Ruby Dee, one of the most enduring actresses of theater and film, whose public profile and activist passions made her, along with her husband, Ossie Davis, a leading advocate for civil rights both in show business and in the wider world, died on Wednesday at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 91.
Her daughter Nora Davis Day confirmed the death.
A diminutive beauty with a sense of persistent social distress and a restless, probing intelligence, Ms. Dee began her performing career in the 1940s, and it continued well into the 21st century. She was always a critical favorite, though not often cast as a leading lady.
Her most successful central role was Off Broadway, in the 1970 Athol Fugard drama, “Boesman and Lena,” about a pair of nomadic mixed-race South Africans, for which she received overwhelming praise. Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times, “Ruby Dee as Lena is giving one of the finest performances I have ever seen.”
Her most famous performance came more than a decade earlier, in 1959, in a supporting role in “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark drama about the quotidian struggle of a black family in Chicago at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Ms. Dee played Ruth Younger, the wife of the main character, Walter Lee Younger, played by Sidney Poitier, and the daughter-in-law of the leading female character, the family matriarch, Lena (Claudia McNeil).
Ruth is a character with far too much on her plate: an overcrowded home, a troubled husband, a young son, an overbearing mother-in-law, a wearying job and an unwanted pregnancy, not to mention the shared burden of black people everywhere in a society skewed against them. Ms. Dee’s was a haunting portrait of a young woman whose desperation to maintain grace under pressure doesn’t keep her from being occasionally broken by it.
The play had 530 performances on Broadway and was reprised, with much of the cast intact, as a 1961 film. On screen, Edith Oliver wrote in The New Yorker, Ms. Dee was “even more impressive” than she was onstage. “Is there a better young actress in America, or one who can make everything she does seem so effortless?” Ms. Oliver wrote.
The loyal but worried loved one was a role Ms. Dee played frequently, in films like “The Jackie Robinson Story” (in which she played the wife of the pioneering black ballplayer, who starred as himself) and “No Way Out,” a tough racial drama in which she played the sister of a young doctor (Mr. Poitier).
Over the course of Ms. Dee’s career, the lives of American blacks, both extraordinary and ordinary, belatedly emerged as rich subject matter for mainstream theater productions and films, and black performers went from being consigned to marginal and often belittling roles to starring in Hollywood megahits.
Ms. Dee went from being a disciple of Paul Robeson to starring with Mr. Poitier on Broadway. She was a featured player in the films of Spike Lee and an Oscar nominee for a supporting role in the 2007 movie “American Gangster,” about a Harlem drug lord (Denzel Washington); she played a loving mother who turned a blind eye to her son’s criminality.
But Ms. Dee not only took part in that evolution; through her visibility in a wide range of projects, from classics onstage to contemporary film dramas to television soap operas, she also helped bring it about.
In 1965, playing Cordelia in “King Lear” and Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew,” she was the first black woman to appear in major roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. In 1968, she became the first black actress to be featured regularly on the titillating prime-time TV series “Peyton Place.”
She appeared in two of Mr. Lee’s earliest films, “Do the Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever.” (On Thursday, Michelle Obama tweeted about Ms. Dee: “I’ll never forget seeing her in ‘Do the Right Thing’ on my first date with Barack.”)
Ms. Dee picketed Broadway theaters that were not employing black actors for their shows and spoke out against film crews that hired few or no blacks.
Having made her name in films that addressed racial issues, she began seeking out more of them. She collaborated with the director Jules Dassin on the screenplay for “Up Tight!,” a 1968 adaptation of “The Informer,” Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 novel set after the Irish civil war. (It had also been filmed by John Ford.) Mr. Dassin and Ms. Dee shifted the tale of betrayal among revolutionaries to 1960s Cleveland; Ms. Dee played a welfare mother who helped feed her family by resorting to prostitution.
She also lent her voice and presence to the cause of racial equality outside show business. She was an active member of the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
At the Tony Awards ceremony on Sunday, Audra McDonald, in accepting her sixth acting award for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” acknowledged Ms. Dee as one of five black women whose shoulders she stands upon. (The others were Holiday, Maya Angelou, Diahann Carroll and Lena Horne.)
A revival of “Raisin in the Sun,” now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway, the same stage as the original production, won three Tonys, including one for Sophie Okonedo, who plays Ruth Younger. In a statement, Ms. Okonedo called Ms. Dee “one of my heroines.”
Ruby Ann Wallace, as she was known when she was born in Cleveland on Oct. 27, 1922, grew up in Harlem. The third child of teenage parents, she was reared mostly by her father, Marshall Wallace, who became a waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and his second wife, the former Emma Amelia Benson, a college-educated teacher who was 13 years older than he. Ms. Dee described her as a strict but loving mother, a stickler for elocution and the person who introduced her to poetry, music and dance.
By the mid-1940s, when she graduated from Hunter College, Ms. Dee was already a working actress, having appeared on Broadway and in productions of the American Negro Theater, then a fledgling professional company housed in the basement of the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library.
She had also been married, in 1941, to the singer Frankie Dee Brown. The marriage dissolved within four years, but it gave Ms. Dee the name by which she would be known for the rest of her life.
She made her Broadway debut in December 1943 in a short-lived play called “South Pacific,” unrelated to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that came along more than five years later. In 1946 she joined the cast of a Broadway-bound play called “Jeb,” about a black soldier who has lost a leg in World War II and discovers that his sacrifice for his country is of little value in the face of the racism he encounters on his return home.
Hired as the understudy for the role of Libby, the title character’s loving girlfriend, Ms. Dee not only replaced the original actress in the role before opening night but also fell in love with the star, Ossie Davis. The show lasted for nine performances, the relationship nearly 60 years, until Mr. Davis’s death in 2005. They married in 1948.
Besides her daughter Nora, Ms. Dee is survived by another daughter, Hasna Muhammad; a son, the singer Guy Davis; a sister, Angelina Roach; and seven grandchildren.
The partnership between Ms. Dee and Mr. Davis was romantic, familial, professional, artistic and political, and they jointly received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton.
During their careers they performed together many times, including in “Raisin,” when Mr. Davis took over the stage role of Walter Younger from Mr. Poitier, and in “Purlie Victorious,” Mr. Davis’s own broad satire about a charismatic preacher in the Jim Crow South, on Broadway in 1961 and in the 1963 film version, “Gone Are the Days!”
In 1998 they published a joint autobiography, “With Ossie & Ruby: In This Life Together,” to commemorate their 50th wedding anniversary. The book is remarkable for its candor, not only about their careers and upbringings but also about their intimate lives, together and apart, and their reflections on race relations, politics and art. Told in separate, alternating voices, it was a book-length public conversation that testified to a lifelong private one.
Ms. Dee and Mr. Davis stood together, far to the political left, on behalf of numerous causes. They spoke out in the 1950s against the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and against the persecution of American Communists (and purported Communists) in the investigations by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. When, under the McCarran Internal Security Act, the government revoked the passport of Robeson, the great black actor, singer and outspoken socialist, they helped organize the campaign to have it restored.
They were friends and supporters of both the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, whose eulogy, after his assassination in 1965, was delivered by Mr. Davis. On Aug. 28, 1963, the day of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which culminated in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Ms. Dee and Mr. Davis were the M.C.'s of the entertainment event at the foot of the Washington Monument that preceded the march to the Lincoln Memorial. They raised money for the Black Panthers. They demonstrated against the Vietnam War.
In 2005 Ms. Dee received a lifetime achievement award from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
“You can only appreciate freedom,” she said then, “when you find yourself in a position to fight for someone else’s freedom and not worry about your own.”
Ruby Dee (née Wallace; October 27, 1922 – June 11, 2014) was an American actress, poet, playwright,screenwriter, journalist and activist. She is perhaps best known for co-starring in the films A Raisin in the Sun (1961),Do the Right Thing (1989), and American Gangster (2007) for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She was the recipient of Grammy, Emmy, Obie, Drama Desk, Screen Actors Guild Award, andScreen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Awards as well as the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors. She was married to actor Ossie Davis until his death in 2005.
Dee was born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio in 1922, to Gladys Hightower and Marshall Edward Nathaniel Wallace, a cook, waiter and porter. After her mother left the family, Dee's father remarried, to Emma Amelia Benson, a schoolteacher.
Dee was raised in Harlem, New York. She attended Hunter College High Schooland went on to graduate from Hunter College with a degree in romance languagesin 1945. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta.
Dee joined the American Negro Theater as an apprentice, working with Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Hilda Simms. She made several appearances onBroadway. Her first onscreen role was in That Man of Mine in 1946. She received national recognition for her role in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story. In 1965, Dee performed in lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival as Kate inThe Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear, becoming the first black actress to portray a lead role in the festival. Her career in acting crossed all major forms of media over a span of eight decades, including the films A Raisin in the Sun, in which she recreated her stage role as a suffering housewife in the projects, and Edge of the City. She played both roles opposite Poitier.
During the 1960s, Dee appeared in such politically charged films as Gone Are the Days and The Incident, which is recognized as helping pave the way for young African-American actors and filmmakers. In 1969, Dee appeared in 20 episodes of Peyton Place. She appeared in the role of as Cora Sanders, a Marxist college professor, in the Season 1/Episode 14 of Police Woman, entitled “Target Black” which aired on Friday night, January 3, 1975. The character of Cora Sanders was obviously, but loosely, influenced by the real-life Angela Y. Davis. She appeared in one episode ofThe Golden Girls' sixth season. She played Queen Haley in Roots: The Next Generations, a 1979 miniseries.
Dee was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, winning once for her role in the 1990 TV film Decoration Day. She was nominated for her television guest appearance in the China Beach episode, "Skylark". Her husband Ossie Davis (1917–2005) also appeared in the episode. She appeared in Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing, and his 1991 filmJungle Fever.
In 1995, she and Davis were awarded the National Medal of Arts. They were also recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004. In 2003, she narrated a series of WPA slave narratives in the HBO film Unchained Memories. In 2007 the winner of the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album was shared by Dee and Ossie Davis for With Ossie And Ruby: In This Life Together, and former President Jimmy Carter.
Dee was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2007 for her portrayal of Mama Lucas in American Gangster. She won the Screen Actors Guild award for the same performance. At 83 years of age, Dee is currently the second oldest nominee for Best Supporting Actress, behind Gloria Stuart who was 87 when nominated for her role in Titanic. This was Dee's only Oscar nomination.
On February 12, 2009, Dee joined the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College orchestra and chorus, along with the Riverside Inspirational Choir and NYC Labor Choir, in honoring Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday at the Riverside Church in New York City. Under the direction of Maurice Peress, they performedEarl Robinson's The Lonesome Train: A Music Legend for Actors, Folk Singers, Choirs, and Orchestra, in which Dee was the Narrator.
Personal life and activism
Ruby Wallace married blues singer Frankie Dee Brown in 1941, and began using his middle name as her stage name. The couple divorced in 1945. Three years later she married actor Ossie Davis, who she met while costarring in the 1946 Broadway play Jeb. Together, Dee and Davis wrote an autobiography in which they discussed their political activism and their open marriage. Together they had three children: son, blues musician Guy Davis, and two daughters, Nora Day and Hasna Muhammad. Dee was a breast cancer survivor of more than three decades.
Dee and Davis were well-known civil rights activists. Dee was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), theNAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1963, Dee emceed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dee and Davis were both personal friends of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, with Davis giving the eulogy at Malcolm X's funeral in 1965. In 1970, she won the Frederick Douglass Award from the New York Urban League.
In 1999, Dee and Davis were arrested at 1 Police Plaza, the headquarters of the New York Police Department, protesting the police shooting of Amadou Diallo.
In early 2003, The Nation published "Not In My Name", an open proclamation vowing opposition to the impending US invasion of Iraq. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were among the signatories, along with Robert Altman, Noam Chomsky, Susan Sarandon and Howard Zinn, among others.
In November 2005 Dee was awarded – along with her late husband – the Lifetime Achievement Freedom Award, presented by the National Civil Rights Museum located in Memphis. Dee, a long-time resident of New Rochelle, New York, was inducted into the New Rochelle Walk of Fame which honors the most notable residents from throughout the community's 325 year history. She was also inducted into the Westchester County Women's Hall of Fame on March 30, 2007, joining such other honorees as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Nita Lowey. In 2009 she received an Honorary Degree from Princeton University.
Dee died on June 11, 2014, at her home in New Rochelle, New York, from natural causes at the age of 91. In a statement, Gil Robertson IV of the African American Film Critics Association said, "the members of the African American Film Critics Association are deeply saddened at the loss of actress and humanitarian Ruby Dee. Throughout her seven-decade career, Ms Dee embraced different creative platforms with her various interpretations of black womanhood and also used her gifts to champion for Human Rights. Her strength, courage and beauty will be greatly missed."
Following her death the marquee on the Apollo theater read “A TRUE APOLLO LEGEND RUBY DEE 1922-2014”.
Dee will be cremated, and her ashes will be held in the same urn as that of Davis, with the inscription "In this thing together".
- That Man of Mine (1946)
- The Fight Never Ends (1947)
- What a Guy (1948)
- The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
- No Way Out (1950)
- The Tall Target (1951)
- Go, Man, Go! (1954)
- Edge of the City (1957)
- Virgin Island (1958)
- St. Louis Blues (1958)
- Take a Giant Step (1959)
- A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
- The Balcony (1963)
- Gone Are the Days! (1963)
- The Incident (1967)
- Up Tight! (1968)
- King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis (1970) (documentary)
- Buck and the Preacher (1972)
- Black Girl (1972)
- Wattstax (1973)
- Countdown at Kusini (1976)
- Cat People (1982)
- Do the Right Thing (1989)
- Love at Large (1990)
- Jungle Fever (1991)
- Color Adjustment (1992) (documentary) (narrator)
- Cop and a Half (1993)
- The Stand (1994)
- A Simple Wish (1997)
- Just Cause (1995)
- Mr. & Mrs. Loving (1996)
- A Time to Dance: The Life and Work of Norma Canner (1998) (documentary) (narrator)
- Baby Geniuses (1999)
- Beah: A Black Woman Speaks (2003) (documentary)
- No. 2 (2006)
- The Way Back Home (2006)
- All About Us (2007)
- American Gangster (2007)
- Steam (2007)
- The Perfect Age of Rock 'n' Roll (2009)
- Dream Street (2010)
- Video Girl (2011)
- Politics of Love (2011)
- Red & Blue Marbles (2011)
- Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal (2012)
- A Thousand Words (2012)
- Betty and Coretta (2013)
- Lorraine Hansberry: The Black Experience in the Creation of Drama (1975)
- The Torture of Mothers (1980)
- Tuesday Morning Ride (1995)
- The Unfinished Journey (1999) (narrator)
- The New Neighbors (2009) (narrator)
- The Bitter Cup (1961)
- Seven Times Monday (1962)
- The Fugitive (1963)
- Of Courtship and Marriage (1964)
- Guiding Light (cast member in 1967)
- Peyton Place (cast member from 1968–1969)
- Deadlock (1969)
- The Sheriff (1971)
- It's Good to Be Alive (1974)
- Police Woman Season 1 / Episode 14 "Target Black" (1975)
- Roots: The Next Generations (1979) (miniseries)
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1979)
- All God's Children (1980)
- With Ossie and Ruby! (1980–1982)
- Long Day's Journey into Night (1982)
- Go Tell It on the Mountain (1985)
- The Atlanta Child Murders (1985) (miniseries)
- Windmills of the Gods (1988)
- Gore Vidal's Lincoln (1988)
- The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson (1990)
- Decoration Day (1990)
- Golden Girls (1990)
- Jazztime Tale (1991) (voice)
- Middle Ages (1992–1993)
- The Ernest Green Story (1993)
- The Stand (1994) (miniseries)
- Whitewash (1994) (voice)
- Mr. and Mrs. Loving (1996)
- Captive Heart: The James Mink Story (1996)
- The Wall (1998)
- Little Bill (1999 – on hiatus) (voice)
- Passing Glory (1999)
- Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years (1999)
- A Storm in Summer (2000)
- Finding Buck McHenry (2000)
- The Feast of All Saints (2001) (miniseries)
- Taking Back Our Town (2001)
- Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005)
- Meet Mary Pleasant (2008)
- America (2009)
- On Strivers Row (1940)
- Natural Man (1941)
- Starlight (1942)
- Three's a Family (1943)
- South Pacific (1943)
- Walk Hard (1944)
- Jeb (1946)
- Anna Lucasta (1946) (replacement for Hilda Simms)
- Arsenic and Old Lace (1946)
- John Loves Mary (1946)
- A Long Way From Home (1948)
- The Smile of the World (1949)
- The World of Sholom Aleichem (1953)
- A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
- Purlie Victorious (1961)
- King Lear (1965)
- The Taming of the Shrew (1965)
- The Birds (1966)
- Oresteia (1966)
- Boesman and Lena (1970)
- The Imaginary Invalid (1971)
- The Wedding Band (1972)
- Hamlet (1975)
- Bus Stop (1979)
- Twin-Bit Gardens (1979)
- Zora is My Name! (1983)
- Checkmates (1988)
- The Glass Menagerie (1989)
- The Disappearance (1993)
- Flying West (1994)
- Two Hahs-Hahs and a Homeboy (1995)
- My One Good Nerve: A Visit with Ruby Dee (1996)
- A Last Dance for Sybil (2002)
- Saint Lucy's Eyes (2003)
- The Original Read-In for Peace in Vietnam (Folkways Records, 1967)
- The Poetry of Langston Hughes (with Ossie Davis. Caedmon Records, no date, TC 1272)
- What if I am a Woman?, Vol. 1: Black Women's Speeches (Folkways, 1977)
- What if I am a Woman?, Vol. 2: Black Women's Speeches (Folkways, 1977)
- Every Tone a Testimony (Smithsonian Folkways, 2001)
Awards and nominations
- 1961: National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress – A Raisin in the Sun
- 1971: Drama Desk Award Outstanding Performance – Boesman and Lena
- 1971: Obie Award for Best Performance by an Actress – Boesman and Lena
- 1973: Drama Desk Award Outstanding Performance – Wedding Band
- 1988: Induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame
- 1991: Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie – Decoration Day
- 1991: Women in Film Crystal Award
- 1995: National Medal of Arts
- 2000: Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award
- 2007: Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album – With Ossie And Ruby: In This Life Together
- 2008: African–American Film Critics Best Supporting Actress – American Gangster
- 2008: Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role – American Gangster
- 2008: The Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal Award
- 2008: She was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP.
- 1964: Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role – The Doctors and the Nurses: Express Stop from Lenox Avenue
- 1979: Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Special – Roots: The Next Generations
- 1988: Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Special – Lincoln
- 1990: Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series – China Beach: Skylark
- 1993: Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series – Evening Shade: They Can't Take That Away from Me
- 1995: Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program – Whitewash
- 2001: Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program – Little Bill
- 2002: Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Actress – Saint Lucy's Eyes
- 2003: Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program – Little Bill
- 2008: Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role – American Gangster
- 2008: Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture – American Gangster
- 2008: Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture – American Gangster
- 2009: Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Performance by a Female Actress in a Television Movie or Miniseries – America
- 2010: Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Event – America
- Davis, Ossie; Ruby Dee (1984). Why Mosquitos Buzz in People's Ears (Audio Cassette). Caedmon. ISBN 978-0-694-51187-7.
- Dee, Ruby (1986). My One Good Nerve: Rhythms, Rhymes, Reasons. Third World Press. ISBN 0-88378-114-X.
- Davis, Ossie; Dee, Ruby (1998). With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. William Morrow. ISBN 978-0-688-15396-0.