Ossie Davis, the actor, playwright, director, social activist and husband of frequent acting partner Ruby Dee, was found dead Friday in his hotel room in Miami where he was making a film, a representative from Davis’s office tells the Associated Press. He was 87.
Davis is perhaps best known to young audiences for his work in the Spike Lee films: School Daze, Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever. He also recreated the eulogy he delivered at the 1965 funeral of Malcolm X for Lee’s 1992 film biography of the slain leader.
Davis lived with Dee, whom he married in 1948, in New Rochelle, N.Y. Both were honored by President Bush this past December at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. – an ironic turn, considering that during the 1950 McCarthy era, Davis was accused of leaning to the left politically. He later said that any flirtation he might have had with Communism ended with the start of World War II. During the ’60s civil rights movement, Davis proudly marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King.
Davis made his first movie, 1950’s No Way Out, which also starred Dee as well as a young actor making his screen debut, Sidney Poitier. During a lengthy acting career, Davis and Dee costarred together in 11 stage productions and five movies. On TV, they both played in Roots: The Next Generation (1978), Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum (1986) and The Stand (1994).
Davis, the oldest of five children of a self-taught railroad builder and herb doctor in a tiny Georgia town, left home in 1935 to hitchhike to Washington to enter Howard University, where he studied drama. His desire was to become a playwright – a dream he most famously fulfilled with his 1961 Broadway hit about a small-town Georgia preacher, Purlie Victorious.
In celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998, Davis and Dee published a dual memoir, In This Life Together. Explaining his early politicization, Davis wrote: “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. 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.”
In addition to Dee, the grown children Guy, Nora and LaVerne survive Davis.