Actor, activist made career as `humanist'

Ossie Davis

1917 - 2005

February 05, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach and J. Wynn Rousuck | Chris Kaltenbach and J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN STAFF

Ossie Davis, an actor, writer and social activist of unwavering dignity who compared his life to "riding eight horses at once," died yesterday in Miami Beach. He was 87.

Davis, whose 56-year marriage to actress Ruby Dee constituted one of the most prolific and most honored partnerships of the American stage and screen, was in Florida shooting a film, titled Retirement. He was found dead, apparently of natural causes, in his hotel room early yesterday morning, said Miami Beach police spokesman Bobby Hernandez.

"He was carrying the mantle. He and Sidney [Poitier]. ... He carried it with such dignity when the times were extremely difficult," said actor-director Melvin Van Peebles, who with Davis in the 1970s, pioneered the development of a distinctly black cinema. "He was a rock."

As early as the 1940s, Davis and Dee began supporting anti-lynching campaigns sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League. Known for his deep baritone and regal bearing, Davis gave eulogies at the funerals of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, whom he called "our own black shining prince - who didn't hesitate to die, because he loved us so." In 1999, Davis was arrested for protesting the police shooting of a New York immigrant.

"Look up the word `activist,'" Bill Cosby said yesterday in a statement. "Think about what it means to be a role model."

Davis' career had surpassing depth. He wrote and directed the 1970 benchmark production Cotton Comes to Harlem, among the first films featuring a largely African-American cast and steeped in black culture to succeed financially.

His films included appearances in Gladiator (1992), Grumpy Old Men (1993) and The Client (1994). On television, he held roles in Roots: The Next Generation, the sitcom Evening Shade and the pilot episode for the 1970s horror series Night Gallery. On Broadway, he wrote and starred in Purlie Victorious, a 1961 lampoon of racial stereotypes, and wrote the book for Purlie, its 1970 musical adaptation.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Davis became the voice of the United Negro College Fund when he narrated a television commercial in which he admonished viewers: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

But for Davis, whose performing career dated to 1939, when he debuted with Harlem's Rose McClendon Players, acting was never as important as doing. "My life has been a great jumble to me," he told an interviewer in 1980. "I've tried to put the elements of my life together: being a writer, an actor, a social activist, a black man, a person who believes in his future - being, I guess you can call it, a humanist. All these things are disciplines that sort of run into each other. It's just like riding eight horses at once, but it can be done."

And done well, as Davis proved. In 15 Broadway plays, in more than 80 films, in hundreds of television appearances, Davis was a commanding presence on the American entertainment scene for more than a half-century. Davis always pushed indefatigably for the cause of civil rights.

"Ossie was committed to poor people. He was committed to justice. He was committed to civil rights, and he was prepared to use all his energy and whatever fame and renown he had for the causes he believed in," said Roger Wilkins, a professor of history at George Mason University and nephew of civil rights pioneer Roy Wilkins.

Born in 1917 in Codgell, Ga., the oldest of five children, Raiford Chatman Davis - his mother's pronunciation of his initials "R.C." was heard as "Ossie" - left home in 1935, hitchhiking to Washington, D.C. and entering Howard University, where he studied drama. During World War II he served nearly four years in the armed services, mainly as a surgical technician in an Army hospital in Liberia.

Following his discharge, Davis headed for Broadway. In 1946 he landed the starring role in Jeb, a play about a returning soldier. Dee, who was 21, was also in the cast. The couple married in December 1948, on a day off from rehearsals for another play. He made his movie debut in 1950's No Way Out, a film that also featured the first screen appearance of Sidney Poitier. Dee was in the cast also, but she was already a veteran of four films.

Davis and Dee would go on to star in many theatrical and television productions together, including Roots: The Next Generation (1978), Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum (1986) and The Stand (1994). In 1998, they published a dual autobiography called In This Life Together.

In recent years a new generation came to know Davis for his parts in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991) and She Hate Me (2004).

Yet he was not above having a laugh at his own expense. In 2002's spoof, Bubba-Ho-Tep, Davis portrayed President John F. Kennedy as a black man living in a Texas nursing home.

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