Ruby Dee, best known for her role in 1961’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and latterly for her Oscar-nominated turn as Denzel Washington’s mother in 2007’s “American Gangster,” died Wednesday in New York. She was 91.
Dee’s Oscar nomination in 2008 for her performance as the feisty mother of a Harlem druglord played by Washington in Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” was particularly impressive because the actress made an impression on the Motion Picture Academy with only 10 minutes of screen time. She won a SAG Award for the same performance.
Dee also won an Emmy in 1991 for her performance in the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” movie “Decoration Day.”
She and her husband, Ossie Davis, who often performed together, were among the first generation of African-American actors, led by Sidney Poitier, afforded the opportunity for significant, dignified dramatic roles in films, onstage and on television.
When Dee and Davis (who died in 2005) were announced as recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004, the center described them as “one of the most revered couples of the American stage, two of the most prolific and fearless artists in American culture. As individuals and as a team they have created profound and lasting work that has touched us all. With courage and tenacity they have thrown open many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America’s multicultural humanity.”
Dee and Davis were civil rights activists beginning in the early 1950s during the controversy over the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Later they were involved in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington.
In 1959 Dee starred alongside Poitier, playing Ruth Younger, wife to his Walter Younger, in the original, landmark Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” the first play by a black woman to receive a Rialto staging and the first Main Stem play to be directed by a black man, Lloyd Richards. The play, Poitier and Richards were all nominated for Tonys.
Dee, Poitier and others from the cast reproduced their performances for the 1961 film adaptation, which was selected for the National Film Registry in 2005.
Dee made her bigscreen debut with a prominent role in the all-black musical “That Man of Mine” in 1946. She starred opposite boxer Joe Louis, playing himself, in 1949 crime drama “The Fight Never Ends,” but she came to prominence with her role in 1950’s “The Jackie Robinson Story,” with the first African-American in Major League Baseball playing himself and Dee playing his wife. She had an uncredited role in Sidney Poitier’s first film, “No Way Out,” the same year.
For seven months beginning in September 1961, Dee and Davis starred on Broadway in the racially charged, Davis-penned satire “Purlie Victorious,” which attracted much controversy for, among other things, its setting: a modern Confederate plantation.
Dee starred with Davis in the 1963 film “Gone Are the Days!,” an adaptation of “Purlie Victorious,” and appeared in 1967 film “The Incident.”
The actress first made her mark on the smallscreen in a 1963 episode of “The Doctors and the Nurses,” drawing her first Emmy nomination. During the 1960s she had recurring roles on “Peyton Place” and daytime soap “Guiding Light” while guesting on other programs.
Dee won an Obie and Drama Desk Award in 1971 for her starring role opposite James Earl Jones in the original Off Broadway production of Athol Fugard’s “Boesman and Lena.” She won another Drama Desk in 1973 for her work Off Broadway in Alice Childress’ “Wedding Band.” She played Gertrude in a 1975 Shakespeare in the Park production of “Hamlet” that starred Sam Waterston.
On the bigscreen, Dee appeared in the Davis-directed “Black Girl” in 1972; she starred with Davis in the Davis-penned and -helmed 1976 film “Cool Red,” whose tagline was “A Dynamite Story of African Revolution!” Dee also starred with Poitier and Harry Belafonte in Poitier’s “Buck and the Preacher.”
In 1974 the actress returned to the baseball biopic genre, co-starring with Paul Winfield in telepic “It’s Good to Be Alive,” about Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella’s recovery from a tragic accident. (Indeed, Dee couldn’t seem to get enough of baseball: In 1990 she starred in telepic “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson,” this time as Robinson’s mother.)
Dee picked up Emmy noms in 1979 for her role in “Roots: The Next Generations” and in 1988 for her part in the miniseries “Lincoln,” based on Gore Vidal’s novel. Another highlight of the period was a TV adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in which Dee starred as Mary Tyrone.
The actress returned to Broadway after a long absence in 1988 with the comedy “Checkmates,” starring with Denzel Washington and Winfield.
Dee and Davis were among the stars of Spike Lee’s controversial “Do the Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever.”
She was also Emmy-nominated for guest roles in 1990 on “China Beach” and in 1993 on “Evening Shade.”
In 2001 Dee appeared in two Off Broadway productions, “Ruby’s Eyes” and the Davis-penned “A Last Dance for Sybil.” She received the Edith Oliver Award for Sustained Excellence at the 2002 edition of the Lucille Lortel Awards, which recognize achievements in Off Broadway theater.
In her mid-80s Dee was still a busy actress, appearing in at least eight films between 2007 and 2013.
In 2001 Dee and Davis shared a Grammy nomination with others for best spoken-word album for “The Complete Shakespeare Sonnets”; they won in the category in 2007 for “With Ossie And Ruby: In This Life Together.”
Dee and Davis were awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 1995. At the presentation of their SAG life achievement award in 2001, SAG president William Daniels said: “For more than half a century, they have enriched and transformed American life as brilliant actors, writers, directors, producers and passionate advocates for social justice, human dignity and creative excellence.”
Ruby Ann Wallace was born in Cleveland but grew up in Harlem and graduating from Hunter College with degrees in French and Spanish in 1944.
She began her career on the stage, making her 1943 Broadway debut playing a Native in a play called “South Pacific” (not the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical). She was a replacement in the American Negro Theater-produced hit “Anna Lucasta” and toured with the show. Dee appeared in three more plays in the late 1940s that had only brief runs on Broadway, including 1946’s “Jeb.” She first met Ossie Davis, who was playing the title character in “Jeb,” at this time and married him two years later. Off Broadway she appeared in “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” stage managed by Davis, in 1953.
The actress was first married to blues singer Frankie Dee Brown in the 1940s.
Dee was married to Davis for 56 years until his death in 2005. She is survived by their three children: daughters Nora and Hasna and son Guy Davis, an actor, blues musician and choreographer.
President Barack Obama issued the following statement about Dee: “Michelle and I were saddened to hear of the passing of actress, author, and activist Ruby Dee. In roles from Ruth Younger in ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ to Mama Lucas in ‘American Gangster,’ Ruby captivated and challenged us – and Michelle and I will never forget seeing her on our first date as Mother Sister in ‘Do the Right Thing.’ Through her remarkable performances, Ruby paved the way for generations of black actors and actresses, and inspired African-American women across our country. Through her leadership in the civil rights movement she and her husband, Ossie Davis, helped open new doors of opportunity for all. Our thoughts and prayers are with Ruby and Ossie’s three children, with their friends and family, and with all those who loved them dearly.”
SAG-AFTRA released the following statement on Thursday: “SAG-AFTRA mourns the loss of SAG Life Achievement Award recipient Ruby Dee, who died yesterday at the age of 91. The multitalented Dee distinguished herself as an actor, writer and activist and received the Life Achievement Award in 2000 with husband Ossie Davis. They were only the second husband-and-wife team to win the award, the other being Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in 1985. Dee was predeceased by Davis in 2005.”
SAG-AFTRA president Ken Howard also released a statement: “Ruby Dee was truly one of a kind. She was a woman who believed deeply in fairness, a conviction that motivated her lifelong efforts to advance civil rights. The acting community — and the world — is a poorer place for her loss.”