Ossie Davis, actor, playwright, giant of civil rights, and, with Ruby Dee, partner in one of America's most celebrated marriages, died today in Miami.
Davis, still handsome and elegant, was 87.
Ossie Davis and wife Ruby Dee in Nov. 2004.
(Helayne Seidman - For The Washington Post)
Wire services reported that he was found dead in his hotel room in Miami, where he was making a movie called "Retirement." No cause was announced.
Dee and Davis were joint Kennedy Center honorees in December. They were cited not only for their "theatrical and film achievement," but because they opened "many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America's multicultural humanity."
In his theatrical life, Davis wrote the play "Purlie Victorious" and starred in it with Dee.
Davis' first movie role was in "No Way Out" in 1950, followed by a Broadway role in "No Time for Sergeants" and "Raisin in the Sun," a ground breaking 1950s play about the personal and painful consequences of housing discrimination for a black family.
The couple appeared together in numerous productions, including the television series "Roots: The Next Generation" and a radio show in the 1970s called "The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour," which ran on 65 stations.
They appeared together in 20th century history as well, from the McCarthy era, during which they were blacklisted, through the civil rights era, when they were eloquent voices and fund-raisers, and well into the '80s and '90s, when Davis continued as a spokesman for numerous causes of equality.
They counted among their friends all the famous African American figures of the 1950s and '60s, including baseball great Jackie Robinson, trade union leader A. Philip Randolph, Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Davis delivered the eulogy for Malcolm X after the African American leader was assassinated in 1965.
"Malcolm knew that for a black leader to be effective, you had to frighten the white man," Davis said later.
Davis was born in Cogdell, Ga., on Dec. 18, 1917. He headed for Howard University, where he studied under Alain LeRoy Locke, the first black Rhodes Scholar.
Locke, Davis recalled in a 1992 interview, "was always on the lookout for talent. I was in his class. He encouraged me to go out to the theater."
While in Washington, he recalled then, he went to hear the singer Marian Anderson performing at the Lincoln Memorial after being barred from performing at Constitution Hall.
"I understood fully for the first time, the importance of black song, black music, black arts," he said. "I was handed my spiritual assignment that night."
His first stage appearance, in 1939, was with the Rose McClendon Players in New York.
During World War II he served in the Army with an African-American medical unit. In the war, he served as an Army surgical technician in Libya, stabilizing some of the 700,000 soldiers wounded in that war for transport back to stateside hospitals.
That experience left its mark as well.
"When World War II was over, there was a strong feeling in the country that racism had to be attacked," he told The Washington Post. "The artistic community seemed to be leading the way. It wasn't just stories for dramatic purpose, and it wasn't just white folks doing good. It was a series of serious statements made by Americans of what kind of world we have from here on in."
Davis often said he preferred writing to acting and he did, in fact, set out to become a playwright rather than an actor. His father, he said, was responsible for his love of writing.
"Daddy was in my life, a mythical hero. As was my mother. I decided to become a writer so that I could tell their stories," he once said in a speech.
"We didn't have the disadvantages of television in those days. My imagination caught fire and I have never been able to put the fires out. And that is essentially who I am: the dreamer who is still caught in the dream."
"They have a political resonance not all artists have," civil rights historian Taylor Branch said of Dee and Davis in a recent interview.
"Ossie delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X's funeral at a time when not many Americans -- even blacks -- knew what to make of Malcolm. And there was Ossie, calling him 'my sweet black prince.' "