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Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis

A look at that last 50 years, 'With Ossie and Ruby'

Web posted on: Wednesday, January 06, 1999 11:21:38 AM EST

ATLANTA (CNN) -- The way the story goes, Ossie Davis was in Chicago on tour in a play when he proposed to Ruby Dee in 1948. He popped the question by telegram, with a message that said he "might as well marry" her.

Dee wrote back, "Don't do me any favors."

Fifty years later, the legendary acting couple is still married, celebrating their time together, looking back on how far they've come through personal and social challenges, through decades of change.

"It was a lifetime occupation that kept us too busy to stop and ask if we were happy or not," admits Davis.

And now the couple is telling their story, from Broadway to Hollywood, from the Civil Rights movement to the cusp of the new millennium, in the new biography, "With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together."

Meet cute

The actors first met when they were cast for the Broadway play "Jeb" in 1945. Married three years later, Davis and Dee went on to great success on both the stage and the big screen, while maintaining their romance.

They starred together in plays like "The Smile of the World," "A Raisin in the Sun," "Take It From the Top," and "Zora Is My Name." In film, they were seen together in "No Way Out," "Do the Right Thing," and "Jungle Fever."

Both Dee and Davis have also starred separately in dozens of plays and films. Davis was most recently seen in "Dr. Dolittle"; Dee in "Baby Geniuses."

Their book, however, is far from a simple listing of accomplishments. Addressing the intricacies of a long-term marriage, the book reveals that Dee and Davis had their share of difficulties, including a phase in the 1960s in which the couple agreed they could sleep with other lovers when work took them away from one another. The arrangement lasted only a short time.

"We ultimately decided that that what we had chosen as a possibility didn't really work for us," Davis says now.

National treasure

The couple also uses as a backdrop the social change that has swept the country since the middle of the century. The book touches upon civil rights and the legacies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Davis delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X's funeral), the turmoil of the 1960s, the war-torn 1970s, the greed of the 1980s, and the dawn of the year 2000.

It also reveals details of their relationships with generations of stars -- from Paul Robeson and Marlon Brando to Spike Lee and Denzel Washington.

Through the years, the couple has become a symbol of stability. In 1995, they were honored with the Presidential Medal for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. More recently they were honored by the entertainment industry with a 50th anniversary gala in New York. The event was attended by celebrities like Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Maya Angelou, Stevie Wonder and Vanessa Williams. President Clinton sent a videotaped address to the couple, calling them a "national treasure."

The event was a display of affection seldom seen in the entertainment industry, and evidence of the respect the couple has garnered over the years.

Through it all, Dee and Davis say they have discovered the secret to a successful marriage. "You have to learn how to be married," Dee says. "You have to learn to love somebody."

Correspondent Cynthia Tornquist contributed to this report.

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