Ossie Davis, 1917-2005: Actor was voice for a movement

Ossie Davis, whose rich baritone and elegant, unshakable bearing made him a giant of the stage, screen and the civil rights movement, died Feb. 4 at the age of 87. Davis’ gentle fatherly figure ignited theater stages and TV and movie screens around the world. But it’s what he did on the stage of social justice that stands out for many. His majestic voice was the voice of a movement.

Tender when it needed to be and tough when times demanded it, his voice eloquently articulated the pride, the promise and the pain of being Black in America.

Davis died of natural causes in his hotel room in Miami, where he was shooting the film “Retirement,” which also stars Rip Torn, Jack Warden and George Segal in a senior citizens’ road-trip movie.

He and his wife of 56 years, actress Ruby Dee, were blacklisted during the McCarthy era for their political views and Communist “sympathies.” They dared to stand by Paul Robeson when leading Black figures were pressured to denounce the great actor and activist.

Throughout the civil rights upsurge, Davis and Dee marched and picketed in major civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s, including the March on Washington, Davis was one of the featured speakers at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.

Both Davis and Dee have received numerous joint honors, including induction into the NAACP Hall of Fame in 1989, the White House’s National Medal of Arts in 1995, the Screen Actors Guild lifetime achievement award in 2000 and Kennedy Center Honors in 2004. The couple published their dual autobiography, “In This Life Together,” in 1998 on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary.

In 1946, Davis made his Broadway debut in “Jeb Turner,” where he met Dee. They married in 1948. Davis and Dee both had key roles in television movies like “Roots: The Next Generation” (1978), as well as in several Spike Lee films, including “Do the Right Thing.”

Davis made his film debut in 1950 in “No Way Out,” a movie that also introduced Sidney Poitier. Nine years later, he succeeded Poitier as the male lead in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway, a landmark production in which Dee also played a principal role.

But it was Davis’ rich baritone voice that expressed the soul of Black America. Davis delivered a memorable eulogy for his slain friend, Malcolm X, whom Davis praised as “our own Black shining prince” and “our living, Black manhood!” He reprised his eulogy in a voice-over for the 1992 Lee film, “Malcolm X.”

The son of a railroad engineer, Raiford Chatman Davis was born in Cogdell, Ga., on Dec. 18, 1917. Named after his grandfather, the future actor became Ossie after a clerk misunderstood Davis’ mother saying the initials R.C.

He hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard University, graduated in 1938, and moved to New York City to join the Harlem-based Rose McClendon Players.

Davis served almost four years in the Army during World War II, principally as a medical technician in Liberia. He also wrote and performed shows for the troops.

In addition to acting, Davis also wrote, directed and produced for the stage and screen. In 1961, Davis made his Broadway debut as a playwright with “Purlie Victorious,” a sharply satiric civil rights comedy in which he and his wife starred. In a work that upended one racial stereotype after another, in 1970, Davis co-wrote the book for “Purlie,” a musical version of the play. A revival of the musical is planned for Broadway next season.

It was Davis’ staunch commitment to liberation and freedom that made him a great artist. “I can’t see how I could fulfill myself as an actor or a writer without being fully committed to living a full life as a citizen in this particular country,” Davis once said.

“Every time we got a job and every time we were on stage, America was looking to make judgments about all Black folks on the basis of how you looked, how you sounded, how you carried yourself,” he said. “So, any role that you had was a role that was involved in the struggle for Black identification. You couldn’t escape it.”

Upon winning the Kennedy honors, Davis told the press, “It means to do whatever we wanted, whatever the risk. And here, at the end of it all, you know, Kennedy Center says whatever you did, in our opinion, was well done. Oh, you can’t get any better than that.”

Actors’ Equity Association issued a statement calling him “an icon in the American theater” and Davis and Dee “American treasures.” House lights in Broadway theaters were dimmed at curtain time Feb. 4.

Davis is survived by Dee, their three children — Guy, Nora and Hasna — and seven grandchildren.