Skip to main content

Ruby Dee was a formidable force on screen, in civil rights movement

By Alan Duke and Todd Leopold, CNN
updated 9:07 PM EDT, Thu June 12, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Award-winning actress died peacefully at home, rep says
  • Dee was nominated for an Oscar for her role in "American Gangster"
  • She and her late husband, Ossie Davis, were important figures in civil rights movement
  • Dee became known to a younger generation with roles in two Spike Lee films

(CNN) -- Ruby Dee, the award-winning actress whose seven-decade career included triumphs on stage and screen, has died. She was 91.

Dee died peacefully Wednesday at her New Rochelle, New York, home, according to her representative, Michael Livingston.

Dee -- often with her late husband, Ossie Davis -- was a formidable force in both the performing arts community and the civil rights movement. The couple were master and mistress of ceremonies at the 1963 March on Washingon, and she was friends with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Dee received the Frederick Douglass Award in 1970 from the New York Urban League.

As an actress, her film credits included "The Jackie Robinson Story" (1950), "A Raisin in the Sun" (1961), "Buck and the Preacher" (1972), "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and "American Gangster" (2007).

Dee earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in "Gangster." She won an Emmy and Grammy for other work.

Ruby Dee, who died Wednesday, June 11, at age 91, had a long and lauded career as a stage performer, screen actress and civil rights activist. Her breakthrough role was in 1950's "The Jackie Robinson Story." Ruby Dee, who died Wednesday, June 11, at age 91, had a long and lauded career as a stage performer, screen actress and civil rights activist. Her breakthrough role was in 1950's "The Jackie Robinson Story."
Ruby Dee through the years
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
Photos: Ruby Dee through the years Photos: Ruby Dee through the years
Click through to see people who died in 2014. Click through to see people who died in 2014.
People we lost in 2014
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: People we lost in 2014 Photos: People we lost in 2014

Broadway star Audra McDonald paid tribute to Dee when she accepted a Tony Award on Sunday, crediting Dee, Maya Angelou, Diahann Carroll and Billie Holiday for making her career possible. McDonald won a best actress Tony in 2004 for playing the same role Dee created on Broadway in 1959 and in the 1961 film version of "Raisin."

In a statement, Gil Robertson IV of the African American Film Critics Association praised Dee's contributions.

"The members of the African American Film Critics Association are deeply saddened at the loss of actress and humanitarian Ruby Dee," said Robertson. "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."

Dee was born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1922, and moved to New York's Harlem as a child. She took the surname Dee after marrying blues singer Frankie Dee two decades later. She divorced Dee after a short marriage and was wedded to Davis in 1948. Davis preceded his wife in death in 2005.

'With Ossie and Ruby'

Her acting career started in New York in the 1940s, first appearing onscreen in the 1946 musical "That Man of Mine." A role in "The Jackie Robinson Story" brought her national attention.

Dee became known to a younger generation with roles in two Spike Lee films. She co-starred with Davis in Lee's "Do the Right Thing" and in his 1991 film "Jungle Fever."

First lady Michelle Obama tweeted that she was "deeply saddened" by Dee's death. "I'll never forget seeing her in 'Do the Right Thing' on my first date with Barack."

Dee's television work included 20 episodes of "Peyton Place" in 1969 and the role of Queen Haley in the 1979 miniseries "Roots: The Next Generation."

'The finest performance I have ever seen'

She was regularly praised for her acting.

In the 1961 film version of "Raisin," Lorraine Hansberry's play about a working-class black family trying to move up in the world, she played Ruth Younger, the wife of Sidney Poitier's striving Walter.

"Miss Dee is quietly magnificent as the angry young man's hard-working wife," wrote Bosley Crowther in The New York Times.

Her stage work was equally lauded.

"Ruby Dee as Lena is giving the finest performance I have ever seen," wrote The New York Times' Clive Barnes in 1970 of Dee in Athol Fugard's play "Boesman and Lena." "Never for a moment do you think she is acting."

She won an Obie for that performance in 1971.

Other awards included a 1972 Drama Desk award for "Wedding Band," a 1991 Emmy for "Decoration Day," a 2007 Grammy for spoken-word album and a Golden Globe for "American Gangster."

Actor Samuel L. Jackson, who was in "Jungle Fever" and "Do the Right Thing" with Dee, tweeted: "We Lost A Jewel Today, Mrs Ruby Dee, So Great, So Loved! R.I.P. All sympathy to her family."

Director Spike Lee tweeted that he was "crushed" by the loss of Dee, whom he called "'spiritual mother."

Always an activist

Dee and Davis -- the two, who were married 56 years, always seemed connected -- were an odd couple in some ways: She from New York, he from Waycross, Georgia. She was small and stylish, he was big and bluff. But their beliefs were often as one, and they practiced what they preached.

"We shared a great deal in common; we didn't have any distractions as to where we stood in society. We were black activists. We had a common understanding," she told Ebony in 1988.

Dee and Davis met while acting in the 1945 Broadway play "Jeb" in 1945. He proposed three years later with a telegram he sent from Chicago, where he was touring in a play, according to their joint autobiography "With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together," published near their 50th anniversary. The telegram to his girlfriend said he "might as well marry" her. Dee wrote back, "Don't do me any favors."

Their book revealed the challenges of their long marriage, including a phase in the 1960s in which they agreed they could sleep with others when work separated them. The arrangement lasted only a short time, they said. "We ultimately decided that what we had chosen as a possibility didn't really work for us," Davis said in 1999.

"You have to learn how to be married," Dee said. "You have to learn to love somebody."

There was no television in their home for years, The New York Times observed in a 1995 profile, because "television represented an industry that refused to hire black people in significant numbers or in anything other than stereotypical roles."

They appeared at protest rallies and took their children with them. She admitted to a fiery temperament: In a famous "American Gangster" scene, she slaps star Denzel Washington across the face, noting she put everything into the motion.

"It's not far from my nature to whack," she told USA Today. "There's a streak in me."

Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis arrested at protest

Dee and Davis were arrested in 1999 while protesting outside New York City police headquarters against the police shooting of an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo. Dee told reporters the shooting "reminds me of when there were lynchings all over the country."

"We've got to start saying 'No further. This must stop,' " Dee said.

Even before the appearances in Spike Lee movies made them famous faces again, Dee and Davis were always working, always pushing, whether it was producing a 1986 PBS special on King or creating a two-person show drawing on the work of African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston.

The two also shared a lot of laughter.

"The life is the fun," she told the Times in 1995.

"We walk in the middle of humor every day, and we laugh," Davis responded.

"And we fight, too," Dee replied. "Yeah. I win."

Dee is survived by three children, Guy Davis, Hasna Muhammad Davis and Nora Day Davis.

People we've lost in 2014

Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:52 PM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
updated 3:38 PM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
A file picture taken on August 20, 2001 shows Lebanese popular singer Sabah displaying her medal after being honored at the opening of the 7th Cairo International Song festival in Cairo. Famed Lebanese singer and actress Sabah, whose seven-decade career made her one of the Arab world's best-known entertainers, died on November 26, 2014 at the age of 87, state media announced.
Lebanese singer and actress Sabah, died in Beirut. She was 87.
updated 4:18 PM EST, Sun November 23, 2014
Former Washington Mayor Marion Barry has died at age 78.
updated 4:56 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Diem Brown, the MTV reality star whose fight against cancer was an inspiration to many, lost that long battle on Friday. She was 32.
updated 6:40 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Mike Nichols, the award-winning director and pioneering comedian who was one of the few people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award, has died at 83.
updated 9:13 AM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Jimmy Ruffin, silky-voiced singer of the Motown classic "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," died in Las Vegas at 78.
updated 2:04 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Prolific television producer Glen Larson passed away at the age of 77 after a battle with cancer. He produced many popular shows, including "Knight Rider" and "Battlestar Galactica."
updated 4:56 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Diem Brown, the MTV reality star whose fight against cancer was an inspiration to many, lost that long battle at the age of 32.
updated 9:24 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne -- the first and, even now, only woman to lead that city -- has died.
updated 6:12 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
Actress Carol Ann Susi, whose brash Brooklyn accent reverberated on the hit television series "The Big Bang Theory," has died after a battle with cancer.
updated 10:35 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
A member of the Sugarhill Gang, whose pioneering hit "Rapper's Delight" brought hip hop to mainstream audiences 35 years ago, died at age 57.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Tom Magliozzi, half of the "Click and Clack" team of brothers who hosted NPR's "Car Talk" radio show, died at age 77.
updated 9:12 AM EST, Sun November 2, 2014
Wayne Richard Wells, the frontman and founder of the California metal band Static-X, has died. He was 48.
updated 5:27 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Thomas Menino, who retired this year as the longest-serving mayor in Boston history, has died at 71 after a battle with cancer.
updated 4:22 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Elizabeth Norment, best known for her role as loyal secretary to Kevin Spacey's character on "House of Cards," died of cancer at 61.
updated 11:03 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Zambian President Michael Sata, who was nicknamed "King Cobra" for his fiery comebacks and larger-than-life personality, has died. He was 77.
updated 8:07 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Jack Bruce, bassist for the legendary 1960s rock band Cream, has died at 71.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Ben Bradlee, the charismatic Washington Post editor who guided the paper through the era of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, has died. He was 93.
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Legendary fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, who spent half a century putting high society in haute couture, has died. He was 82.
ADVERTISEMENT