Ossie Davis Biography

Born Raiford Chatman Davis, December 18, 1917, in Cogdell, GA; died of natural causes, February 4, 2005, in Miami Beach, FL. Actor. Actor Ossie Davis, along with his wife, Ruby Dee, were pioneers in African-American theater and film. Davis had a lengthy career, with more than 120 screen credits to his name, and was known for the subtle strength of character he projected through a dignified, fatherly demeanor and his memorably baritone voice.

Born in 1917, Davis came from rural Georgia, and was the first of five children in his family. He real name was Raiford Chatman Davis, shortened to just the initials "R.C.," but when his mother registered his birth at the country records office, the clerk misheard her and wrote down "Ossie" instead; she was too intimidated, at a time of deep racial divisions in the American South, to correct it. Davis' father was a railroad construction supervisor, an unusual post for a black man to hold, and was once warned by the local chapter of the white-supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan, to mind his place. The Davis parents encouraged their son to get an education, and by the time he finished high school he had scholarship offers from two black colleges, but could not afford to pay his share of the tuition and board. By then, the Great Depression had struck, and the family was struggling financially. Eventually Davis hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., where he stayed with relatives while attending Howard University.

Davis warmed to two subjects at Howard, literature and the theater, and decided to move to Harlem in 1939 before completing his degree. There, he joined the Rose McClendon Players, a theater group, and supported himself with menial jobs—though he admitted to sleeping on the occasional park bench when money was truly scarce. After appearing in the 1940 Broadway production of the Harlem-set On Strivers Row, Davis served in the U.S. Army during World War II as a medical-corps technician in Africa. Back in civilian life, he was cast in the title role of a 1946 Broadway play about a returning war veteran, Jeb . During rehearsals he met Dee, and the two wed in 1948. They were often cast together as husband and wife, and in later years had become the honorary grandparents for an entire generation of African-American entertainers. One of their most memorable joint roles came in the 1991 Spike Lee film, Jungle Fever, as a devout, gospel music-loving minister and his wife, who are virtually paralyzed by their son's increasing drug addiction.

Davis and his wife began their careers during a time when black actors were rarely cast in films outside of domestic-servant roles. Even in the early years of television, career-building parts were scarce, but Davis was able to land such roles as the lead in a Eugene O'Neill play, The Emperor Jones, for a 1955 Kraft Television Playhouse event. As he said many years later in an interview, "There are ways you can make yourself a more saleable commodity. I didn't pursue those ways," London Independent writer Stephen Bourne quoted him as saying. He and Dee, he continued, "did build careers for ourselves and in the process did many theatrical things… on street corners, churches, union halls, schools. And, in doing it our way, we didn't have to sell more of ourselves than we could get back before the sun went down."

In addition to their stage and screen work, Davis and Dee were deeply committed political and civilrights activists. They supported a host of causes, and served as the joint emcees for the 1963 March on Washington, during which Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Davis spoke at King's 1968 funeral, and had also delivered the eulogy for slain leader Malcolm X in 1965. He reprised the latter tribute for Spike Lee's 1992 biopic, Malcolm X .

Among Davis' impressive credits were his film debut alongside Sidney Poitier in the 1950 crime thriller No Way Out, and as Poitier's successor in the role of Walter Lee in the acclaimed Broadway drama A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. He wrote the play Purlie Victorious in the early 1960s, a work that satirized race relations in the South and went on to become the Broadway musical Purlie . He also directed the 1970 film Cotton Comes to Harlem, about two African-American police officers in Harlem, which helped launch a new black film movement.

Davis and Dee, who had three children together, were rarely separated, but Davis was in Miami Beach in early February of 2005, shooting a new film titled Retirement with co-stars Peter Falk and George Segal; Dee was on location in New Zealand also shooting a film. Davis' hotel was notified when his grandson failed to reach him on February 4, 2005. He had apparently died of natural causes at the age of 87. Survivors include his children Nora, Guy, and Hasna, and seven grandchildren, but his legacy would run deeper, actor Harry Belafonte told Elaine Woo of the Los Angeles Times . Noting that the actor and activist personally knew not only Dr. King and Malcolm X., but Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois as well, Belafonte called Davis "the embodiment of all those courageous people. I think he worked very hard at passing on to subsequent generations not only a deep and rich sense of their history but encouraged them to become more noble in their demands of life, governance and society." Sources: CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Movies/02/04/obit.davis.ap/index. html (February 4, 2005); Entertainment Weekly, February 18, 2005, p. 15; Independent (London), February 7, 2005, p. 34; Los Angeles Times, February 5, 2005, p. A1, p. A21; New York Times, February 4, 2005, p. A14; February 9, 2005, p. A2; People, February 21, 2005, pp. 73-74; USA Today, February 7, 2005, p. 2D.

Carol Brennan

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