On stage or screen for more than 70 years, Ruby Dee, a beautiful actress, died last Wednesday at 91 in her New Rochelle, NY home. She pioneered substantial film roles for black women and tirelessly testified for civil rights.
Dee was at the forefront of a time when Hollywood began allowing actors of color to portray characters other than mammies, maids and shuffling oafs. In her first big film role, she played Jackie Robinson’s wife in a 1950 bio-pic that starred the barrier-busting baseball player. She was also sought after when directors needed a partner for Sidney Poitier in his early prime, most notably as Poitier’s wife in A Raisin in the Sun. She finally received an Oscar nomination — more than six decades after her movie debut for her performance as Denzel Washington’s feisty mother in the 2007 American Gangster.
Throughout the long Civil Rights movement, Dee spoke up, eloquently and tirelessly. By her side in these struggles was the actor, author and activist Ossie Davis. From their wedding in 1948 to his death in 2005, Dee and Davis pursued a fruitful acting symbiosis, a bold place in the fight for racial equality and one of the century’s great love affairs.
Eventually, this remarkable couple piled up the awards: a joint Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement citation in 2001, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004 and a Best Spoken Word Grammy in 2008 for the album With Ossie And Ruby: In This Life Together. But in their long lives, together and on their own, both emerged from a time of segregation in much of the U.S. and second-class citizenship for black actors.
Born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Dee made her New York stage debut in 1940, at 17, in On Strivers Row at the American Negro Theatre. She appeared in three more ANT productions while earning her bachelor’s degree at Hunter College, with majors in French and Spanish. From a brief early marriage to blues singer Frankie Dee, she kept only his stage name. She got to Broadway in 1945, playing a “native” (Pacific islander) in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. The following year Dee costarred in Robert Ardrey’s Jeb with the 28-year-old Ossie Davis. The play lasted five performances; their marriage ran for 56 splendid years.