Ossie Davis, a native of south Georgia, was one of the most recognized and influential African American performers and activists of the late twentieth century. In addition to his work as an actor, director, producer, screenwriter, and playwright, Davis, along with his wife Ruby Dee, was known for his civil rights activism. The couple, who appeared in numerous productions together, are widely credited with furthering opportunities on stage and screen for subsequent generations of Black artists.
Ossie Davis was born Raiford Chatman Davis on December 18, 1917, in the Clinch County town of Cogdell, where his father was a railroad engineer. The nickname “Ossie” came from his mother’s pronunciation of his initials, R.C. Davis attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., but dropped out after three years to pursue a writing career and to study drama with the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem. During the next few years he found work doing various menial jobs. In 1942, soon after the United States entered World War II (1941-45), Davis enlisted in the army at Fort Benning. He served in Liberia at the Twenty-fifth Station Hospital and was honorably discharged in 1945. While in the army he wrote and acted in shows for the troops.
When the war was over, Davis made his Broadway debut in 1946 in Jeb. During the play’s relatively short run, he was attracted to a fellow cast member, Ruby Dee, from Cleveland, Ohio. The couple married on December 9, 1948, and had three children, one of whom is the actor Guy Davis. During the 1950s Davis began his film and television career with sporadic roles. His first on-screen appearance was in the movie No Way Out (1950), in which Sidney Poitier also made his screen debut.
During the 1960s, as American television began to feature more African American actors, Davis found himself getting more roles, including parts in the television movies Seven Times Monday (1962) and The Outsider (1967), as well as regular guest appearances on The Defenders, a series that aired from 1961 to 1965. While his television career was beginning to boom, Davis’s film career flourished as well. He worked with such notable directors as Otto Preminger in The Cardinal (1963) and Sidney Lumet in The Hill (1965) and appeared in a number of other films, including Shock Treatment (1964) and A Man Called Adam (1966). Davis’s theater career also began to solidify in the 1960s. He wrote the Broadway musical Purlie Victorious in 1961, which proved to be a success, and later turned the musical into the screenplay for the film Gone Are the Days (1963), in which he played a lead role.
In addition to his creative endeavors during the 1960s, Davis, along with Dee, was active in the civil rights movement. The two were masters of ceremonies for the 1963 March on Washington, where Davis announced the death of W. E. B. Du Bois, who died in Ghana on August 27, 1963, the night before the march began. Following the march, the couple continued to work closely with Martin Luther King Jr. Davis raised money for the Freedom Riders when they were arrested in the South for violating segregation laws, and he sued in federal court to ensure voting rights for African Americans. He also delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X and spoke at a 1968 memorial service in New York City for King.
During the 1970s Davis added directing, writing, and producing to his list of professional accomplishments. In 1970 he directed an adaptation of the Chester Himes novel Cotton Comes to Harlem, the story of two unorthodox African American policemen, and followed this debut with Countdown at Kusini (1976), in which he also starred with Dee. Davis received writing credits for both films. His production company, Third World Cinema, was founded in the 1970s to assist budding African American and Puerto Rican filmmakers, and in 1976 Davis published his first play for children, Escape to Freedom: A Play about Young Frederick Douglass, which he later followed with Langston, a Play (1982) and Just Like Martin (1992).
Davis continued to make numerous television appearances, including roles in the miniseries Roots: The Next Generation (1979) and the 1990s situation comedy Evening Shade, starring Burt Reynolds. He had consistent film work during the 1990s and frequently collaborated with writer and director Spike Lee, appearing in five of Lee’s films. In 1998, on the occasion of their fiftieth wedding anniversary, Davis and Dee published their autobiography, In This Life Together.
Both Davis and Dee won many awards. In 1995 they were awarded the National Medal of Arts by U.S. president Bill Clinton. They were inducted into the NAACP Image Award Hall of Fame in 1996, and in 2000 the Screen Actors Guild bestowed their highest award, the Life Achievement Award, on the couple. In 2004 Davis and Dee were both honored by the Kennedy Center in recognition of their “lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts.”
Davis died on February 4, 2005, in Miami Beach, Florida, where he was working on a film. In 2007 the audio version of With Ossie and Ruby, recorded by Davis and Dee and released after his death, won a Grammy Award for best spoken word album. The couple shared the award with Jimmy Carter, whose audio version of Our Endangered Values also won.