Ossie Davis dies at 87. The actor and civil rights activist, who frequently shared stage and screen with wife Ruby Dee, passes away while shooting his next movie

By Gary Susman
February 04, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST
Ossie Davis: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Ossie Davis, whose decades-long career as an actor seemed inseparable from his civil-rights activism, as well as from the career of his wife, Ruby Dee, was found dead Friday morning in his Miami Beach hotel room, the Associated Press reports. He had been in Florida shooting a movie, Retirement, when he was found dead by his grandson. (Dee was not present, as she is currently shooting a film of her own in New Zealand). No foul play was suspected in the death of the 87-year-old Davis, a Miami Beach police spokesman said.

The Georgia-born Davis studied drama at Howard University, intending to become a playwright. While he did ultimately write for stage and screen, he was best known as an actor, with roles in more than 50 movies and dozens of plays and TV projects, many of them alongside Dee. The couple met during the staging of Jeb, a play about a returning soldier that marked Davis’ Broadway debut in 1946. They married two years later. Their 56-year union produced three children. They wrote a joint memoir, In this Life Together, upon their 50th anniversary in 1998.

Besides acting, both Davis and Dee were vocal civil-rights activists who befriended many of the movement’s top figures. It was Davis who delivered the eulogies at the funerals of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. His activism carried over into his career, where he often acted in projects that had racial justice as a theme. In 1970, he directed the crime caper Cotton Comes to Harlem, becoming one of the first African-Americans to direct a major studio release and helping to launch the blaxploitation era in the process. That same year, he won a Tony for his starring role on Broadway in Purlie.

Later in his career, he appeared in several Spike Lee movies, notably, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever(both of which co-starred Dee), and Get on the Bus, where he played an elder statesman to a group of men on their way to the Million Man March. Just two months ago, Davis and Dee were feted by President Bush as two of the six 2004 recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors for their lifetime of achievement in the performing arts.

In recent years, Davis had done a lot more comedy. He spent four years on CBS’ Evening Shade, and he costarred with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men. He starred in the Broadway comedy hit I’m Not Rappaport and reprised his role in the film version. When he died, he was just four days into shooting Retirement, a comedy about four grumpy old men (Davis, Peter Falk, George Segal, and Rip Torn) on a road trip to Las Vegas to prevent one of their daughters from marrying the wrong guy. No word on whether the production would proceed without him.