Ossie Davis, the imposing, unshakeable actor who championed racial justice onstage, on-screen, and in real life--often in tandem with his wife, Ruby Dee--has died. He was 87. Davis was found dead February 4 in his hotel room in Miami Beach, Fla., according to officials there. He was making a film called Retirement, said Arminda Thomas, who works in his office in New Rochelle, N.Y., and confirmed the death. Miami Beach police spokesman Bobby Hernandez said Davis's grandson called shortly before 7 a.m., when Davis would not open the door to his room at the Shore Club Hotel. There does not appear to be any foul play, he said.
Davis, who wrote, acted, directed, and produced for the theater and Hollywood, was a central figure among black performers for decades. He and Dee marked their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998 with the publication of a dual autobiography, In This Life Together. Their partnership called to mind other performing couples, such as the Lunts, or Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Davis and Dee first appeared together in the plays Jeb, in 1946, and Anna Lucasta, in 1946-47. Davis's first film, No Way Out in 1950, was Dee's fifth. Both had key roles in the television series Roots: The Next Generation (1978), Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum (1986), and The Stand (1994). Davis appeared in three Spike Lee films, including School Daze, Do the Right Thing, and Jungle Fever. In 2004, Davis and Dee were among the artists selected to receive the Kennedy Center Honors, a lifetime achievement award for contributions to U.S. artistic culture. One of Davis's last roles was as Bette's father on the Showtime series The L Word; he filmed his appearances for the show's upcoming second season before passing away.
When not onstage or on-camera, Davis and Dee were deeply involved in civil rights issues and efforts to promote the cause of blacks in the entertainment industry. They nearly ran afoul of the anticommunist witch hunts of the early 1950s but were never openly accused of any wrongdoing. Actor Roy Scheider, who had performed with Davis and attended antiwar rallies with him, called Davis and Dee "the first political couple of America.'' "Ossie seemed to always show up at the right time, on the right side, which was always the human side," he said. "He was always progressive and had a very heartfelt sympathy for all people everywhere.''
Davis directed several films, most notably Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Countdown at Kusini (1976), in which he also appeared with Dee. Both wrote plays and screenplays. Davis had just started his new movie Monday, said Michael Livingston, his Hollywood agent. Dee had gone to New Zealand to make a movie there, he said.
The oldest of five children, Davis was born in tiny Cogdell, Ga., in 1917 and grew up in nearby Waycross and Valdosta. He left home in 1935, hitchhiking to Washington, D.C., to enter Howard University, where he studied drama, intending to be a playwright. His career as an actor began in 1939 with the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem, then the center of black culture in America. There the young Davis met or mingled with some of the most influential figures of the time, including the preacher Father Divine, W.E.B. DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. He also had what he described in the book as a "flirtation with the Young Communist League," which he said essentially ended with the onset of World War II. Davis spent nearly four years in service, mainly as a surgical technician in an army hospital in Liberia, serving troops and local inhabitants. (Hillel Italie, via Associated Press)