Actor Ossie Davis Dies at Age 87

Actor Ossie Davis Dies at Age 87 (Reuters)

Photo Actor Ossie Davis, who brought dignity and a passion for social justice to the stage and screen in a career of more than 50 years, was found dead early on Friday at the age of 87. Davis’ body was discovered by his grandson and paramedics at the Shore Club hotel in Miami Beach, where the actor had been shooting the film “Retirement,” according to police and his office in Los Angeles. “According to the grandson, he was suffering from heart disease,” said police spokesman Bobby Hernandez. “The grandson knocked on the door, and when Mr. Davis didn’t respond, he called fire rescue.”

A longtime civil rights activist, Davis spoke at the funerals of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and gave voice to the famous United Negro College Fund slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

He and his wife of more than 50 years, actress and frequent collaborator Ruby Dee, received Kennedy Center Honors in 2004 for their body of work. In the late 1990s, they co-wrote the book “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together,” chronicling their struggles against racial injustice as well as their decades as a couple. They also spoke in the book about their decision to have an open marriage. The couple had three children.

Davis broke barriers for black performers on television, stage and in the movies and developed a reputation as one of the country’s most recognizable character actors. “In the roles he took, he was a standard bearer for dignity and integrity,” said longtime friend Madeleine Moore, an advertising executive who met Davis and his wife while working on a public affairs radio show the couple hosted together. “Even as a young actor, he took on the mantle of this wise sage, this person who carried wisdom and a sense of purpose and the history of a people,” Moore said.

Truly a loss.


Ossie Davis found dead in Miami hotel room (AP) MSNBC CNN USAT ChiST SFChron MTV

Photo Ossie Davis and wife, Ruby Dee, pose in front of their movie poster at the opening night gala of their film
Davis, who wrote, acted, directed and produced for the theater and Hollywood, was a central figure among black performers for 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.

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.

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. Actor Roy Scheider, who had performed with Davis and attended anti-war rallies with him, called Davis and Dee “the first political couple of America.” “Ossie seemed to always show up at the right time, on the right side, which was always the human side,” Scheider said. “He was always progressive and had a very heartfelt sympathy for all people everywhere.”

Davis directed several films, most notably “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970) and “Countdown at Kusini” (1976), in which he also appeared with Dee. Both wrote plays and screenplays, and [sic] 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.

Audio: “NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates offers an appreciation of Davis, whose career spanned more than half a century.”

Video: “Rev. Jesse Jackson remembers actor Ossie Davis, who championed racial justice on stage, and in real life, with MSNBC-TV’s Alison Stewart.” (java)

Broadway Theatres to Dim Lights in Honor Stage Veteran Ossie Davis, Feb. 4 (Playbill)

To honor of the passing of legendary stage and screen actor-writer Ossie Davis, Broadway theatres will dim their lights at 8 PM, Feb. 4. As is tradition, the lights will dim on all marquees for one minute at 8 PM. Davis, playwright and actor of Purlie Victorious who co-wrote the book for the musical version Purlie passed away Feb. 3.

Playbill has a glowing and lengthy obituary here.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.