Ossie Davis

Performer, Writer, Source Material


Born: December 18, 1917
Cogdell, Georgia, USA

Died: February 4, 2005
Miami, Florida

Tony Award-nominated actor-writer Ossie Davis, an icon of 20th century African-American theatre, was found dead Feb. 4, 2005, in his hotel room in Miami, where he was filming a movie, according to the Associated Press. Mr. Davis was 87, and was often mentioned in the same breath with his wife, actress Ruby Dee, who survives him. The pair received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2004 for their life's work.

The veteran of such films as "Do the Right Thing," "School Daze" and "Jungle Fever," was librettist of the Best Musical Tony nominee Purlie, which was the musical version of his play, Purlie Victorious, and was nominated for his acting in the musical Jamaica. At the time of his death, he was working on a movie called "Retirement," AP reported, citing Arminda Thomas, who works in his office in New Rochelle, NY.

Mr. Davis and Dee celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998. They penned an autobiography, "In This Life Together."

As recently as 2002, Dee appeared in a new play by Mr. Davis, A Last Dance for Sybil, about two families — one rich from selling oil and slaves, the other challenged by blood, sweat and struggles. Dee appeared in the title role, at Off-Broadway's St. Clement's Theatre in a staging by New Federal Theatre.

Actors' Equity Association made this statement Feb. 4: "Actors' Equity Association mourns the passing of Ossie Davis, one of our most distinguished members and an icon in the American theater. He was a great humanist and an outspoken activist for human rights and for the arts. He made significant contributions to the cultural life of our nation and helped to pave the road for the next generation of African-American actors, writers and directors. Mr. Davis, and his wife Ruby Dee, are American treasures and his death is a great loss to us all."

Mr. Davis was one of the leading figures in American black theatre, and an inspiration to artists who would follow. The native of Cogdell, GA, attended Howard University 1938-41. He served in the U.S. Army 1942-45. He and Dee married in 1948.

He made his theatrical debut in as a member of Rose McClendon's Players, appearing in Joy Exceeding Glory in Harlem in 1941. By 1946, he made his Broadway debut in the title role of Jeb. Broadway credits include The Leading Lady, The Smile of the World, The Wisteria Trees, The Green Pastures, Remains to be Seen, Touchstone and No Time for Sergeants.

He succeeded Sidney Poitier in the original Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, and starred in his own 1961 play, Purlie Victorious, a sort of Southern fable about black and white relations on a plantation. Purlie!, the 1970 musical of the play will get a concert revival by Encores! at City Center this spring.

The writer-actor's source play was also made into a 1963 film called "Gone Are the Days!," in which Mr. Davis played Purlie (and wrote the screenplay). Most of the Broadway cast reprised their roles for the screen.

Mr. Davis replaced Cleavon Little as Midge in the Broadway run of Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport (opposite Hal Linden) in the 1980s and later starred in the film version (opposite Walter Matthau). Ironically, Little had won a Tony Award playing the title role in the musical Purlie! 15 years before Mr. Davis' turn in Rappaport.

His screen career included "No Way Out" (his debut in 1950), "The Joe Louis Story," "The Cardinal," "The Client," "The Hill" and Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," in which he played himself (in voiceover), reading one of two famous eulogies he presented in real life (the other being for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.).

His TV credits include "Roots: The Next Generation," "Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum," "Evening Shade," "The Defenders," "Miss Evers' Boys" and "The Stand," among many other TV projects.

"The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour," a radio show, was heard on 65 stations for four years in the mid-1970s.

As a film director, Mr. Davis helmed "Cotton Comes to Harlem" (1970) and "Countdown at Kusini" (1976).

Off-stage, Mr. Davis and Dee worked for social causes, spreading the message of social equality and Civil Rights.



Playbill Cover - The 48th Annual Tony Awards - 1994 The 48th Annual Tony Awards - 1994
Jun. 12, 1994 - Jun. 12, 1994
Participating Artist Performer
Playbill Cover - I'm Not Rappaport I'm Not Rappaport
Nov. 19, 1985 - Jan. 17, 1988
Midge Performer
Playbill Cover - Purlie Purlie
Dec. 27, 1972 - Jan. 7, 1973
    Based on "Purlie Victorious"
Playbill Cover - Purlie Purlie
Mar. 15, 1970 - Nov. 6, 1971
    Based on "Purlie Victorious"
Playbill Cover - The Zulu and the Zayda The Zulu and the Zayda
Nov. 10, 1965 - Apr. 16, 1966
Johannes Performer
Playbill Cover - Purlie Victorious Purlie Victorious
Sep. 28, 1961 - May 13, 1962
    Purlie Victorious Judson Performer
Playbill Cover - A Raisin in the Sun A Raisin in the Sun
Mar. 11, 1959 - Jun. 25, 1960
Walter Lee Younger Performer
Playbill Cover - Jamaica Jamaica
Oct. 31, 1957 - Apr. 11, 1959
Cicero Performer
Playbill Cover - The Wisteria Trees The Wisteria Trees
Feb. 2, 1955 - Feb. 13, 1955
Jacques Performer
Feb. 3, 1953 - Feb. 7, 1953
Dr. Joseph Clay Performer
Playbill Cover - Remains to Be Seen Remains to Be Seen
Oct. 3, 1951 - Mar. 22, 1952
Al Performer
Playbill Cover - The Green Pastures The Green Pastures
Mar. 15, 1951 - Apr. 21, 1951
Gabriel Performer
Playbill Cover - The Royal Family The Royal Family
Jan. 10, 1951 - Jan. 21, 1951
Jo Performer
Playbill Cover - The Wisteria Trees The Wisteria Trees
Mar. 29, 1950 - Sep. 16, 1950
Jacques Performer
Playbill Cover - The Smile of the World The Smile of the World
Jan. 12, 1949 - Jan. 15, 1949
Stewart Performer
Playbill Cover - The Leading Lady The Leading Lady
Oct. 18, 1948 - Oct. 23, 1948
Trem Performer
Feb. 21, 1946 - Feb. 28, 1946
Jeb Turner Performer


Tony Award

Year Category Production Winner/Nominee
1958 Featured Actor in a Musical Jamaica Nominee
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