks in entertainment
“His greatness as a human being went far beyond his excellence as an actor,” former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said Friday. “Ossie was a citizen of the country, first, and the world. He and his wife were activists and they took it seriously.”
Dee was in New Zealand making a movie at the time of Davis’ death, said his agent, Michael Livingston.
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. In 1963, Davis participated in the landmark March on Washington. Two years later, he delivered a memorable eulogy for his slain friend, Malcolm X, whom Davis praised as “our own black shining prince” and “our living, black manhood!”
“In honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves,” said Davis, who reprised his eulogy in a voice-over for the 1992 Spike Lee film, “Malcolm X.”
Davis directed several films, most notably “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970). Other films include “The Cardinal” (1963), “The Client” (1994) and “I’m Not Rappaport” (1996), a reprise of his stage role 10 years earlier.
On TV, he appeared in “The Emperor Jones” (1955), “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.
“Since the loss of my father, no man has come close to represent the kind of man I hope to be some day,” said Burt Reynolds, Davis’ “Evening Shade” co-star. “I know he’s sitting next to God now, and I know God envies that voice.”
Davis had just started his new movie on Monday, Livingston said. “Retirement,” a comedy about an elderly group of friends, also starred Jack Warden, Peter Falk and George Segal.
The oldest of five children, Davis was born in tiny Cogdell, Ga., in 1917, and grew up in nearby Waycross and Valdosta. He left home in 1935, hitchhiking to Washington, D.C., to enter Howard University, where he studied drama, intending to be a playwright.
Catching the acting bug
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 Dee, whose budding stage career had paralleled his own. They had even appeared in different productions of the same play, “On Strivers Row,” in 1940.
In December 1948, on a day off from rehearsals from another play, 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 wrote 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.
“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.
Standing by discredited friends
He lined up with 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 controversies, Davis and Dee emerged from the anti-communist fervor unscathed.
“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 — Dee played his wife, 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 in 1965. Davis delivered the eulogy at Malcolm’s funeral, calling him “our own black shining prince — who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.” He reprised it in a voice-over for the 1992 Spike Lee film, “Malcolm X.”
Along with film, stage and television, the couple’s 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 made numerous guest appearances on television shows.