Ossie Davis
National Visionary

December 18, 1917 - February 4, 2005
Born in Cogdell, Georgia

Playwright, director, producer, actor, and advocate for civil and social rights

Playwright, director, producer, actor, and advocate for civil and social rights, Ossie Davis was a passionate man with many achievements. As an actor, he starred on stage and in films based on race-conscious issues including A Raisin in the Sun, No Way Out, The Joe Lewis Story, and received an NAACP Image Award for his work in Do the Right Thing. He appeared on several television series, such as The Defenders, The Client, Queen, The Stand, and Evening Shade.

Davis as a young boy

Read an open letter
to Ossie Davis
from a R.I.C.H.
Davis was born on December 18, 1917 in Cogdell, Georgia. After graduating from high school, he entered Howard University in Washington, D.C. Eager to pursue a career in the performing arts, he left before graduation and moved to New York, where he joined Harlem's Rose McClendon Players and studied acting under Lloyd Richards. After serving in the Army in World War II, he made his Broadway debut in 1946, playing the title role of "Jeb" at the Martin Beck Theater. It was here that he met the equally talented Ruby Dee, an understudy in the production. The pair went on to tour together in a production of Anna Lucasta and married in 1948.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife

Both are known for having been longstanding political activists who were highly visible during the height of the Civil Rights Movement; they joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his crusade for jobs and freedom, speaking at the historic 1963 March on Washington. They helped to raise money for the Freedom Riders who had been arrested in the South for violating segregation laws. In 1965, Davis delivered the moving eulogy at the funeral of slain civil rights leader Malcolm X. Both Davis and Dee spoke out at rallies for progressive and humanitarian causes.

Over the course of his long career, Davis amassed numerous roles on Broadway, on television, and in motion pictures. In 1961, he wrote and starred with Dee in the acclaimed Broadway hit, Purlie Victorious, an irreverent send-up of racism in the Old South, which he then adapted for the screen as Gone Are the Days (1963). He made a memorable feature debut as screenwriter/songwriter/director in 1970 with a jaunty adaptation of Chester Himes's colorful novel, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and subsequently directed Kongi's Harvest (1970), Black Girl (1972), Gordon's War (1973), and Countdown at Kusini (1976)-the first American feature film to be shot entirely in Africa by black professionals.

More recently, he played Eddie Murphy’s father in the 1998 film Dr. Dolittle, provided the voice of a lemur named Yar in the 2000 Disney-animated film Dinosaur, played Jack in Bubba Ho-tep (September 2003), played Lorenzo DuFau in Proud, the true story of the only African-American crew to take a Navy warship into combat in World War II (2004), and Judge Buchannan in Spike Lee's 2004 film She Hate Me.  At the time of his death, Davis was making the film Retirement.

Davis and Dee co-authored a joint autobiography-With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (William Morrow/Harper Collins, 1998), written in celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary. The two received the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Silver Circle Award in 1994 and are inductees in the Theater Hall of Fame and the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame. In 1995 they were celebrated as "national treasures" when they received the National Medal of Arts.  In 2000, they received the Screen Actors Guild's highest honor, the Life Achievement Award.  In December 2004, in one of their last major public appearances together, Davis and Dee were among the artists awarded the Kennedy Center Honors for their life's work.  In addition, at the 2007 Grammy awards, Davis and Dee were tied winners in the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album with former President Jimmy Carter.

On February 4, 2005, Ossie Davis died of natural causes during the filming of Retirement.

Davis and Dee have three children: son, blues musician Guy Davis, and two daughters, Nora Day, and Hasna Muhammad.


Ossie Davis' Wikipedia Page
Ossie Davis's IMDb Profile

Ruby Dee's Visionary Page

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/davisossie