Movie, small screen roles followed their stage lives

Between them, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee own more than 200 film and TV credits. It’s astounding when one considers that this enormous body of work represents essentially their second career, launched during one of this country’s most repressive and racist periods.

The pair, who will be co-honored with the Screen Actors Guild’s Life Achievement Award on March 11, are being honored as much for their resilience and unwavering sense of principal as much as their talent.

They represent the second couple to be distinguished with the guild’s highest honor since the laurel was first bestowed in 1962. In 1985, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were equally honored.

Although SAG’s interests lie within the film and TV realm, most of Davis and Dee’s lives have been lived on the stage, where they headlined such theatrical milestones as “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Boesman and Lena,” “Purlie Victorious” and “I’m Not Rappaport.”

Laughter in tears

Dee says one of her husband’s greatest traits as an artist is his ability to approach tragedy with a sense of humor. How else could one find anything comic in the McCarthy era, a period that nearly derailed the couple’s respective careers?

“It was a serious proposition,” recalls Davis, whose friendship with Paul Robeson, and involvement with protests over the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg made him and Dee instant enemies of the right wing in the early 1950s. “For some people, the black list was a matter of life and death. But for Ruby and me, it was also highly funny. As black people we were used to these outrageous, unproven allegations being visited upon our community.”

With much resonant laughter, the 83-year-old actor adds: “We never knew if we couldn’t get work in film and TV because we were black or we were red!”

Davis says their fight against McCarthyism would make a good stage comedy, as would the year leading up to their marriage in 1948.

“We ostensibly got to know each other during a cross-country tour of the play ‘Anna Lucasta,'” he says, referring to the Broadway-bound production took them to Los Angeles in 1947. “Opening night there was a sell-out and a wow; Charlie Chaplin and Sidney Greenstreet bound on to the stage, they swarmed all over us.”

The Little Tramp assured the actors that the play would be made into a film.

“Damn!” exclaims Davis. “We thought they were going to make the film with us. But it was turned into a white piece with Chaplin’s inamorata,” he says, referring to Paulette Goddard, and laughing uproariously at a memory of what must have been a crushing disappointment.

Cinema’s forgotten chapter

Dee, 76, remembers leaving “Anna Lucasta” to star in a series of black films, many of which have been lost or irreparably damaged. She even put some money from her stint in the play into one of them, “The Fight Never Ends.”

“The producer was a black man, Bill Alexander, and I was so proud to be part of something like this,” she says. “We’d been excluded from the world of the movies, except for the roles of maids and buffoons.”

Dee recalls making four films with Alexander, all of them lost.

“We didn’t even have scripts,” she remembers. “One of the actors, Laurence Criner, taught me how to ad lib. We would usually spend a week filming them. These black independent filmmakers were always running out of money. The actors weren’t paid. But producers like Bill Alexander were so courageous.”

Dee is delighted to learn that while many of her earliest films are lost, a record of them remains on the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com). “That’s amazing!” she exclaims upon hearing the cast lists from films she made more than 50 years ago.

Over the following five decades, Davis and Dee amassed enough roles in film, TV, radio and the theater to fill a dozen lesser resumes. They credit cable TV with giving them more opportunities to perform at an age when most people, performers or not, have long retired.

“I pop up on HBO and Showtime about twice a year now,” says Davis.

And some of their most rewarding work has come in the last decade with director Spike Lee in such films as “Do the Right Thing,” “Get off the Bus” and “Jungle Fever.”

Dee’s incandescence

When asked to give his opinion of Dee’s greatest portrayals, Davis mentions her Mary Tyrone in a TV presentation of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and her Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins in “Gone Are the Days,” the film adaptation of his 1961 Broadway triumph “Purlie Victorious.”

“Ruby has the capacity, in an incandescent way, to reveal the interior life of the character she portrays,” he says. “They shine through her.”

But if asked to pinpoint a single performance, his wife’s greatest achievement, according to Davis, came in the theater when she played opposite James Earl Jones in Athol Fugard’s “Boesman and Lena” at Circle in the Square in 1970.

“It was the night before opening and she was shimmering onstage. I mean, my own wife I could hardly recognize — and it wasn’t due to strange makeup or a costume,” he recalls. “Something in Ruby had disappeared and was replaced by an authentic presence shining through her. I looked at the stage and was amazed. Ruby belongs in that coterie of actors who can be so lit by a character you lose sight of the actor.”

Davis is hardly as generous in analyzing his own career as an actor.

“I’m not my favorite performer,” he insists. “To Ruby acting is, in truth, a way of life. I feel that way about writing. But for me, acting is something that I really wish I was somewhere else when I’m doing it. I’ve had fun at it, though.”

He says his stage work in “Purlie Victorious” and “I’m Not Rappaport” and the films “Scalphunters” and “The Hill” as gratifying. “I was all right in those, although I never thoroughly mastered ‘Purlie’ even though I wrote it. But I’ve never seen me reach inside the character and grab him and snatch him into full flaming life. I never did that.”

‘Victorious’ catharsis

Not surprisingly, Dee disagrees with her husband’s self-assessment.

“(‘Purlie’) was a career high point,” she says of the stage comedy. “It was a totally honest evocation of his experience with racism. He started it as a serious piece and it wound up as a extraordinarily special farce.

“It was a cathartic thing for him, too. He talked about what hurt him, the spirit killers. As an actor, he just took the lid off and let them out and looked at them and showed them to us, not literally but with his delicious humor that made it bearable and special. He pointed to the ridiculousness of racism.”

Davis and Dee may find much humor in the past, but they always knew when to stop laughing and take action. Dee led one protest during her early 1970s stint on the soap opera “Guiding Light” when she spoke out against an absence of black technicians behind the scenes. Davis fiercely objected to a TV production of William Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” which the network ultimately dropped.

“There have been projects we have had to reject,” says Davis. “But in many instances directors have listened to our objections, and because we are creative people and come with a substitute idea that is better than the original one, they have gone out to meet us halfway. It is an interchange. And usually we’ve been listened to.”

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