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.
Listen to an Interview With Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee
Ossie Davis was a good man, and his death saddens me. A man of great gifts, talents, passions, and beliefs. I admire him.
I had the privilege of hearing him and Ruby Dee speak once, and will not soon forget it.
ossie davis was born in the south but,his life spanned worldwide.he was and did so much more than most wiill ever know.glad to be born in the same state that he was from (georgia)as did so many other great men and women who was down for the cause,he will be missed.
I will miss this great man. He always demostrated style and grace along with his beautiful wife Dee. They were always something that I looked up to even when they were not in agreement with the situation at hand they always deomstrated grace. Which is a true gift from God.
Miss you my follow Howard Alumni
I would just like to say that it was a total, total shock to me to hear that Ossie Davis has died. He is such a talent strong person that I pretty much looked up to. I have always watch the movies that he starred in like, Jungle Fever, Get on the Bus and no many, many more. He will be truly missed by all. We love u and miss u Ossie Davis.
Ossie was a great actor with real soul. They don’t make them like him anymore.
TO THE COLOR OF COURAGE
AND TO THE MAN THAT WILL REMAIN IN BLACK HISTORY.
i feel blessed to be black,and honored
OSSIE DAVIS for what he did,
A human being isn’t one without a soul,
A bird can’t fly without wings.
A voice with a soul touches so many,
i am so glad you are in black history,
i hope you are resting in peace,
i am glad to say you was a true leader,
proved how far a black man could achive,
proved that dreams could be real,
by watching you act IN YOUR FILMS
it made my tears drop like fallen pearls,
i was so proud of you and your wife that
joy filled my heart, i pray for Ruby every night
and thank the lord that she is still among us.
but thank you, you are a true leader …
DEAR LORD THANK YOU FOR BLESSING BLACK PEOPLE
WITH TALENTS, ANGELS, STARS LIKE OSSIE DAVIS, MALCOM X, MARTIN LUTHER KING, … AND ALL OTHERS
TO THE MAN THAT HAD A REAL SOUL,
AND THE VOICE to TOUCH A MILLION,
TO THE COLOUR OF COURAGE
R.I.P OSSIE DAVIS
This is a heartfelt thank-you to a Black man that made me proud everytime I saw him. I’m so glad you spent some time on earth. Black Angel.