African American Legends: High Lights Legendary Actors: Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee
CUNY, Taped: 07/30/2006. African-American Legends profiles prominent African-Americans in the arts, in politics, the social sciences, sports, community service, and business. Watch more at www.cuny.tv/series/aalegends.
Ossie Davis (born Raiford Chatman Davis, December 18, 1917 – February 4, 2005) was an Emmy Award and Grammy Award-winning, American film, television and Broadwayactor, director, poet, playwright, author, and social activist.
Davis was born Raiford Chatman Davis in Cogdell, Clinch County, Georgia, a son of Kince Charles Davis, a railway construction engineer, and his wife Laura (née Cooper)(9 July 1898-6 June 2004). The name Ossie came from a county clerk who misheard his mother’s pronunciation of his initials “R.C.” when he was born. So he inadvertently became “Ossie” when his mother told the courthouse clerk in Clinch River, Ga., who was filing his birth certificate that his name was R.C. Davis. Davis experienced racism from an early age when the KKK threatened to shoot his father, whose job they felt was too advanced for a black man to have. Following the wishes of his parents, he attended Howard University but dropped out in 1939 to fulfill his acting career in New York; he later attended Columbia University School of General Studies. His acting career, which spanned seven decades, began in 1939 with the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem. He made his film debut in 1950 in the Sidney Poitier film No Way Out. He voiced Anansi the spider on the PBS children’s television series Sesame Street in its animation segments.
photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1951
When Davis wanted to pursue a career in acting, he ran into the usual roadblocks that blacks suffered at that time as they generally could only portray stereotypical characters such as Stepin Fetchit. Instead, he tried to follow the example of Sidney Poitier and play more distinguished characters. When he found it necessary to play a Pullman porter or a butler, he tried to portray the character seriously and not in a stereotypical manner.
In addition to acting, Davis, along with Melvin Van Peebles, and Gordon Parks was one of the notable African American directors of his generation: he directed movies like Gordon’s War, Black Girl and the far famed action film Cotton Comes to Harlem. Along with Bill Cosby and Poitier, Davis was one of a handful of African American actors able to find commercial success while avoiding stereotypical roles prior to 1970, which also included a significant role in the 1965 movie The Hill alongside Sean Connery plus roles in The Cardinal and The Scalphunters. However, Davis never had the tremendous commercial or critical success that Cosby and Poitier enjoyed. As a playwright, Davis wrote Paul Robeson: All-American, which is frequently performed in theatre programs for young audiences.
Davis found recognition late in his life by working in several of director Spike Lee‘s films, including Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, She Hate Me and Get on the Bus. He also found work as a commercial voice-over artist and served as the narrator of the early-1990s CBS sitcom Evening Shade, starring Burt Reynolds, where he also played one of the residents of a small southern town.
His last role was a several episode guest role on the Showtime drama series The L Word, as a father struggling with the acceptance of his daughter Bette (Jennifer Beals) parenting a child with her lesbian partner. In his final episodes, his character was taken ill and died. His wife Ruby Dee was present during the filming of his own death scene. That episode, which aired shortly after Davis’s own death, aired with a dedication to the actor.
In 1989, Ossie Davis and his wife, actress/activist Ruby Dee, were named to the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame. In 1995, they were awarded the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest honor conferred to an individual artist on behalf of the country and presented in a White House ceremony by the President of the United States. And in 2004, they were recipients of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. According to the Kennedy Center Honors:
- “The Honors recipients recognized for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts— whether in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television — are selected by the Center’s Board of Trustees. The primary criterion in the selection process is excellence. The Honors are not designated by art form or category of artistic achievement; the selection process, over the years, has produced balance among the various arts and artistic disciplines.”
In 1948, Davis married actress Ruby Dee. In their joint autobiography With Ossie and Ruby, they described their decision to have an open marriage (later changing their minds). In the mid 1960’s they moved to the New York suburb of New Rochelle where they remained ever after. His son Guy Davis is a blues musician and former actor, who appeared in the film Beat Street and the daytime soap opera One Life to Live.
Their daughters are Nora Davis Day and Hasna Muhammad.
Ossie Davis at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.
They were well known as civil rights activists, and were close personal friends of Malcolm X,Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other icons of the era. Davis and Dee’s deep involvement in the movement is characterized by how instrumental they were in organizing the 1963 civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, even to the point of serving as emcee. Davis, alongside Ahmed Osman, delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X. He re-read part of this eulogy at the end of Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X. He also delivered a stirring tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, at a memorial in New York’s Central Park the day after King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
Davis was found dead in a Miami, Florida, hotel room on February 4, 2005. An official cause of death was not released, but he had heart problems. He died a year after his mother, who died a month before her 106th birthday.