Ossie Davis, whose uncompromising character was the hallmark of a distinguished career as an actor, playwright and director, and who stood at the vanguard of the nation's civil rights movement for more than five decades, died Friday in his hotel room in Miami Beach, where he was making a movie. He was 87.
Davis's grandson called police when the performer did not respond to a knock at his door at 7 a.m. Police said the cause of death has not been determined, but foul play is not suspected.
Kennedy Center honored Davis, 87.
(J. Scott Applewhite -- AP)
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Two months ago, Davis and his wife, actress Ruby Dee, were honored at the Kennedy Center for their lifelong contributions to theater, television and film, as well as for being models of courage and grace in the long struggle for equality in the United States. They were recognized for having "thrown open many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of American's multicultural humanity."
Davis, who was best known as an actor, had a deep, lyrical voice redolent of poetry and pain. He also wrote several plays and books, and directed five films in the 1970s, including the seminal "blaxploitation" movie "Cotton Comes to Harlem."
He enjoyed a late blossoming as an actor and as an elder statesman of entertainment and civil rights. In recent years, he appeared on screen in "I'm Not Rappaport" "Grumpy Old Men," "Doctor Dolittle" and "The Client," as well as television shows.
He also acted in six Spike Lee movies, including "School Daze," "Do the Right Thing," "Jungle Fever" and last year's "She Hate Me." For one of Lee's films, "Malcolm X" (1992), Davis reprised the eulogy he wrote and delivered at the funeral of Malcolm X in 1965, in which he called the slain civil rights leader "our own black shining prince."
"He was the light, he was the beacon," Lee said of Davis, noting that he wrote the roles specifically for the actor. "One of the greatest things I got from him and Ruby Dee was that [they] were activists and artists. They did not hide what they believed."
Between his frequent appearances on stage and in film, Davis had prominent roles on the nation's political stages, as well. He participated in marches for racial equality throughout the South and participated in the 1963 March on Washington, at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Five years later, after King was killed by an assassin's bullet, Davis spoke at his funeral.
Despite being blacklisted briefly in the 1950s McCarthyism era, Davis often returned to Washington to speak before congressional committees about the arts or about opportunities for minorities in Hollywood. In 1981, when the Reagan administration proposed a 50 percent cut in the National Endowment for the Humanities budget, Davis registered his disappointment to a House Appropriations subcommittee.
"I am Ossie Davis, actor, writer, director, husband and father," he intoned in his velvet baritone. "And like other working-class people, I was able to pull myself up by my bootstraps -- but only because the federal government provided the boots."
Ossie Davis was born Dec. 18, 1917, in tiny Cogdell, Ga. His given name was meant to be Raiford Chatman Davis, but the registrar of births recorded what were supposed to be the initials, "R.C.," as "Ossie."
He grew up in Waycross, Ga., in a verbal culture in which he heard stories of African American life marked by humor, danger and sorrow. From an early age, Davis knew he wanted to be a writer and to improve the lot of his people.
"I had been profoundly influenced by Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes," he told The Washington Post in December.
After high school, he hitchhiked to Washington to attend Howard University, where he nurtured his growing interest in theater. Davis was present when Anderson gave her celebrated concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939, after she was barred from DAR Constitution Hall.