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Against the Grain: Black Film Pioneers: Part XIV: Ossie Davis

Return to Against the Grain Archive
Added: 12/16/2013

NOTE: When available, the images in the article below link to a larger version of the image. Some of these images were supplied by the author, some come from the the Hershenson/Allen Archive, and some come from's Auction History.

"Any form of art is a form of power; it has impact, it can affect change - it can not only move us, it makes us move.

The title of "First Couple of the Broadway Theater" has been applied to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, and, most recently. Ossie Davis Ruby Dee.

Raiford Chatman Davis was born in rural Georgia in 1917. The county clerk who recorded the birth misheard his mother's pronunciation of his first and middle initials and was the first to call the railway construction engineer's son by the name he would answer to for the rest of his life... Ossie.

The young man wished to escape the racism he saw directed toward his father and, following his parents' wishes, attended Howard University, where he was mentored by Alain LeRoy Locke, the first Black Rhodes Scholar, who encouraged him to pursue a life in the theater. Ossie dropped out in his junior year to pursue an acting and writing career. After a short stint at Columbia, he joined the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem in 1939.

The 1940s were difficult times for aspiring black actors. Davis struggled and became involved in Frederick O'Neal's American Negro Theater along with other ambitious performers like Earl Hyman, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Isabel Sanford, and future wife Ruby Dee, whom he married in 1948.

While serving in the Medical Corps in Libya during the War, he wrote a musical revue in his spare time. Back home he debuted on Broadway in 1946 in the play JEB and made his screen debut (along with Sidney Poitier, another novice to film, and wife Ruby Dee, already appearing in her sixth film) in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 NO WAY OUT. He followed it up at Fox with a minor role in Henry Hathaway's FOURTEEN HOURS while continuing to act theatrically.

Ossie Davis and wife, Ruby Dee, pose in front of their movie poster at the opening night gala of their film "Gone Are the Days!" on Sept. 23, 1963.

He wrote ALICE IN WONDER, a play that starred wife Ruby Dee as his involvement in theater deepened and expanded. He wrote a dozen other plays during his career including biographical dramas on Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglas, and Ira Aldridge, the first black-American to play Othello. He also penned a musical version of the baseball comedy BINGO LONG.

Below: Playbill with Davis (replacing Sidney Poitier) and Claudia McNeil in A RAISIN IN THE SUN co-starring Ruby Dee.


During the HUAC period Davis was investigated and blacklisted for a time. The actor later claimed that whatever interest he had in the radical left was abandoned when he served in World War II.

However, it wasn't until he wrote and starred in his signature part, the title role in the comedy PURLIE VICTORIOUS in 1961 (Above with Ruby Dee) that Davis began to receive critical acclaim. The story was about an itinerant preacher in rural Jim Crow Georgia who tries to liberate his oppressed people from a Simon Legree-type landowner.

The play was a success and generated a 1963 film adaptation called GONE ARE THE DAYS, with many of the cast reprising their roles.

In order to capitalize on stand-up comic Godfrey Cambridge's short-lived celebrity on the 60s TV late night talk show circuit, the film was re-released and promotion on the film centered on Cambridge, not Davis and Dee. The resultant 1966 release with the exploitative title HONEYCHILE, IT'S THE MAN FROM C.O.T.T.O.N. received few bookings. Ultimately a musical version called PURLIE starring Cleavon Little opened to great success in 1971, even spawning a TV version in 1981.

Acclaim and notoriety from PURLIE boosted Davis' career, and he began to receive important offers.

He played a Catholic priest fighting prejudice in Otto Preminger's THE CARDINAL and was cast with Sean Connery in Sidney Lumet's THE HILL, as a British Commonwealth soldier imprisoned in an isolated North African brig.

Connery hoped THE HILL would show detractors that he was capable of more than being James Bond, but it was Davis as Jocko King who stole every scene in perhaps his most critically-acclaimed role. There was Oscar talk, not only for Davis as Supporting Actor but also Harry Andrews. Unfortunately neither was ultimately nominated from this superb film, but more doors kept opening for the talented actor.

After being a regular as a policeman in the TV comedy series CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU?, Davis played the recurring role of District Attorney in critically acclaimed New York-filmed dramatic series, THE DEFENDERS.

Davis hit a peak in his movie popularity with Sydney Pollack's high-octane action Western THE SCALPHUNTERS with Burt Lancaster, a throwback to the athlete/actor's physically demanding roles from the 50s. The fast-moving saga cast Davis as an escaped slave and made many points about racism, some humorous, some ironic. The promotional movie paper highlighted Davis in confrontation with Lancaster and in many venues gave Davis co-starring status. Some exhibitors chose to reverse the order, and in some demographic areas, ad slugs were specially made in which Davis was billed ahead of Lancaster.

Despite his great commercial and professional success, the actor stayed active and committed to Civil Rights causes. He acted as Master of Ceremonies during the 1963 March on Washington and delivered the poignantly eloquent eulogy for the assassinated Malcolm X in 1965. He also delivered a memorable address in New York's Central Park in 1968 the day after Dr. King was assassinated.

Ossie Davis at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.

In stark contrast with a mainstream films like THE SCALPHUNTERS and a similarly light-hearted Western, SAM WHISKEY, Davis starred in SLAVES, an independent effort from the formerly blacklisted Herbert Biberman. It was a grim indictment of slavery and Davis' character evolves from a acquiescent Uncle Tom to Nat Turner after the plantation is sold.

After that, the actor changed direction and followed the example of novice black filmmakers Gordon Parks and Melvin van Peebles by becoming a director himself. Among the so-called "blaxploitation" titles he successfully helmed are COTTON COMES TO HARLEM and GORDON'S WAR.

(Left: Davis directing COTTON COMES TO HARLEM)

However, he also directed the more socially significant COUNTDOWN AT KUSINI about African nationalism in which he co-starred with Ruby Dee. Unfortunately the studio soon lost faith in the film, retitling it COOL RED and selling it as yet another "Blaxploitation" film.

(Left: directing COUNTDOWN AT KUSINI in Africa)

Most current filmgoers will remember Davis for his memorable characterizations in Spike Lee films, which generated great positive synergy and gravitas for the controversial director with the actor getting some of his best character roles from Lee. He was especially memorable as Da Mayor in DO THE RIGHT THING and Reverend Doctor Purify in JUNGLE FEVER, both with wife Ruby Dee. He also recreated his original eulogy for Lee's MALCOM X.

(Below left: Spike Lee With Davis and Ruby Dee)

He was also very active in television as a writer, director, producer and, most of all, actor, making his TV debut in THE EMPORER JONES in 1955. He played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in the television biopic and appeared in two popular mini-series: ROOTS: THE NEXT GENERATION, and STEPHEN KING'S THE STAND (all three with wife Ruby Dee). He was the voice of Anansi the Spider on SESAME STREET and co-starred in the remake of TWELVE ANGRY MEN. He had a recurring role in THE L WORD and was a regular on the highly-rated series EVENING SHADE. n addition, he co-starred the pilot/debut of ROD SERLING'S NIGHT GALLERY and co-hosted a talk show, WITH OSSIE & RUBY in the early 80s.

Ossie as Daddy King in robe and collar

Davis continued to stay active professionally and politically. Among his later movie efforts of interest are I'M NOT RAPPAPORT co-starring Walter Matthau, and the wild and wacky cult favorite BUBBA HO-TEP in which Davis plays a delusional institutionalized senior who believes himself to be JFK and teams with a man claiming to be the real Elvis to fight a soul-eating mummy who's terrorizing the nursing home where they live.

His first novel, JUST LIKE MARTIN was published in 1992. In 1994 both he and Ruby received the Emmy's Silver Circle Award and in 1995 were honored by President Clinton and the National Endowment for the Arts with the American National Medal of the Arts. In 1998 their autobiography OSSIE AND RUBY: IN THIS LIFE TOGETHER was published, and in 2000 they jointly received the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004 Davis and Dee were both honored by President Bush at the prestigious Kennedy Center Awards. They have both been inducted into the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame as well as the Theater Hall of Fame.

Left: Actor-Activist Ossie Davis Dead at 87. Right: With Ossie & Ruby book cover.

Ossie Davis died on February 4, 2005 while working on location for a film ironically titled RETIREMENT. Although always wanting his work to be entertaining, he also intended that it carry a social and political message. His legacy to his fans is the warmth, integrity, and sincerity of the characters he created for over 60 years.

He was survived by three children including actor/musician Guy Davis and his wife and partner Ruby Dee, who continued to be a working actress until her death in 2014 at the age of 91.

Addendum #1 - A gallery of Davis lobby cards

Addendum #2 37th Life Achievement Recipient, 2000
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Award acceptance speech:
[standing ovation]

RUBY DEE: Oh, thank you, thank you. Well, well, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. [applause continues] Thank you.

OSSIE DAVIS: Thank you.

DEE: Thank you.

DAVIS: Here we are in Hollywood.

DEE: Yes.

DAVIS: In heaven.

DEE: As close to laughter as we are to tears.

DAVIS: We thank you.

DEE: Thank you, thank you.

DAVIS AND DEE: We thank you.

DEE: For the plaudits of our union and our peers.

DAVIS: Celebrities, we are, and stars, we actors. Peace workers on the Hollywood plantation. [laughter] But that is not all. We are more than that.

DEE: We are artists also, and workers above all. We are image makers. Why can't we image makers become peacemakers, too. Why cannot we, in such a time as this, use all the magic of our vaunted powers to lift the pistol from the schoolboy's backpack? [applause] And replace it with bright images of peace, with images of hope and faith in humankind. Of life lit by some large vision of goodness and beauty and truth?

DAVIS: Artists, we are, but we are citizens also. And as free men and women living in a democracy, we cannot escape our First Amendment obligation to our children. To elevate by precept and example

DEE: To lead.

DAVIS: To inspire.

DEE: And to challenge.

DAVIS: To touch their hearts and minds

DEE: With love's redeeming fire.

DAVIS: This is our right.

DEE: Our duty.

DAVIS: This is our privilege.

DEE: Tonight, again, we profoundly thank you.

DAVIS: Thank you.

DEE: Again and again."
-Gabe Taverney

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