Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Late Great Ruby Dee

Actress, writer, poet, and activist Ruby Dee died yesterday at the age of 91.

Ruby Dee was born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio on 27 October 1922. She grew up in Harlem in New York City. She graduated from  Hunter College in 1945. She studied acting at the American Negro Theatre. Among her classmates were Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. It was in 1943 that she made her debut on Broadway in a bit part in South Pacific. She appeared on Broadway several more times in the late Forties, in such productions as Anna Lucasta, Jeb, A Long Way From Home, and The Smile of the World. She made her film debut in That Man of Mine in 1946. In the late Forties she appeared in such films as What a Guy (1948), The Fight Never Ends (1949), and No Way Out (1950). She starred as Jackie Robinson's wife in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). She made her television debut in a WNBT production The First Year. It was in 1948 that she married Ossie Davis, with whom she would frequently collaborate over the years. Mr. Davis died in 2005.

In the Fifties Miss Dee appeared in such films as The Tall Target (1951), Go Man Go (1954), The Great American Pastime (1956), Edge of the City (1957), St. Louis Blues (1958), Virgin Island (1959), and Take a Giant Step (1959). She appeared on television in Play of the Week. She appeared on Broadway in Raisin in the Sun.

In the Sixties Ruby Dee appeared in such films as A Raisin in the Sun (1961), The Balcony (1963), Gone Are the Days! (1963), The Incident (1967), and Uptight (1968). On television she was a regular on Peyton Place from 1968 to 1969. She guest starred on such shows as Alcoa Premiere, The Nurses, The Fugitive, East Side/West Side, The Defenders, and The Bold Ones: The Protectors. She appeared on Broadway in Purlie Victorious. In 1965 she became the first African American actress to play a  lead role at the American Shakespeare Festival when she played Cordelia in King Lear. She later played Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.

In the Seventies she appeared in the films Buck and the Preacher (1972), Black Girl (1972), Cool Red (1976),  and The Torture of Mothers (1980). On television she and her husband Ossie Davis hosted the show Ossie and Ruby!. She appeared  in the TV movies The Sheriff (1971), To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (1972), It's Good to Be Alive (1974), and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1979). She guest starred on the TV shows Tenafly and Police Woman, and appeared in the mini-series Roots: The Next Generations.

In the Eighties Ruby Dee appeared in such films as Cat People (1982), Go Tell It on the Mountain (1984), Do the Right Thing (1989), and Love at Large (1990). She guest starred on such television shows as Spenser: for Hire, American Playhouse, China Beach, The Golden Girls, and Hallmark Hall of Fame. She appeared in the mini-series Lincoln and the TV movies Windmills of the Gods and The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson.  She appeared on Broadway in Checkmates.

In the Nineties Miss Dee appeared in such films as Jungle Fever (1991), Cop and ½ (1993), Tuesday Morning Ride (1995), Just Cause (1995), and A Simple Wish (1997). She was a regular on the television show Street Gear and had a recurring role on the show The Middle Ages. She guest starred on the shows American Playhouse, Evening Shade, Cosby, Promised Land, and Touched by Angel. She appeared in the mini-series The Stand. She appeared in such TV movies as Captive Heart: The James Mink Story, Passing Glory, and Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years.

From the Naughts into the Teens she appeared in such films as Baby of the Family (2002), Naming Number Two (2006), The Way Back Home (2006), All About Us (2007), American Gangster (2007), Steam (2007), The Perfect Age of Rock 'n' Roll (2009), Dream Street (2010), Red & Blue Marbles (2011), Politics of Love (2011), A Thousand Words (2012), and 1982 (2013). On television she provided the voice of Alice on the animated series Little Bill. She guest starred on the show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

In addition to her long acting career, Ruby Dee was also a writer. She was a contributing editor to Freedomways Magazine and wrote a column for the Amsterdam News. She also wrote the play Take It From the Top and co-wrote the film Uptight. With her husband Ossie Davis she co-wrote a joint autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.

With her husband Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee was also active in the Civil Rights movement. She and her husband were both close friends of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Miss Davis was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis served as masters of ceremonies for the March on Washington in 1963. Both she and Ossie Davis were arrested in 1999 outside 1 Police Plaza in New York City protesting the shooting of unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by plain clothes officers of the NYPD.

Ruby Dee was a most remarkable woman. Throughout her career she gave a number of incredible performances, from Ruth in Raisin in the Sun to Mother Sister in Do the Right Thing to Mama Lucas in American Gangster.  Along with Ossie Davis, Sir Sidney Poitier, and Harry Bealafonte she was one of the artists who helped African American actors break free of the stereotypical roles of servants and comedy relief in which they had been cast for much of Hollywood's history. Much of her work examined race and race relations in America, including Gone Are the Days!, The Incident, and Uptight. Upon her death  Gil Robertson IV of the African American Film Critics Association said, "Throughout her seven-decade career, Ms. Dee embraced different creative platforms with her various interpretations of black womanhood and also used her gifts to champion for Human Rights. Her strength, courage and beauty will be greatly missed." Much more so than many members of her profession, Ruby Dee truly made a difference.

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