RIP Ossie Davis


The following news item appeared in the June/July 2005 issue of Savoy Magazine


The following article appeared in the February 28, 2005 issue of Jet Magazine

The following article appeared in the February 21, 2005 issue of People Magazine


The following article appeared in the February 21, 2005 issue of Jet Magazine


Ossie Davis Memorial Held in Harlem

Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - The stars of Hollywood joined the people of Harlem to bid farewell Saturday to actor and activist Ossie Davis, filling a Manhattan church with laughter and tears as a parade of admirers recalled his integrity, courage and devotion to family.

Friends, fans and family members crowded into the Riverside Church for the funeral, gazing at a video screen bearing his picture that was hung above an altar.

His wife of 56 years, actress Ruby Dee, sat in the front row, near where Davis' coffin stood covered in flowers. Former president Bill Clinton led a contingent of well-known mourners, including Spike Lee, Cornel West, Rachel Robinson and outgoing NAACP president Kweisi Mfume.

"He would have been a very good president of the United States," Clinton said. "I have only this to say: Like most of you here, he gave more to me than I gave to him."

Entertainer Harry Belafonte, Davis' friend for six decades, gave the eulogy.

"It is hard to fathom that we will no longer be able to call on his wisdom, his humor, his loyalty and his moral strength to guide us in the choices that are yet to be made and the battles that are yet to be fought," Belafonte said.

"But how fortunate we were to have him as long as we did."

It was a fitting send-off for the acclaimed actor and civil rights activist, with rousing music provided by Wynton Marsalis, a poem from Pulitzer Prize winner Maya Angelou, and songs from the choir at his alma mater, Howard University. The funeral service lasted more than three hours.

"Ossie was my hero, and he still is," said Alan Alda, a friend of the family for 44 years. "Ossie was a thing of beauty."

Burt Reynolds, his co-star on the television show "Evening Shade," recalled Davis as a friend who could make everything seem right. "I want so badly someday to have his dignity _ a little of it anyway," Reynolds said.

Davis died Feb. 4 in a hotel room in Miami Beach, Fla., where the 87-year-old actor was working on a film. During his lengthy career, Davis worked as an actor, writer, director and producer, while giving equal time to the civil rights struggle.

Earlier, Dee listened as their seven grandchildren offered memories of Davis, ending with a poem that their grandparents often performed together. Daughter Hasna Muhammad, inviting mourners to join their family, pulled out a camera to take a picture of the congregation.

The lights in the church were then dimmed for a slide show of Davis and his family, with musical accompaniment by his son-in-law. The crowd burst into applause at the end of the presentation.

Attallah Shabazz, the daughter of slain activist Malcolm X, recalled from the pulpit the famous eulogy delivered by Davis at her father's funeral.

"Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its finest hopes," she said, quoting the man she knew as Uncle Ossie. "Ditto."

Ninety minutes before the noon service began, a line stretching several blocks had formed outside the church, filled with children, parents and grandparents. For the residents of Harlem, it was a chance to say goodbye to a friend and neighborhood fixture.

"For as long as I can remember, all you had to do is drop the name Ossie on people, and the knew you were talking about Ossie Davis," said businessman and family friend Earl Graves. "It's easy to believe there was only one Ossie who lived in Harlem."


Davis Honored at Malcolm X Film Screening

Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - The late actor Ossie Davis was eulogized Monday as an inspiration for both the artistic and civil rights communities.

The remembrances came at an event to mark the release of a DVD version of the 1992 film "Malcolm X" _ and commemorate the 40th anniversary of the black Muslim leader's death.

For the 1992 film, director Spike Lee got Davis to recreate the eulogy he gave at Malcolm X's funeral in 1965.

On Monday, Lee showed a short film showing highlights of Davis' decades-long career, and said he was guided both creatively and politically by Davis and his wife, Ruby Dee, both of whom have appeared in his films.

"They gave me the courage to take stands that might be unpopular," Lee said.

Several hundred people attended the event at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, including Malcolm X's daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, actors Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes, and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The film's special edition DVD also features the new Lee documentary "By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X" and director Arnold Perl's 1972 feature-length documentary "Malcolm X."

For Sharpton, Davis was a giant in the black community.

"There have been bigger box office attractions, but there never was a giant taller than him," Sharpton said.

Washington, who played the lead role in Lee's 1992 "Malcolm X," said Davis "is in good care and good company."

"My prayers go out to Ruby," he said.

The 87-year-old Davis was found dead Friday in his hotel room in Florida, where he was making a movie. His death appeared to be from natural causes, police said.

Dee was in New Zealand making a movie when her husband died. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998.


The Star on Life's Stage

Ossie Davis Played a Major Role in Civil Rights

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer

It is a wonder he ever found time to do his own thing, which was acting, writing plays, directing, producing. Ossie Davis, who died yesterday in Miami Beach at the age of 87, was that rare American entertainer who would not sacrifice his commitment to the quest for human and civil rights for what was expected of an entertainer -- the requirement to scrounge and scrounge for the next gig.

He got work, all right, in part because of his versatility, stretching from live drama to TV to motion pictures. He and his wife, Ruby Dee, received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors two months ago. But he also snared legions of admirers for his commitment to "the cause": the cause shared by Martin and Malcolm and Fannie Lou Hamer and out-of-work bus drivers and Manhattan cleaning ladies. He was Zelig-like, always appearing in this or that community where the scales of justice didn't seem quite balanced.

In those old black-and-white photos from the movement that have become so popular, so in vogue these days, there he is, in a coat, in a suit, wearing a hat, looking like some hep cat fresh off the A train in Harlem. At the rallies and marches, he'd recite the complaints and hug the downtrodden. It helped that his voice was beautiful, like some Southern preacher (he was born in Georgia) who had boned up on Shakespeare while no one was looking.

"While he was a great artist, first and foremost he was a civil rights activist," former New York City mayor David Dinkins recalled yesterday. "You would not find a righteous cause to which he and Ruby did not attach themselves and their names. They were there when there were no cameras around, and they were there time and time again."

Billie Allen, now a New York theatrical director, worked with Davis during the original Broadway run of "A Raisin in the Sun," which premiered in 1959. Davis was a struggling New York actor at the time, with his own aspirations of writing. He was the understudy to Sidney Poitier for the lead character of Walter Lee Younger.

"Ossie was one of the most courageous and heartfelt men I've ever met," said Allen. "His mind seemed to always be jumping double Dutch."

He couldn't stay still, she went on to say. He didn't just sit backstage during "Raisin." He wrote. "During that time he was writing 'Purlie Victorious' in his dressing room," recalled Allen. "You could hear him. He'd be in there writing and laughing."

"Purlie," a musical satire about the South and race, premiered on Broadway in 1961.

Upon the death of Malcolm X in 1965, Davis delivered a eulogy so striking, so sentimental, so passionate that many, blacks included, wondered if it would harm his career to be linked to the slain black revolutionary.

"When he eulogized Malcolm," said Allen, "my phone rang off the hook. I felt so transformed by what he did. It took him to another level in my book. To those who criticized Ossie, I'd say to them, 'I wish they would have asked me to eulogize Malcolm.' "

Davis's final words to Malcolm were these: "Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man -- but a seed -- which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us. And we will know him then for what he was and is -- a Prince, our own black shining Prince! -- who didn't hesitate to die, because he loved us so."

Soon thereafter Davis began filming "A Man Called Adam," a film that starred Sammy Davis Jr. But the filmmakers wanted to fire Ossie Davis and he imagined it was because of his leftist leanings, his associations with Malcolm. Sammy Davis Jr. interceded on his behalf, and he kept the job.

A current generation of moviegoers would have seen Davis in films such as "Doctor Dolittle" (1998), "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and "Jungle Fever" (1991). The latter two were directed by Spike Lee.

Last year, Davis returned to Howard University, which he attended, to lecture. Decades before, he had hitchhiked from Georgia to get to the nation's capital, hiding the little money given to him by his parents in his shoes.

This time, "He was one of those grand and moving godfathers of the most vital traditions in theater and literature," said Eleanor W. Traylor, chair of Howard's Department of English and one of Davis's hosts on campus. "And of course that Malcolm speech is just a classic. Ossie was absolutely interested in the most progressive scholarship, activism, and thought of the times."

His long life had introduced Davis to legends. He wrote a foreword to the 1990 edition of a book called "Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the African-American in the Performing Arts," by Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer. Davis's foreword is just two pages, but there's a lovely and melancholic swoon to his words:

"Sitting here remembering, looking at the pictures, reading the words, living my very small part of it all over again, fills me with pride; but also with a certain sadness: Ethel Waters having to steal out of Atlanta under the cover of darkness because she insisted that somebody tune the piano; Roland Hayes, world famous, the first black tenor to appear at Carnegie Hall, beaten in his Georgia hometown for sitting in the wrong seat in the shoestore; Marian Anderson, having to hide her accompanist behind a screen because he was white; Nat King Cole being dragged off the stage in Birmingham, Alabama, his hometown. Yet the beat went on, the music never stopped."

Distinguished Actor's Talents Graced Screen, Political Stage

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer

Ossie Davis, whose uncompromising character was the hallmark of a distinguished career as an actor, playwright and director, and who stood at the vanguard of the nation's civil rights movement for more than five decades, died Friday in his hotel room in Miami Beach, where he was making a movie. He was 87.

Davis's grandson called police when the performer did not respond to a knock at his door at 7 a.m. Police said the cause of death has not been determined, but foul play is not suspected.

Two months ago, Davis and his wife, actress Ruby Dee, were honored at the Kennedy Center for their lifelong contributions to theater, television and film, as well as for being models of courage and grace in the long struggle for equality in the United States. They were recognized for having "thrown open many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of American's multicultural humanity."

Davis, who was best known as an actor, had a deep, lyrical voice redolent of poetry and pain. He also wrote several plays and books, and directed five films in the 1970s, including the seminal "blaxploitation" movie "Cotton Comes to Harlem."

He enjoyed a late blossoming as an actor and as an elder statesman of entertainment and civil rights. In recent years, he appeared on screen in "I'm Not Rappaport" "Grumpy Old Men," "Doctor Dolittle" and "The Client," as well as television shows.

He also acted in six Spike Lee movies, including "School Daze," "Do the Right Thing," "Jungle Fever" and last year's "She Hate Me." For one of Lee's films, "Malcolm X" (1992), Davis reprised the eulogy he wrote and delivered at the funeral of Malcolm X in 1965, in which he called the slain civil rights leader "our own black shining prince."

"He was the light, he was the beacon," Lee said of Davis, noting that he wrote the roles specifically for the actor. "One of the greatest things I got from him and Ruby Dee was that [they] were activists and artists. They did not hide what they believed."

Between his frequent appearances on stage and in film, Davis had prominent roles on the nation's political stages, as well. He participated in marches for racial equality throughout the South and participated in the 1963 March on Washington, at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Five years later, after King was killed by an assassin's bullet, Davis spoke at his funeral.

Despite being blacklisted briefly in the 1950s McCarthyism era, Davis often returned to Washington to speak before congressional committees about the arts or about opportunities for minorities in Hollywood. In 1981, when the Reagan administration proposed a 50 percent cut in the National Endowment for the Humanities budget, Davis registered his disappointment to a House Appropriations subcommittee.

"I am Ossie Davis, actor, writer, director, husband and father," he intoned in his velvet baritone. "And like other working-class people, I was able to pull myself up by my bootstraps -- but only because the federal government provided the boots."

Ossie Davis was born Dec. 18, 1917, in tiny Cogdell, Ga. His given name was meant to be Raiford Chatman Davis, but the registrar of births recorded what were supposed to be the initials, "R.C.," as "Ossie."

He grew up in Waycross, Ga., in a verbal culture in which he heard stories of African American life marked by humor, danger and sorrow. From an early age, Davis knew he wanted to be a writer and to improve the lot of his people.

"I had been profoundly influenced by Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes," he told The Washington Post in December.

After high school, he hitchhiked to Washington to attend Howard University, where he nurtured his growing interest in theater. Davis was present when Anderson gave her celebrated concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939, after she was barred from DAR Constitution Hall.

"One of the high spots of my life," Davis recalled more than a half-century later in an interview with National Public Radio, "was being in that -- I can't call it a crowd -- being in that group of worshipers."

Leaving Howard one year short of graduation, Davis moved to New York to join the Rose McClendon Players, a black theater group in Harlem. He held odd jobs and sometimes slept on park benches while trying to make his way as an actor.

In 1942, he was drafted into the Army. He spent most of World War II as a surgical technician with a medical unit in Liberia. He later wrote and produced shows for soldiers.

Returning to New York in 1946, he had his first starring role, in "Jeb" by Robert Ardrey, about a black veteran who has lost a leg in the war, only to face racial prejudice in the South. The actor met Ruby Dee while working on that play, and the two married in 1948.

In the late 1940s, Davis studied playwriting at Columbia University and began getting increasingly meaty parts in plays. He appeared in his first movie in 1950, "No Way Out," with Dee. In 1955, he had the lead role in a television production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones."

After appearing in "No Time for Sergeants" and in "Jamaica," opposite Lena Horne, Davis took over the lead role from Sidney Poitier in "A Raisin in the Sun" in 1959, with his wife as the female lead.

In 1961, Davis wrote and starred in "Purlie Victorious," a play that satirized both black and white stereotypes of life in the South. He and his wife also starred in the film version in 1963.

Despite critical success, neither Davis nor Dee made the leap to superstardom, possibly because of their unapologetic political stances. They were investigated by the FBI in the 1950s, and in the 1960s they marched with King in the South. Their friends included baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson and Malcolm X.

After Malcolm X was assassinated at a Harlem rally in 1965, Davis wrote and delivered a eulogy at his funeral.

"Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood," he said. "We shall know him . . . for what he was and is -- a prince, our own black shining prince -- who didn't hesitate to die because he loved us so."

Davis often narrated documentaries, beginning in 1965 with public television's "History of the Negro People." He recorded the poetry of Langston Hughes, as well as the New Testament, for a company owned by his family.

In the 1970s, Davis turned his attention to directing, beginning with "Cotton Comes to Harlem" (1970). He directed four other films, including "Countdown at Kusini" (1976), which he also wrote. From 1978 to 2001, he directed nine TV movies, including "Roots: The Next Generations" (1979) and "Don't Look Back: The Story of Leroy 'Satchel' Paige" (1981).

In the past two decades, Davis found himself in demand as an actor and as a respected veteran of the nation's cultural and racial wars. From 1990 to 1994, he appeared regularly on the NBC show "Evening Shade" as Ponder Blue, the philosophical owner of a barbecue shack. He was filming his 35th movie, "Retirement," at the time of his death.

Davis continued to write plays, including a musical version of "The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars" and an adaptation of Mark Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson." He wrote a novel, 1992's "Just Like Martin." In 1998, he published an autobiography with his wife, "With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together."

He lived for many years in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he taught Sunday school at a Baptist church.

Survivors include his wife, who was making a film in New Zealand when her husband died; two daughters; a son; and seven grandchildren.

Davis continued his activism to the end, most recently protesting the war in Iraq.

"We can't float through life," he told NPR radio host Tavis Smiley in November. "We can't be incidental or accidental. We must fix our gaze on a guiding star as soon as one comes upon the horizon, and once we have attached ourselves to that star, we must keep our eyes on it and our hands on the plow."

More information about Ossie Davis

Ossie Davis@Internet Movie Database
The African American Registry
Elvis Mitchell on the Life and Work of Ossie Davis
NRP: Ossie Davis: An Appreciation