Ruby Dee once said, “The kind of beauty I want most is the hard-to-get kind that comes from within — strength, courage, dignity.” The groundbreaking actress, who died Wednesday in New Rochelle, N.Y. at the age of 91, achieved that goal time and again throughout her career, which spanned over 60 years. Dee’s daughter, Nora Davis Day, confirmed Dee’s death to the Associated Press Thursday afternoon.
A pioneer of the civil rights movement, Dee (who was born in Cleveland, but grew up in Harlem) studied at the American Negro Theater in New York City, where she met her husband of 56 years, the actor Ossie Davis (who died in 2005). After working steadily on Broadway throughout the 1940s, she rose to acclaim on the silver screen with 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story, in which she played the baseball legend’s mother. In 1965, she became the first black woman to land lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut.
Over the next half century, Dee appeared in countless stage, television, and movie productions, including the 1961 film A Raisin in the Sun, her third of five collaborations with Sidney Poitier; Spike Lee’s seminal 1989 race drama Do the Right Thing; and the 1991 Hallmark miniseries Decoration Day, which won her an Emmy. She worked frequently with Davis, often in projects that promoted black heritage, and in 2000, they co-authored a memoir that celebrated their extraordinary journey together, With Ossie and Ruby: In this Life Together.
One of her most notable late-career performances came in 2007’s American Gangster, opposite Denzel Washington, whom she’d met almost 20 years earlier in the 1988 Broadway play Checkmates. Her feisty performance as the mother of Washington’s violent drug lord character earned Dee her first Oscar nomination. The Academy recognition was long overdue, but nevertheless a glorious accomplishment in the actress’s outstanding career. More recently, Dee narrated the 2013 TV movie Betty and Coretta, which starred Angela Bassett as Coretta Scott King and Mary J. Blige as Dr. Betty Shabazz, the wife of Malcolm X. Dee’s final film is King Dog, a still-in-production crime drama featuring Ice-T.