Ossie Davis, a veteran actor, writer, producer and director who championed racial justice, died on Feb. 4 of natural causes. He was 87.
Born Raiford Chatman Davis, the Georgia native became known as “Ossie” after a clerk misunderstood Davis’ mother when she called out his initials, R.C. The budding thespian attended Howard University for three years, but dropped out to study drama with the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem. The school later granted him an honorary degree.
Davis served four years in the U.S. Army as a medical technician during World War II, and occasionally performed shows for his fellow soldiers. Upon his return to the states, he made his Broadway debut in the 1946 production of “Jeb Turner.” The play brought him in contact with actress Ruby Dee, who would become his wife and life-long partner. They had three children — Nora Day, Hasna Muhammad and blues guitarist Guy Davis.
Davis made his uncredited film debut in “No Way Out,” a 1950 drama which also featured Dee and introduced America to actor Sidney Poitier. Over the next half century, Davis appeared in dozens of films, including “School Daze,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever,” “Doctor Dolittle,” “The Cardinal,” “The Hill,” “Grumpy Old Men,” “Baadasssss,” “12 Angry Men,” “I’m Not Rappaport” and “Bubba Ho-Tep.” He wrote and directed “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” produced and directed “Countdown at Kusini,” and simply directed “Black Girl” and “Gordon’s War.”
Davis’ first television performance was in the 1965 show “The Emperor Jones.” He followed that up with appearances on more than 50 comedies, dramas and westerns, and received Emmy nominations for his work in the made-for-TV movies “Teacher, Teacher” and “Miss Evers’ Boys.” Davis debuted as a playwright on Broadway in 1961 with the successful comedy “Purlie Victorious.” He and his wife starred in the play; Davis then performed the title role in the 1963 film version, “Gone Are the Days.” Seven years later, the play became the Best Musical Tony nominee “Purlie!”
Davis and Dee acted together in numerous TV projects (“Roots: The Next Generation,” “Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum,” “The Stand” and “Ossie and Ruby!”), but remained deeply committed to civil rights issues. They campaigned against lynching in the late-1940s and publicly opposed the McCarthy communist witch hunts of the 1950s. As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s, Davis and Dee became vocal advocates for racial equality. They helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and were master and mistress of ceremonies.
Davis spoke at Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral and eulogized Malcolm X, calling him “a prince — our own black shining prince! — who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.” He repeated the eulogy in a heartfelt voice-over for the 1992 Spike Lee biopic, “Malcolm X.” Davis also narrated commercials for the United Negro College fund, and made the phrase “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” sound both poignant and memorable.
To celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998, the couple published the dual autobiography, “In This Life Together.” Both were inducted into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Hall of Fame and the Theater Hall of Fame, and received several joint honors, such as the White House’s National Medal of Arts, the Screen Actors Guild lifetime achievement award, the Academy of Television Arts and Science’s Silver Circle Award and the Kennedy Center Honors.
Davis was found dead in his hotel room in Miami, where he was shooting the road-trip movie “Retirement,” with Rip Torn, Jack Warden and George Segal. Dee was in New Zealand preparing for work on a separate project at the time of his death.