Obituary: Ruby Dee / Actress and civil rights activist
Oct. 27, 1922 - June 11, 2014
June 12, 2014 11:22 PM
Peter Kramer/Associated Press
By Sarah Halzack / The Washington Post
Ruby Dee, an African-American actress who defied segregation-era stereotypes by landing lead roles in movies and on Broadway while maintaining a second high-profile career as a civil rights advocate, including emceeing the 1963 March on Washington, died Wednesday at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 91.
Her death was confirmed by Arminda Thomas, the archivist for Dee-Davis Enterprises. The cause of death was not disclosed.
In a career spanning seven decades, Ms. Dee was known for a quietly commanding presence opposite powerful leading men, including Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and James Earl Jones.
As a young woman, she won acclaim as a chauffeur’s steadfast wife in the Broadway and film versions of “A Raisin in the Sun,” starring Mr. Poitier, and then earned an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role as the mother of a drug kingpin played by Mr. Washington in “American Gangster” (2007).
In 1965, Ms. Dee became the first black actress to perform lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., playing Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew” and Cordelia in “King Lear.” Moreover, critics consistently praised Ms. Dee’s ability to make the most demanding roles seem effortless. Off-Broadway in 1970, in Athol Fugard’s “Boesman and Lena,” she was commended for her searing portrayal of a South African woman beaten down by society and physically abused by her husband (played by Mr. Jones).
Ms. Dee’s marriage to actor and playwright Ossie Davis was widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s most enduring and romantic, lasting 56 years, until his death in 2005. The couple’s careers were deeply intertwined as they co-starred in films such as “Do the Right Thing” (1989) and “Jungle Fever” (1991), both directed by Spike Lee; collaborated on the comedic play “Purlie Victorious,” which Davis wrote and in which Ms. Dee starred on Broadway in 1961; and even partnered on a memoir, “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.”
When Ms. Dee and Davis received Kennedy Center Honors in 2004, it was said that they opened “many a door previously shut tight to African-American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America’s multicultural humanity.”
Tireless and determined activists, Ms. Dee and Davis stood by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington, at which King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Over the decades, the actors spoke out against lynching, protested apartheid in South Africa and pressured white-owned banks to give business loans to blacks in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.
Ms. Dee had long advocated for racial equality in the performing arts, telling a reporter in 1970: “I’m sick of being offered scripts about hookers or goody-good nurses! Black women fall in love and have adventures and secrets and are just as driven and gutsy as a lot of white ladies in middle America.”
She and her husband took up other social causes, too, rallying against the Vietnam War and defending Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Americans who were executed in 1953 after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage.
Ms. Dee’s activism brought her in close contact with some of the titans of the civil rights movement, from King to entertainer Harry Belafonte. She had known Mr. Belafonte as a struggling young artist, recalling in “With Ossie and Ruby” that she used to tease him. “Harry would get up and sing along with the music playing on the radio,” she wrote, “and some of us would tease him, ‘Harry, puh-leeze! Do you have to?‘ ”
In 1963, Ms. Dee and Davis hosted a fundraising event for King at a New York City hotel after his release from a Birmingham, Ala., jail. The couple developed an even closer friendship with Malcolm X, with Davis giving the eulogy at his funeral.
Mr. Lee, the director, admired Ms. Dee and Davis’ commitment to social causes.
“They were strong and brave at a time when many Negro entertainers stood on the sidelines,” he told movie critic Roger Ebert in an interview. “Ruby and Ossie were by Malcolm’s side, they were with Dr. King in Birmingham, Selma, and the March on Washington, and never worried about the negative impact it might have on their careers.”
Although Ms. Dee is best known for her work on the stage and the big screen, she had many roles on television as well. She won an Emmy Award in 1991 for her portrayal of a housekeeper in the made-for-television movie “Decoration Day,” a story about race relations in the South. And she was a five-time Emmy nominee for roles in miniseries and guest spots on regular programs.
Ms. Dee was also the first black actress to appear on the popular nighttime soap opera “Peyton Place,” playing a neurosurgeon’s wife named Alma Miles in 1968. She had guest roles in 1960s series including “The Fugitive” and “The Defenders,” in the 1979 miniseries “Roots: The Next Generation,” and, more recently, a guest part on CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
Ms. Dee shared many awards with Davis for their joint achievements, including the 1995 National Medal of Arts.