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February 4, 2005

Actors’ Equity Mourns the Death of Ossie Davis, Distinguished Actor and Social Activist

Ossie Davis, the distinguished actor, director, author, producer and prominent crusader for social justice, has died at the age of 87. According to news reports, Davis was found dead at his hotel in Miami, FL, where he was filming a movie. He was married to actress and collaborator Ruby Dee for 57 years.

“Actors’ Equity Association mourns the passing of Ossie Davis, one of our most distinguished members and an icon in the American theater. He was a great humanist and an outspoken activist for human rights and for the arts. He made significant contributions to the cultural life of our nation and helped to pave the road for the next generation of African-American actors, writers and directors. Mr. Davis, and his wife Ruby Dee, are American treasures and his death is a great loss to us all,” said Actors’ Equity President Patrick Quinn and Equity Executive Director Alan Eisenberg.

Mr. Davis joined Actors’ Equity in 1946 when he made his Broadway debut in JEB, a play about a returning soldier: “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,” said Davis in a recent interview. Ruby Dee also starred in the production.

During his illustrious career, Mr. Davis starred in numerous stage, movie, television and radio shows. His Broadway credits include THE LEADING LADY, THE SMILE OF THE WORLD, THE WISTERIA TREES, THE GREEN PASTURES, REMAINS TO BE SEEN, TOUCHSTONE and NO TIME FOR SARGEANTS. He replaced Sidney Poitier in the original production of A RAISIN IN THE SUN and Cleavon Little in I’M NOT RAPPAPORT, later starring in the film version opposite Walter Matthau. In New York, he appeared most recently in the New Federal Theatre’s production A LAST DANCE FOR SYBIL in 2002.

Partners in life as well as art, Ossie and Ruby celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary in 1998 with the publication of autobiography, “In This Life Together.”

Davis also distinguished himself as a tireless advocate for social justice and was deeply involved in civil rights. Caught up in the social and political unrest of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Davis said, “He had no trouble identifying which side he was on.” He openly supported public figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Dubois and Malcolm X, and was ever-present at civil rights, union and political rallies. In 1975, he and Ruby received Equity’s first Paul Robeson Award, honoring “their commitment to the principles by which Paul Robeson lived.”

Most recently, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were 2004 recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors.

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