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How I Got My Equity Card

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By Ruby Dee & Ossie Davis

Ruby Dee
It was December 1943. I was still in college and, as I remember, very busy. Through government programs, I was studying radio techniques at the American Theatre Wing with Arthur Hanna, who also directed the popular radio series, THIS IS NORA DRAKE. In addition, I was working in a special presentation of THREE IS A FAMILY while the main white cast was off. It was during that stint that a drama by Howard Rigsby and Dorothy Heywood, starring Canada Lee, staged by Lee Strasberg and produced by David Loew at the Cort Theatre, beckoned me, Gordon Heath, George Fischer (now Brock peters) to become natives of a small South Sea Island community. The review by Burton Rascoe in the New York World - Telegram on December 30, 1943 was not encouraging but it marked my beginning as a member of Actors' Equity. I was now a professional.

Ossie Davis
I was discharged from the U.S. Army in October of 1945, and returned to my home in Valdosta, Georgia. Dick Campbell, head of the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem, where I had studied for 2 years before World War II sent me a wire that a play called JEB about a soldier who had lost his leg in the South Pacific, was looking to cast the lead. I returned to New York at his suggestion and he took me down to audition for Herman Shumlin, the producer and David Merrick, his assistant. I got the part and in due course, I got my card.

Dee & Davis Biography
Courtesy of Indiana University. Reprinted by permission.

Since meeting on Broadway in the 1946 production of JEB, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee have excelled as collaborators and as individuals (they married in 1948), and they often broke new ground for African Americans. They made their film debuts in 1950 in No Way Out with Sidney Poitier, then starred together on Broadway in A RAISIN IN THE SUN.

Davis, an alumnus of Howard University, has performed in many Broadway productions, including NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS, I'M NOT RAPPAPORT and ANNA LUCASTA. He first electrified television audiences in 1965 in the title role in THE EMPEROR JONES. He received Emmy nominations for TEACHER TEACHER, KING, and MISS EVERS' BOYS. He was a regular or recurring player on TV series such as Evening Shade, B.L. Stryker and The Client.

Young people may recognize Davis and Dee from their appearances in several Spike Lee films, including Malcolm X - in which Davis played himself, having delivered the eloquent eulogy for the slain black leader in 1965 -- Jungle Fever, Do the Right Thing and Get on the Bus. More recently, Davis starred as Eddie Murphy's father in the 1998 comedy, Dr. Dolittle, was the voice of a lemur in the 2000 Disney animated film, Dinosaur, and was in 1993's Grumpy Old Men.

Dee, an alumna of Hunter College, first attracted national attention in 1950 for her performance in The Jackie Robinson Story and broke ground in 1965 as the first black woman to play lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival. She won an Obie Award for the title role in Athol Fugard's BOESMAN AND LENA, a Drama Desk Award for her role in WEDDING BAND, and an Ace Award for her performance as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT.

On television, Dee has been nominated seven times for Emmy Awards and was a winner in 1991 for Decoration Day. She and Davis recently starred in Showtime TV's adaptation of the Anne Rice novel, The Feast of All Saints. Both received NAACP Image Awards for their 1996 CBS series Promised Land. Dee's other recent TV films have included Finding Buck McHenry and Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters First Hundred Years.

In 1961, Davis wrote and starred with Dee in the acclaimed PURLIE VICTORIOUS, a satire on the historical and psychological significance of segregation. The play later was adapted into a film and a musical. In 1970, he directed his first feature film, Cotton Comes to Harlem, for which he also wrote the screenplay and songs. In 1976, they produced the first American feature film to be shot entirely in Africa by black professionals, Countdown at Kusani, with Davis directing.

As close friends of Martin Luther King Jr., they served as masters of ceremonies for the historic 1963 March on Washington. Earlier, they risked their careers resisting McCarthyism. Davis' and Dee's activism has led to their arrest for protesting the killing in New York of a Guinean immigrant, their suing in federal court for black voting rights, and their speaking out for citizen involvement in democracy and in support of sickle cell disease research.

Davis and Dee were celebrated as "national treasures" when they received the National Medal of Arts in 1995. In 2000, they were presented with the Screen Actors Guild's highest honor, the Life Achievement Award. They received the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle Award in 1994 and are inductees in the Theater Hall of Fame and the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame.

They are co-authors of a joint autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (William Morrow/Harper Collins, 2000).


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