Davis, actor, producer and activist, dies at 87

Thesp promoted racial justice, humanitarian causes throughout career

Film and stage actor Ossie Davis was found dead Friday in his Miami hotel room. Davis, the husband and partner of actress Ruby Dee, was 87.

Davis was in Florida where he had just started making the film “Retirement.” Dee is in New Zealand in production on a film.

The thesp and human-rights activist was nominated for three Emmys, for “Miss Evers’ Boys,” “King” and “Teacher, Teacher,” and won a WGA award for collaborating on the screenplay for “For Us the Living: the Medgar Evers Story.” In 2001, he was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Screen Actors Guild.

SAG president Melissa Gilbert said, “Along with his remarkable wife, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis’ impact on America can be seen not only in his rich body of creative works, but equally so as a passionate advocate for social justice and human dignity. I had the honor of working with Mr. Davis and was profoundly moved by his brilliant talent as well as his tireless advocacy on behalf of performers of color and as a champion of the guild’s diversity initiatives.”

Davis and Dee were among artists who received the Kennedy Center Honors last year. They had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998 with the publication of a dual autobiography, “In This Life Together.”

They were active in promoting racial justice and humanitarian causes. Davis spoke at the funerals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. He also was the voice for the United Negro College Fund’s advertising slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

“He made significant contributions to the cultural life of our nation,” the Actors’ Equity Assn. said. Davis “helped pave the road for the next generation of African-American actors, writers and directors.”

Davis, the son of a railroad engineer, was born Raiford Chatman Davis in Cogdell, Ga. His mother’s pronunciation of his initials “R.C.” was heard as “Ossie.” He earned a degree at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then moved to New York to start his career.

His career included acting, writing, producing and directing over 65 years and produced 20 films, among them “Grumpy Old Men,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Miss Evers’ Boys” and “Malcolm X.”

Davis played Ponder Blue for four years on the CBS comedy “Evening Shade” and guested on dozens of series including “Cosby,” “Bonanza” and “The Defenders.” Davis and Dee had major roles in the television series “Roots: The Next Generation,” “Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum” and “The Stand.”

He first appeared on the screen in 1959 in “No Way Out” with Dee and Sidney Poitier. Other film appearances include “Grumpy Old Men,” “Doctor Dolittle” and “I’m Not Rappaport,” a reprise of his stage role. He also appeared in three Spike Lee films: “School Daze,” “Do the Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever.”

He directed and co-wrote ’70s Blaxploitation classic “Cotton Comes to Harlem” as well as “Black Girl” and “Countdown at Kusini.”

Davis met Dee while making his Broadway debut in 1946 in “Jeb Turner” in 1946. He went on to star in half a dozen more Broadway plays before his landmark performance in “A Raisin in the Sun.” He also starred in and collaborated on the book for “Purlie Victorious,” which won a Tony for musical.

Davis and Dee were inducted into the NAACP Image Award Hall of Fame, the Theater Hall of Fame, and received the National Medal of Arts Award from President Clinton.

The couple have three children: Guy, an actor; Nora and LaVerne.

— Staff and wire reports

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