Last modified: Monday, January 14, 2002
Biography: Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee
Since meeting on Broadway in the 1946 production of Jeb, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee have excelled as collaborators and as individuals (they married in 1948), and they often broke new ground for African Americans. They made their film debuts in 1950 in No Way Out with Sidney Poitier, then starred together on Broadway in A Raisin in the Sun.
Davis, an alumnus of Howard University, has performed in many Broadway productions, including No Time for Sergeants, I'm Not a Rappaport and Anna Lucasta. He first electrified television audiences in 1965 in the title role in The Emperor Jones. He received Emmy nominations for Teacher, Teacher, King and Miss Evers' Boys. He was a regular or recurring player on TV series such as Evening Shade, B.L. Stryker and The Client.
Young people may recognize Davis and Dee from their appearances in several Spike Lee films, including Malcolm X -- in which Davis played himself, having delivered the eloquent eulogy for the slain black leader in 1965 -- Jungle Fever, Do the Right Thing and Get on the Bus. More recently, Davis starred as Eddie Murphy's father in the 1998 comedy, Dr. Dolittle, was the voice of a lemur in the 2000 Disney animated film, Dinosaur, and was in 1993's Grumpy Old Men.
Dee, an alumna of Hunter College, first attracted national attention in 1950 for her performance in The Jackie Robinson Story and broke ground in 1965 as the first black woman to play lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival. She won an Obie Award for the title role in Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena, a Drama Desk Award for her role in Wedding Band and an Ace Award for her performance as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night.
On television, Dee has been nominated seven times for Emmy Awards and was a winner in 1991 for Decoration Day. She and Davis recently starred in Showtime TV's adaptation of the Anne Rice novel, The Feast of All Saints. Both received NAACP Image Awards for their 1996 CBS series Promised Land. Dee's other recent TV films have included Finding Buck McHenry and Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters First Hundred Years.
In 1961, Davis wrote and starred with Dee in the acclaimed Purlie Victorious, a satire on the historical and psychological significance of segregation. The play later was adapted into a film and a musical. In 1970, he directed his first feature film, Cotton Comes to Harlem, for which he also wrote the screenplay and songs. In 1976, they produced the first American feature film to be shot entirely in Africa by black professionals, Countdown at Kusani, with Davis directing.
As close friends of Martin Luther King Jr., they served as masters of ceremonies for the historic 1963 March on Washington. Earlier, they risked their careers resisting McCarthyism. Davis' and Dee's activism has led to their arrest for protesting the killing in New York of a Guinean immigrant, their suing in federal court for black voting rights, and their speaking out for citizen involvement in democracy and in support of sickle cell disease research.
Davis and Dee were celebrated as "national treasures" when they received the National Medal of Arts in 1995. In 2000, they were presented with the Screen Actors Guild's highest honor, the Life Achievement Award. They received the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle Award in 1994 and are inductees in the Theater Hall of Fame and the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame.
They are co-authors of a joint autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (William Morrow/Harper Collins, 2000).