Ossie Davis once said that observing his mother, who lived to be 105 years old, gave him ”the right outlook on old age: Don’t be too doddering or too noble.” A humble view for the 87-year-old groundbreaking actor, director, and playwright, who died Feb. 4 of natural causes. Davis and his wife of 56 years, Ruby Dee, composed one of Hollywood’s most respected and beloved couples. ”You couldn’t miss that magical unit that they were as husband and wife, as actor and actress, and as activists,” says longtime friend Sidney Poitier (whom Davis replaced in A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway in 1959).
Davis made his Broadway debut (and met Dee) in 1946’s Jeb. He spent the next six decades appearing on stage, television, and in scores of films, from 1968’s The Scalphunters to 1993’s Grumpy Old Men. An ardent proponent of civil rights, he also delivered a historic eulogy at Malcolm X’s 1965 funeral and inspired following generations. ”That was the model that Ossie was for me,” says director Spike Lee, who cast the baritone-voiced actor in six films. ”That you could be an artist and an activist also. That you could be political.”
Still working at the time of his death (he was shooting Corner Stone Pictures’ Retirement in Miami; veteran character actor Bill Cobbs will take his place for the fall release), Davis recently appeared in a TV documentary on STARZ!, conversing with pioneering black filmmakers Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks. ”He was such a force of nature,” says Van Peebles. ”You just never think of him as not being here.”
1961 Wrote and starred in Purlie Victorious on Broadway — the basis for the Tony-nominated musical Purlie
1970 Directed his first feature, Cotton Comes to Harlem with Redd Foxx
1988 Began his six-movie collaboration with Spike Lee in School Daze
2001 With Dee, received Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award