Ruby Dee scored plenty of film and stage triumphs during her long career in showbiz. The actress who died Wednesday at the age of 91 is equally renowned for her activism on behalf of civil rights and other humanitarian causes.
But Dee also left a proud legacy of accomplishments on the small screen thanks to her roles on such early- to mid-1960s series as “Peyton Place,” “East Side, West Side,” “The Defenders” and “Nurses.” They were mostly guest shots, with the exception of her recurring role on “Peyton Place,” but even granting a prominent guest role to a black actress was still seen as groundbreaking for the time.
Consider the controversy sparked by her guest role opposite George C. Scott in the CBS drama “East Side, West Side.” Scott played a crusading New York City social worker in the show from David Susskind’s Talent Associates banner that was a famously focused on highlighting social issues and breaking TV barriers. Cicely Tyson co-starred as Scott’s co-worker.
Scott had numerous public battles with the network over the gritty subject matter that “East Side, West Side” aimed to tackle. One of them came to light in the pages of Variety on Nov. 20, 1963 — two days before the nation suffered the jolt of President Kennedy’s assassination — when Scott blasted CBS for cutting a scene in which he danced with Dee.
The episode, “No Hiding Place,” dealt with the practice known as “block-busting,” in which real estate agents sought to stoke fears that black families were moving into white neighborhoods in order to convince white homeowners to sell at a loss. Those homes would then be resold to black families at a high markup.
In the episode, Scott’s Neil Brock convenes a meeting of prospective black homebuyers to discuss the situation. At one point he asks Dee to dance as a means of easing tension at a reception held after the meeting. The scene was cut from the original script by Millard Lampell, but Scott insisted that it be shot anyway during filming.
Scott blew the whistle on the fact that CBS nixed the scene prior to the episode’s premiere on Dec. 2. Variety‘s story quoted “East Side” producers Arnold Perl and Larry Arrick insisting that the scene was cut for “dramatic reasons” and because it wasn’t in keeping with how a social worker would act. That explanation didn’t ring true in 1963, nor today. Scott branded the network’s move “pathetic.”
“East Side, West Side” only lasted one season, not surprisingly, given that it had some trouble attracting sponsors, but it did lead the pack in Emmy nominations for 1964.
Dee earned an Emmy nom the same year for her appearance on another CBS drama, “The Nurses.” She received a total of six Emmy noms during her seven decades in showbiz. She won a supporting actress trophy in 1991 for her role in the Hallmark Hall of Fame/CBS miniseries “Decoration Day.”