Actor Ossie Davis dies at 87

Thomas Veil

macrumors 68030
Original poster
Feb 14, 2004
Another great one gone. He brought a distinguished strength to many of the roles he played.

A few years ago, the Cleveland Orchestra's home, Severance Hall, was lavishly refurbished. They broadcast the first concert the Cleveland Orchestra did from their new digs on TV, and Ossie Davis was there to host the program and show us around. He was a perfect choice.

It's sad to know he's gone.



macrumors P6
Oct 20, 2002
My prayers go out to Ruby Dee, his family, and friends. May Ossie rest in peace. A great actor, he will be missed. To think that at the age of 87 he was still working on a movie. A very unusual couple in Hollywood to have been married for 55 years is truly amazing. :(


macrumors 68040
Apr 24, 2003
The LA Times has a little more complete account of his life than that CNN story.

Ossie Davis, the baritone-voiced actor, director, playwright and civil rights activist whose commitment to teaching the lessons of black history distinguished a career that ranged from the Broadway stage to the films of Spike Lee, was found dead today in his hotel room in Miami Beach, Fla., where he was filming a movie. He was 87.

Davis's body was found early today when he did not respond to his grandson knocking on the door of his room at the Shore Club Hotel. According to Miami Beach police, there was no sign of foul play.

The actor was in Florida to appear in an independent movie called "Retirement," about four crotchety old men on a road trip to prevent one of their daughters from marrying the wrong man. His co-stars included Peter Falk, George Segal and Rip Torn. "Retirement" was his 81st movie as an actor.

Davis, who lived in New Rochelle, N.Y., with his wife of 56 years, actress Ruby Dee, was best known in recent years for his roles in Lee's raucous films about black urban life, including "Do the Right Thing," "Jungle Fever" and "Get on the Bus."

As a director, Davis paved the way for a wave of black-themed movies in the 1970s with "Cotton Comes to Harlem," an adaptation of the Chester Himes detective novel. Released in 1970, it was the first major crossover film demonstrating that white audiences would support movies about African Americans.

Inspired by such socially conscious artists as Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, Davis played a visible role in key events of the modern civil rights movement. He served as master of ceremonies with Dee at the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, and gave the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X, the charismatic black separatist assassinated in 1965.

But Davis thought of himself primarily as a writer. He was the author of essays, children's books and plays. His greatest success as a playwright was the 1961 race satire "Purlie Victorious," a classic of contemporary black drama that ran on Broadway before it became a Tony-nominated musical and a movie.

"I am essentially a storyteller, and the story I want to tell is about black people," Davis once said. "Sometimes I sing the story, sometimes I dance it, sometimes I tell tall tales about it, but I always want to share my great satisfaction at being a black man at this time in history."

Last year he and Dee received joint Kennedy Center honors for their lifetime achievements in the arts. In 1995, President Clinton gave them the National Medal of the Arts.

He is survived by Dee and three children.

Davis' own struggles as a black man in a racist society began in Cogdell, Ga., where he was born on Dec. 18, 1917. The eldest of five children of a railroad worker who later took up herbal medicine, he was named Raiford Chatman Davis. His parents called him R.C.

When his mother went to register his birth, the county clerk misunderstood her and thought she said "Ossie" instead of "R.C." As Davis recounted in his memoirs, "The man was white. Mama and I were black and down in deepest Georgia. So the matter of identification was settled. Ossie it was, and Ossie it is till this very day."

He grew up amid the gruesome realities of lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan. But what he found more damaging to his developing sense of manhood was the psychological violence inherent in everyday encounters with the white world. He wrote frankly about these encounters — and his acquiescence in the process of "******ization" — in a 1998 memoir, "With Ossie & Ruby, In This Life Together."

When he was no more than 6 or 7 years old, Davis recounted, he was walking home from school when two white police officers called out to him. They took him back to the station, where they teased and laughed at him for an hour. But Davis was not afraid or upset. "They laughed at me," he said, "but the laughter didn't seem mean or vindictive."

At one point, one of the officers picked up a bottle of cane syrup and poured it over Davis' head. "They laughed as if it was the funniest thing in the world, and I laughed, too," Davis recalled. "Then the joke was over, the ritual complete. They gave me several hunks of peanut brittle and let me go."

He didn't think enough of the incident to report it to his parents. ("They were just having some innocent fun at the expense of a little ****** boy," he thought at the time.) But it left a deep psychological scar that pervaded his sense of purpose when he grew into an artist and activist.

"The process of ******ization is always a two-sided one, shared by two consenting individuals, one black, one white," Davis wrote in his memoir. "The price of consent exacted from the black person, however, can be his life, livelihood, and all that he holds dear."

In high school, Davis had the good fortune to have an English teacher who introduced him to the joys of language. "She spoke as if her words tasted sweet," Davis recalled.

He began to act in class plays, operettas and pageants and soon was reading Shakespeare for the fun of it. He tried his hand at writing plays himself.

He finished high school at the height of the Depression with two scholarship offers — to Savannah State College and Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. But neither offer covered his full expenses, so he turned them down.

His family eventually saved enough money to send him to Washington, D.C., where he could live with relatives while attending Howard University. In 1935, with $10 pinned to his underwear, he hitchhiked from Georgia to the nation's capital.

At Howard, his interest in the theater was encouraged by two important mentors: poet Sterling Brown and philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke, both leading figures in the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural movement of the 1920s and '30s that celebrated black consciousness in the arts.

One day Davis told Locke that he wanted to be a playwright, but he confessed that he had never seen a play performed in a legitimate theater. Locke urged him to spend a summer working for a Harlem theater company that only produced plays written by, for and about blacks. Going to Harlem struck Davis as such a wonderful idea that he left Howard in 1939 without his degree and headed for New York.

Just before he left, he attended Marian Anderson's historic Easter Sunday 1939 concert in Washington D.C. The famous black contralto had been barred from singing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, which ran the hall and followed strict segregationist policies. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Anderson to hold her concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead. The first song she sang was "America."

Davis would never forget the experience.

"I remember most that voice, that indescribable voice, that held 75,000 people in its arms and rocked us like a baby," he recalled in his memoir. "It inspired us, calmed our fears, and carried us up to the mountaintop. . . . It married in my mind forever the performing arts as a weapon in the struggle for freedom."

A week later, Davis presented himself to the Rose McClendon Players, the Harlem theater company recommended by his Howard mentor. Dick Campbell, a former vaudevillian who ran the company, was so impressed by Davis' deep voice and dignified manner that he quickly cast him as a reverend in the next production. Davis would act in four plays with the company over the next three years.


macrumors 68040
Apr 24, 2003
In Harlem he was surrounded by the leaders of the struggle against racial inequality, including A. Philip Randolph, James Weldon Johnson, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and W.E.B. DuBois. Davis began to read the Daily Worker for its critiques of anti-Semitism and racism and attended meetings of the Young Communist League.

Then World War II interrupted. The Army sent Davis to Liberia to serve on the first black Army station hospital. He later was transferred to Special Services, where he used his talents as a writer and producer of stage shows for the troops.

Shocked by the Nazis' treatment of Jews and frustrated by the inequities he saw in the Army, Davis returned to civilian life in 1945, determined to use his talents to change America. He made his Broadway debut the next year in "Jeb," a Robert Ardrey play about a disabled black veteran who attracts the ire of the Ku Klux Klan when his old plantation boss puts him to work not in the field, but in the office as a bookkeeper.

Although critics singled out Davis' performance for praise, "Jeb" earned mostly poor reviews and closed after nine performances. But the show led Davis to Dee, a Hunter College graduate who was an understudy before moving into the role of Jeb's girlfriend. Dee wasn't impressed by Davis at first, thinking that he looked like "a country bumpkin," but Davis liked her right away. "Ruby impressed me as somebody that I had known all my life," he later wrote.

He and Dee went on to appear together in the American Negro Theater production of "Anna Lucasta" on Broadway. When the show went on the road for nine months, their relationship bloomed. They were married on Dec. 9, 1948.

Two years later, he and Dee made their movie debuts in "No Way Out" (1950), writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz's gripping race drama that starred Richard Widmark and also introduced Sidney Poitier.

During the 1950s, he and Dee began a long and rewarding association with Moe Foner, the impresario of Local 1199 of the Retail Workers Union. Believing in the power of the arts to educate workers, he recruited Dee and Davis to stage plays for union members. Those early efforts evolved into "Bread and Roses," a nationally noted program of cultural education for workers.

Davis wanted to offer original works, so he wrote and directed "The People of Clarendon County," a play about one of the cases that led to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting school segregation. He also wrote dramas about the 1955 lynching of black teenager Emmett Till, the Montgomery bus boycott and King, the civil rights leader whose nonviolent philosophy would earn him the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.

The casts were filled with such talents as Lena Horne, Pete Seeger, Beah Richards, Maya Angelou, Harry Belafonte and Poitier.

"On [one] occasion I remember coming to the office and finding Ossie supervising a rehearsal of a cast that included Ruby, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Will Geer and Ricardo Montalban," Foner, who died in 2002, wrote in his memoir, "Not for Bread Alone." "One of the actors took me aside and said, 'There's no one in the world who could get all these people together to do this — except Ossie.' "

In 1959 Davis replaced Poitier in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," the first play by a black woman to reach Broadway. Emboldened by Hansberry's success, Davis found the resolve to finish a play he had begun to write years earlier.

Stimulated by painful memories of his boyhood encounter with the police, Davis had started out writing an angry, passionate play about the evils of racism. But he gradually realized that what he had to write was a satire, "a minstrel show with a high purpose."

The result was "Purlie Victorious," which opened on Sept. 29, 1961 at the Cort Theater in New York City. Davis starred as Purlie, an unlicensed preacher and erstwhile philosopher who returns to southern Georgia to finagle a dead aunt's inheritance from the old plantation master in the hope of using the money to turn the master's barn into a racially integrated church.

Dee, in a departure from her serious dramatic roles, played Lutiebelle Gussiemae Jenkins, a naive country girl who becomes Purlie's love interest and a pivotal, if inept, player in the plot to acquire the barn. Alan Alda played the plantation owner's shockingly liberal son, while Godfrey Cambridge portrayed his "Deputy for the Colored," an Uncle Tom.

New York critics responded warmly.

"The play was seen as falling somewhere between folk comedy and a social document, a gleeful satire of all the popular stereotypes of Negro-white relations in the South in particular and in the United States as a whole," Clinton F. Oliver wrote in "Contemporary Black Drama," published in 1971. "But, like many great comic works, say, Moliere's 'Tartuffe' or Ben Jonson's 'Volpone,' or Gogol's 'The Inspector General,' 'Purlie Victorious' is an angry play, rooted in the basic indignation of its author."

W.E.B. Dubois, then 93 years old, was in the audience on opening night and declared the play a winner. King offered similar praise after attending the 100th performance.

But "Purlie" closed after eight months and 261 performances without making money for Davis or the producer. Jayne F. Mulvaney, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, said its failure was due to the tepid response from white theater-goers.

The play later found new life when Davis adapted it for the screen. Released in 1963 under the title "Gone Are the Days," it included much of the original Broadway cast.

The work found its widest audience a decade later when Davis agreed to turn it into a Broadway musical. Nominated for best musical of 1970, it featured music by Gary Geld and lyrics by Peter Udell and starred Cleavon Little and Melba Moore, who won Tonys for their performances. The show ran for 688 performances before closing in 1973.

Malcolm X, in apparent defiance of Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad's disapproval of the theater, had come to a performance of the original "Purlie Victorious" in 1961. "He said he liked the show because he felt that black folks laughing at white folks was revolutionary — the highest kind of Struggle he could imagine," Davis recalled in his memoir.

Over the next few years, Davis grew close to Malcolm, whose intelligence and oratorical gifts he admired. He and Dee were among the last people the fiery leader visited before his murder in 1965.

Malcolm, who by then had been cast out of the Nation of Islam and begun to soften his views of whites, invited the couple to the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem the next day, when he planned to explain in detail his ideas for reaching out to the mainstream of the civil rights movement. Before he could finish his speech, three gunmen, all Muslims, rose from the audience and shot him dead.

In his eulogy, Davis felt compelled to correct the image of a man who had been derided as a hate-mongering black racist, to "let the world know what Harlem felt . . . about this brother."

"Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did, you would know him. And if you knew him, you would know why we must honor him: Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves. . . . And we will know him then for what he was and is — a prince — our own black shining prince!-who didn't hesitate to die, because he loved us so."

Davis' words caused him to be "hailed more than ever among Negroes in Harlem," Alex Haley wrote in "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." Davis played himself as the eulogist in the extended coda of Spike Lee's powerful 1991 movie "Malcolm X."

Over the next decades, Davis tried to use his stature among blacks and in the entertainment world to influence the portrayal of African Americans.

In 1968 he campaigned against a plan to turn William Styron's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Confessions of Nat Turner" into a movie. He said Styron's portrait of the man who led one of the most famous slave rebellions in American history was based on a racist myth about black men's lust for white women. The project, which was to be produced by David Wolper and directed by Norman Jewison, was abandoned.

When his three children, Nora, Hasna and Guy, were young, Davis and his wife refused to allow a television in their home because blacks rarely appeared in anything but stereotypical roles. When he worked as an actor, he chose parts that enriched the understanding of black history or offered fresh perspectives of black people. He portrayed an escaped slave in director Sydney Pollack's 1968 comedy-western "The Scalphunters," and a black man who stood by his family in a 1969 episode of "Bonanza."

He wrote books for young readers, including plays about such black heroes as King, Hughes and Frederick Douglass.

Davis began to direct movies in the 1970s. His most notable success was "Cotton Comes to Harlem," a 1970 action comedy that starred Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques as two black cops determined to stop a scam artist who is stealing from Harlem's poor. Its success, Times critic Charles Champlin wrote some years later, "led to a bandwagon of black films," including the popular "Shaft" series.

He also directed "Kongi's Harvest" (1971), a political drama based on a work by Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka; "Black Girl" (1972), based on a play by J.E. Franklin; and "Gordon's War" (1973), about black Vietnam veterans who turn vigilantes in a war on New York's drug dealers.

Inspector Lee

macrumors 6502a
Jan 24, 2004
East Lansing, MI
tech4all said:
Was he in the movie, Do the right thing? If so, I just saw that movie last year. :(
Yes, he played "The Mayor." Ossie was supposed to speak on campus here for MLK day in 2004 but canceled at the last moment due to illness.


macrumors 603
Jun 25, 2002
LaLaLand, CA
Yeah, I just heard about this. He was really good, and will be missed. Not just for his work, brilliant as it was, but for his activism as well. I hear a lot of complaints about actors getting involved in causes, but I think of him, and am glad that some do take the time to try and help people instead of just living a life of decadent luxury.

I just saw Bubba Ho Tep awhile ago, he was great in it. If you haven't seen it yet, I'd recommend it.

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