Oscar-nominated stage and screen actress Ruby Dee died Wednesday at her home in New York. She was 91. Dee made her film debut in 1946’s That Man of Mine, earned notice playing Rae Robinson in 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story, and famously originated the role of suffering housewife Ruth Younger in the groundbreaking Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun opposite Sidney Poitier – a role she reprised in the 1961 film adaptation, earning the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress. Decades later Dee received her only Academy Award nomination for her brief turn in 2008’s American Gangster. In between those milestones she also won an Emmy for 1990 miniseries Decoration Day and earned eight more Emmy nods. Among her numerous additional honors, Dee shared a Grammy with late husband Ossie Davis for their spoken word album With Ossie And Ruby: In This Life Together and was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild.
Dee was born Ruby Ann Wallace, later taking her surname from first husband, blues singer Frankie Dee. But it was her second marriage to fellow actor Ossie Davis that became indelibly intertwined with her life in the arts and in political activism. The couple were close friends with civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, attending the 1963 civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Dee spoke and Davis emceed. Following Davis’s death in 2005, the two received the National Civil Rights Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Freedom Award.
Dee made her stage debut in 1940 with the American Negro Theatre’s On Strivers Row and played Ruth Younger in the 1959 Broadway premiere of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in The Sun (currently being revived on Broadway). Dee would have a significant impact on the cause of non-traditional casting, starring in the title role of Philip Yordan’s Anna Lucasta, as Kate in The Taming Of The Shrew, Cordelia in King Lear, Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie and as Gertrude, in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet, among other many others. She is remembered for an astonishingly powerful performance in Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena (later made into a film starring Danny Glover and Angela Bassett). Dee and husband Davis were devoted supporters of African-American theater artists and was long affiliated with groups such as Woody King Jr.’s off-Broadway New Federal Theatre.
Throughout her career Dee starred in politically-charged films reflecting the racial tensions of the times, including 1957’s Edge of the City with Poitier and John Cassavetes, 1967’s The Incident with Beau Bridges and Martin Sheen, Jules Dassin’s 1968 drama Uptight, and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and Jungle Fever. Her films include St. Louis Blues, Buck and the Preacher, Cool Red, Cop and a Half, and Baby Geniuses. In addition to the short-lived 1980 show Ossie and Ruby! with Davis, Dee starred on the small screen in Peyton Place, Roots: The Next Generations, 1988 miniseries Lincoln, Stephen King’s The Stand, Street Gear, Little Bill, and Lifetime’s Betty & Coretta.
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama released a statement on Dee’s passing:
“Michelle and I were saddened to hear of the passing of actress, author, and activist Ruby Dee. In roles from Ruth Younger in A Raisin in the Sun to Mama Lucas in American Gangster, Ruby captivated and challenged us – and Michelle and I will never forget seeing her on our first date as Mother Sister in Do the Right Thing. Through her remarkable performances, Ruby paved the way for generations of black actors and actresses, and inspired African-American women across our country. Through her leadership in the civil rights movement she and her husband, Ossie Davis, helped open new doors of opportunity for all. Our thoughts and prayers are with Ruby and Ossie’s three children, with their friends and family, and with all those who loved them dearly.”