Saturday, February 05, 2005


R.I.P.Ossie Davis

Ossie Davis, a charismatic and versatile actor and outspoken activist, was found dead Friday in his room at a Miami Beach hotel.

Authorities said Davis apparently died of natural causes.

The 87-year-old actor was in Miami to make a new film, "Retirement," which had begun shooting a few days earlier.

He was a playwright, producer and stage and film director as well as a memorable performer. He frequently appeared in tandem with his wife, actress Ruby Dee.

One of the great stage couples, the two met while performing in Robert Ardrey's civil rights drama "Jeb" in 1946, in which Davis made his Broadway debut in the title role. Married in '48, they marked their 50th anniversary by publishing a joint autobiography, "In This Life Together."

Last year, the couple were among the artists who received the Kennedy Center Honors. Davis and his wife also have been jointly inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame and have received the Screen Actors Guild's Life Achievement Award, the Academy of Television Arts and Science's Silver Circle Award and a National Medal of Arts. The Kennedy Center Honors cited not only their work on stage and screen, but also as "passionate advocates for social justice, human dignity and creative excellence."

Davis was almost as well known for his activism as for his art, and he creatively combined the two in much of his work. He and his wife actively worked for many progressive causes, especially in the field of civil rights, beginning with the antilynching campaigns of the 1940s, and were outspoken in their opposition to the McCarthy communist hunts of the '50s.

Lifelong campaigners for racial justice, they were close friends of noted African American leaders ranging from Jackie Robinson and Paul Robeson to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In his oft-quoted eulogy at Malcolm X's funeral, Davis praised the slain leader as "our own shining black prince."

He continued to give generously of his time and money to civil rights, voting rights and other causes throughout his life. Speaking at Cornell University in the '90s, Davis praised the achievements of the civil rights movement in attaining certain freedoms and added, "Now we need to move black people, women and minorities to be equal. The bird of democracy needs two wings to fly -- that of freedom and equality."

Born in 1917 in Cogwell, Georgia, Davis set his sights on becoming a writer at an early age. He hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard University, graduated in '38, and moved to New York City to join the Harlem- based Rose McClendon Players. His stage career didn't begin in earnest until after World War II, though. Davis served almost four years in the Army, principally as a medical technician in Liberia.

Davis made his film debut in 1950 in "No Way Out," a movie that also introduced Sidney Poitier. Nine years later, he succeeded Poitier in the male lead in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" on Broadway, a landmark production in which Dee also played a principal role.

In 1961, Davis made his Broadway debut as a playwright with "Purlie Victorious," a hilarious and sharply satiric civil rights comedy in which he and his wife starred. In a work that upended one racial stereotype after another, Davis played an eager, innocent preacher who returns to a Southern village determined to free the locals from the tyranny of a plantation owner. Davis' broad, vital and charismatic performance helped make the show a hit.

As read today, Howard Taubman's rave review in the New York Times is not only a tribute to Davis' artistry but also to the enormous changes in media attitudes about racial issues since 1961 -- and to Davis' work in helping to bring about those changes. "It is marvelously exhilarating to hear the Negro speak for himself," Taubman wrote, "especially when he does so in the fullness of his native gusto and the enveloping heartiness of his overflowing laughter."

Davis repeated the role of Purlie in a less successful 1963 film version, "Gone Are the Days." But the play became an even greater success as the long- running musical "Purlie," with a book by Davis, in 1970.

Davis appeared in numerous films, including Spike Lee's "School Daze," "Do the Right Thing," "Jungle Fever" and "Malcolm X." He wrote and directed "Cotton Comes to Harlem" in 1970 and directed the movies "Black Girl," "Gordon's War" and "Countdown at Kusini," which he also produced and made in Nigeria. Among his more notable film roles were those in "The Cardinal," "The Hill," "Grumpy Old Men" and "I'm Not Rappaport," in a part he had created on Broadway in 1986.

Davis and Dee also appeared in many TV shows, including "Roots: The Next Generation" and "Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum," which they produced for PBS in '86. They received NAACP Image Awards for their '96 series "Promised Land" on CBS. Davis made his TV debut in "The Emperor Jones" in '65 and received Emmy nominations for his work in "Teacher, Teacher, King" and "Miss Evers' Boys." He was also a cast member on "The Defenders" in the '60s and "Evening Shade" in the '90s.

As impressive as he was in individual roles onscreen -- he made about 30 film and TV appearances in the '90s alone -- and onstage, Davis may be best remembered for the sum total of his work in partnership with his wife. The union produced three children, among them the well-known blues artist Guy Davis.

He lived a full life, Kami, an' what's really remarkable is that he worked in an industry that loves rumour an' gossip, yet throughout his long life an' colourful career, his wife never had to live through allegations ov infidelity or assault cases, like so many nowadays stars. That says a lot about him, because bein' a thorn in America's side wif constant civil rights work an' speakin' out against cold-war communist hunts, they'd have loved to have found ANYfing to smear his character--like they did MLK, etc.. Still, Ossie's gone out as a champ--spotless--that takes some doin', respect to his memory.
I was at work when I first heard. It is sad, but I don't feel nearly as bad about it because this is a man who lived a full life with much richness. I mean his legacy is so immense, that though its sad, I can't help but feel like I want to celebrate his life not mourn it. So rare do we have actors, who you say "his work speaks for itself". He will always be a favorite. I do however feel for Ruby Dee, I can't imagine lsoing a partner of 50 years.
I myself do not feel any sadness as he lived a rich full life and went out peacefully.I do feel for his wife because losing a life long partner is no easy thing to overcome.The thing that drew me to him was his rich voice and this quiet dignity that I also associate with Morgan Freeman.
well I aint feel no sadness either cause I din know him personally, I juss see him on tv. That said from what I saw of him on tv he was a good guy, respectable, talented, outspoken. someone who seemed to stand for something amongst the hollywood glitter. R.I.P ossie
Uh-hn, another of the few remaining good people gone . Rest In Peace our dear and beloved foot soldier.
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