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Ossie Davis: In Memory

Ossie Davis (left) as Da Mayor, with Spike Lee as Mookie in Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (1989).

Read Roger Ebert's 1968 interview with Ossie Davis.

Ossie Davis, an actor and activist beloved and revered for his contributions to theater, film, television and the civil rights movement, is dead at 87. The legendary figure, who combined militancy with grace and humor, was found dead Friday in a Miami Beach hotel room. He had been on location since Monday, filming "Retirement," a comedy also starring Peter Falk and Rip Torn.

Davis and his wife of 57 years, the actress Ruby Dee, who survives, were one of the leading couples of the American stage and screen; the AP compared them to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine, and Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. They appeared together for the first time in “Jeb” and “Anna Lucasta” during the 1946-1947 Broadway season, and were married in 1948 on their one day off from rehearsing for their next play. They jointly received Kennedy Center Honors in 2004.

Davis’s first Hollywood role was in " No Way Out " (1950), which was also Sidney Poitier’s first film. Together they went on to create roles which broke the stereotypes of black actors in American movies. Among his major early roles was the title character in a TV production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones” (1955), the lead in "Gone Are the Days!" (1963), based on his play “Purlie Victorious,” and Sidney Lumet’s "The Hill" (1965).

The same year, he delivered a poetic eulogy at the funeral of the murdered black leader Malcolm X, saying “what we place in the ground is no more now a man but a seed which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us.” Three years later, he delivered another dramatic eulogy at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was Mr. Davis’s voice heard saying “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” on the ads for the United Negro College Fund.

Mr. Davis repeated the 1965 eulogy as a voice-over in Spike Lee’s "Malcolm X" (1992), and had notable roles in five other Lee films "School Daze" (1988), "Do the Right Thing" (1989), "Jungle Fever" (1991), "Get on the Bus" (1996), and "She Hate Me" (2004).

“The great thing I got from Ruby and Ossie,” Spike Lee told me Friday night, “is that you could be an activist and an artist, too. They were strong and brave at a time when many Negro entertainers stood on the sidelines. Ruby and Ossie were by Malcolm’s side, they were with Dr. King in Birmingham, Selma and the March on Washington, and never worried about the negative impact it might have on their careers.”

Lee said that Mr. Davis told him the hardest role he ever had to do was the reverend in "Jungle Fever." “He didn’t know if he could play that scene where the father has to shoot his son. It’s a great performance by Samuel L. Jackson, in a crack-crazed euphoria, and Ossie shoots him, and he dies in the arms of his mother, played by Ruby Dee.”

Lee said a tribute to Mr. Davis is planned for Monday at the Schomberg Library in Harlem. It will include Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Delroy Lindo, Rev. Al Sharpton and two of the children of Malcolm X.

In his earlier years, one of Mr. Davis’s biggest roles was as Burt Lancaster’s co-star in "The Scalphunters" (1968), a film which opened with him playing an escaped slave stumbling behind Lancaster’s horse. His character is the most educated person in the movie, but gets a different kind of education in rough-and-ready frontier life.

The film was made at a time when Mr. Davis and Miss Dee were vocal leaders of the civil rights movement, and during an interview, I observed that the role was not in the emerging tradition of Sidney Poitier heroes. “It’s a pre-Civil War version of the back of the bus,” he told me with his infectious grin. “But this is the way it is. Sometimes Burt Lancaster is on the horse, and sometime you’re on the horse, but there’s only one horse.”

Other important roles came on TV, where he played Martin Luther King Sr. in “King” (1978) and appeared in “Roots: The Next Generations” (1979). In 1980 he and his wife starred in “Ossie and Ruby!,” a TV series, and in 1990-94 he was in the cast of “Evening Shade.” His other major film roles included "Grumpy Old Men" (1993), where he ran the bait shop frequented by Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon; "I'm Not Rappaport" (1996), in which he and Matthau engage in a philosophical park bench conversation; and the cult comedy success "Bubba Ho-Tep" (2002), in which he and Bruce Campbell co-star as John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley, both still alive in a nursing home. (“But Jack,” says Elvis, “you’re black.” JFK nods: “When my assassination was faked by Lyndon B. Johnson, they dyed me”).

One of Mr. Davis’s final roles was as Mario Van Peebles’ grandfather in "Baadasssss!" (2004), the story of the director’s father Melvin Van Peebles, another African-American filmmaking pioneer, whose "Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song" (1970) gave momentum to the black independent film movement.

Mr. Davis himself was central to that movement. He directed five films, including "Cotton Comes to Harlem" (1970), a box office hit. In the same year he also went to Nigeria to direct "Kongi’s Harvest," based on the play by the leading African author Wole Soyinka, who starred. In 1973 he directed "Black Girl," about a 17-year-old who dreams of being a ballet dancer but is discouraged by her family. His "Gordon’s War" (1973) starred Paul Winfield in the story of Vietnam vets at war against Harlem drug dealers. And he directed and co-starred with Miss Dee in “Countdown at Kusini” (1976), about an African nation moving into independence.

Mr. Davis was born in 1917 in the hamlet of Cogdell, Ga., and grew up in Waycross and Valdosta. In 1935 he hitch-hiked to Washington, D.C. to talk his way into Howard University, where he entered the theater school. By 1939 he was appearing in his first roles on Broadway. In World War II he was a surgical technician in an Army hospital in Liberia, and when he returned to New York in 1946 he met Miss Dee in the cast of his first play.

Mr. Davis was found dead Friday morning by his grandson, after he failed to answer knocks on his hotel room door. He had a history of heart disease. He is survived by Miss Dee; in 1998 they co-authored the book With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. They had three children, Nora Hasna and Guy, who survive, along with seven grandchildren.

(Contributing: Reuter’s, AP, Internet Movie Database)

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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