Actor Ossie Davis dead at 87

Feb. 4, 2005 at 2:59 PM
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MIAMI BEACH, Fla., Feb. 4 (UPI) -- Ossie Davis -- an actor who promoted civil rights onstage, on camera and in countless protest demonstrations -- has died at 87 at a hotel in Florida.

Arminda Thomas of Emmalyn II Productions -- the production company that Davis owned with his wife and longtime acting partner Ruby Dee -- said Davis had been working on his latest movie, "Retirement," when he died. There was no immediate word on the cause of death.

Davis -- who starred in scores of movies and TV shows including "Roots: The Next Generation" and "Do the Right Thing" -- received multiple honors in recent years with Dee. The couple, who met in 1946 while working on the Broadway play "Jeb," and married in 1948, received a Kennedy Center Honor last year and were celebrated as "national treasures" when they received the National Medal of Arts in 1995.

In 2000 they were presented with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. They received the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle Award in 1994 and are members of the Theater Hall of Fame and the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame.

Ossie Davis was born Dec. 18, 1917, in Cogdell, Ga. After attending Howard University in Washington and Columbia University in New York, he joined the U.S. Army, serving from 1942-45.

He returned to New York after World War II and made his Broadway debut in "Jeb." Davis' Broadway credits include "Jamaica" (1957) -- a performance that earned him a Tony nomination for best supporting or featured actor in a musical -- and "A Raisin in the Sun" (1959).

In 1961 Davis wrote and starred with Dee in the play "Purlie Victorious," a satire about racial segregation that was made into a Broadway musical in 1970, earning Davis his second Tony nomination. "Purlie" was adapted for TV in 1981, starring Robert Guillaume.

Davis began his film career in the early 1950s, performing in such movies as "No Way Out" and "The Joe Louis Story." In 1970 he wrote and directed "Cotton Comes to Harlem," an action-comedy starring Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques and Redd Foxx.

Davis collaborated frequently with director Spike Lee, appearing in "Get on the Bus" (1996), "Malcolm X" (1992), "Jungle Fever" (1991), "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and "School Daze" (1988).

On television Davis starred in the title role in a 1955 presentation of "The Emperor Jones." He received Emmy nominations for "Teacher, Teacher," "King" and "Miss Evers' Boys." He was a series regular on "The Client," "Evening Shade" and "B.L. Stryker."

Other notable performances included an episode of "Night Gallery" and a featured role in the Emmy-winning 1997 Showtime movie "12 Angry Men."

In 1963 he wrote an episode of the CBS drama series "East Side/West Side."

During the McCarthy era of the 1950s Davis and Dee were criticized for their involvement in the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee and the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee. They are said to have eluded government agents on one occasion by hiding in a costume hamper following a performance of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard."

Davis and Dee protested the Vietnam War, nuclear testing and apartheid. Davis delivered eulogies at the funerals of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

When the Screen Actors Guild honored Davis and Dee in 2001 with its Life Achievement Award, SAG President William Daniels said, "For more than half a century, they have enriched and transformed American life as brilliant actors, writers, directors, producers and passionate advocates for social justice, human dignity and creative excellence."

Upon hearing of Davis' death Friday, current SAG President Melissa Gilbert called the actor a "champion" of diversity in the actors union.

"Along with his remarkable wife, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis' impact on America can be seen not only in his rich body of creative works, but equally so as a passionate advocate for social justice and human dignity," said Gilbert. "I had the honor of working with Mr. Davis and was profoundly moved by his brilliant talent as well as his tireless advocacy on behalf of performers of color and as a champion of the guild's diversity initiatives."

Davis was a Jane Addams Children's Book Award winner in 1978 for "Escape to Freedom: A Play About Young Frederick Douglass." He and Dee co-wrote an autobiography, "With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together," in 2000.

At the time of his death Davis was working on "Retirement" -- a comedy co-starring Peter Falk, George Segal and Rip Torn about four old-timers who travel from their Florida retirement community to Las Vegas to stop one of their daughters from marrying a man they disapprove of.


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