The world has lost a great actor and an even greater force for good. Ossie Davis, the longtime activist and acclaimed stage and screen star, was found dead earlier today in a Miami hotel room. The 87-year-old actor was in Florida, where he had just started filming a new movie. Davis’ death was reportedly due to natural causes.
With his rich baritone and powerful stage presence, Davis made his mark as an actor, playwright, and spoken-word artist over a distinguished career that lasted nearly 60 years. His C.V. is too long to recount here — see Davis’ New York Times filmography and this biography from Howard University, his alma mater, if you need details about his work as an actor, writer, producer, author, and director. I have to mention, however, Purlie Victorious: Davis, for many, is best known for writing and starring in this groundbreaking 1961 Broadway satire that took on “racial” stereotypes and segregation. (I was quite a fan of its 1970 musical adaptation, Purlie!.) Younger people may recall him as an actor in many of Spike Lee’s movies, among them, Do the Right Thing and Get on the Bus; as Eddie Murphy’s dad in the 1998 version of the film Dr. Doolittle (which my son and I, coincidentally, watched last night); or as cohost of syndicated television’s “Black Heritage” movie series.
Much of Davis’ professional success came in partnership with his spouse of 56 years, the legendary actor and activist Ruby Dee. Together, they were in a class with the likes of Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn and Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. And America knew it: In 1995, Davis and Dee received the National Medal of Arts and were called “national treasures.” In 2000, they received the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. And just last year, Davis and Dee were both recipients of Kennedy Center Honors.
The fight for justice was probably more important to the pair than their devotion to the performing arts. Davis has been lauded for his participation in the 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights and for giving the eulogies for both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. He also raised money for the Freedom Riders, and much of his artistic work was devoted to teaching Americans about history and the costs of racism. Just as important, Davis, with Dee, spent much effort in showing historically oppressed people that they could achieve. As Davis was once quoted, “The profoundest commitment possible to a black creator in this country today — beyond all creeds, crafts, classes and ideologies whatsoever — is to bring before his people the scent of freedom.”
For as long as I can remember, whether they appeared together in a play or film, jointly promoted the institution of the American theater, or took a side-by-side stand against injustice, the sight of the obviously devoted couple provided inspiration, resolve, comfort and strength. They were the picture of decency, commitment, and stability, of grace, strength, and integrity. Ossie Davis was and Ruby Dee is outstanding in the field of acting, but more importantly, the pair put the lie to the notion that there are no worthy role models.
What saddens me most about Davis’ death is that Dee could not be with her other half at the end. She too was working, making a film in New Zealand. I can only imagine what she must be feeling right now; if only there was something I could do to help. I feel as if I owe a debt of gratitude to both Davis and Dee for the work they have done, the lives they lived, the example they set. Without doubt, the nation does.
The best way, I think, that we can thank Ossie Davis for the work he did and the lessons he taught is to enlist in the struggle to make a world free from injustice. We should take the advice of Da Mayor, the character he played in Spike Lee’s 1989 joint: “Do the right thing.”