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Ossie Davis
Davis in 2000
Raiford Chatman Davis

(1917-12-18)December 18, 1917
DiedFebruary 4, 2005(2005-02-04) (aged 87)
  • Actor
  • director
  • poet
  • playwright
  • author
  • activist
Years active1939–2005
(m. 1948)
Children3, including Guy Davis

Raiford Chatman "Ossie" Davis (December 18, 1917 – February 4, 2005) was an American actor, director, writer, and activist.[1][2][3] He was married to Ruby Dee, with whom he frequently performed, until his death.[4] He and his wife were named to the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame; were awarded the National Medal of Arts[5] and were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. He was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1994.

Davis's credits as a film director include Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Black Girl (1972), and Gordon's War (1973). As a screen actor, Davis appeared in such films as Do the Right Thing (1989), Grumpy Old Men (1993), The Client (1994), Dr. Dolittle (1998), and Bubba Ho-Tep (2002).

YouTube Encyclopedic

  • 1/5
    70 788
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    310 003
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  • Unstoppable: Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, and Ossie Davis in Conversation (2005)
  • Ossie Davis on his wife Ruby Dee - EMMYTVLEGENDS.ORG
  • The Negro and the South (1965) | Narrated by Ossie Davis
  • Do the Right Thing (2/10) Movie CLIP - Da Mayor & Mother Sister (1989) HD
  • Ossie Davis on how the blacklist affected him - EMMYTVLEGENDS.ORG


Early life

Raiford Chatman Davis was born in Cogdell, Georgia, the son of Kince Charles Davis, a railway construction engineer, and his wife Laura (née Cooper; July 9, 1898 – June 6, 2004).[6][7] He inadvertently became known as "Ossie" when his birth certificate was being filed and his mother's pronunciation of his name as "R. C. Davis" was misheard by the Clinch County courthouse clerk.[8] Davis experienced racism from an early age when the KKK threatened to shoot his father, whose job they felt was too advanced for a black man to have. His siblings included scientist William Conan Davis, social worker Essie Davis Morgan, pharmacist Kenneth Curtis Davis, and biology teacher James Davis.[9]

Following the wishes of his parents, he attended Howard University but dropped out in 1939 to fulfill his desire for an acting career in New York after a recommendation by Alain Locke; he later attended Columbia University School of General Studies. His acting career began in 1939 with the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem. During World War II, Davis served in the United States Army in the Medical Corps. He made his film debut in 1950 in the Sidney Poitier film No Way Out.


Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1951

When Davis wanted to pursue a career in acting, he ran into the usual roadblocks that black people suffered at that time as they generally could only portray stereotypical characters such as Stepin Fetchit. Instead, he tried to follow the example of Sidney Poitier and play more distinguished characters. When he found it necessary to play a Pullman porter or a butler, he played those characters realistically, not as a caricature.

In addition to acting, Davis, along with Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks, was one of the notable black directors of his generation: he directed movies such as Gordon's War, Black Girl and Cotton Comes to Harlem. Along with Bill Cosby and Poitier, Davis was one of a handful of black actors able to find commercial success while avoiding stereotypical roles prior to 1970, which also included a significant role in the 1965 movie The Hill alongside Sean Connery plus roles in The Cardinal and The Scalphunters. Davis starred with Cosby and Poitier in the 1975 film Let's Do It Again. Davis, however, never had the tremendous commercial or critical success that either of them enjoyed. As a playwright, Davis wrote Paul Robeson: All-American, which is frequently performed in theatre programs for young audiences.

In 1976, Davis appeared on Muhammad Ali's novelty album for children, The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay.[10]

Ossie Davis at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.

Davis found recognition late in his life by working in several of director Spike Lee's films, including School Daze, Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, She Hate Me and Get on the Bus. For the final moments of Malcolm X, Davis, in voiceover, recited the actual eulogy that he wrote and delivered at Malcolm's funeral 27 years earlier. He also found work as a commercial voice-over artist and served as the narrator of the early-1990s CBS sitcom Evening Shade, starring Burt Reynolds, where he also played one of the residents of a small southern town. Davis and Reynolds had also worked together on Reynolds' previous TV series, B.L. Stryker (1989-1990), aired as part of the ABC Mystery Movie series.

Davis also appeared in several popular 1990s films, including Grumpy Old Men, The Client and Dr. Dolittle. In 1999, he appeared as a theater caretaker in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra film The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, which was released on DVD two years later.

For many years, he hosted the annual National Memorial Day Concert from Washington, D.C.

He voiced Anansi the spider on the PBS children's television series Sesame Street in its animation segments. He also narrated the HBO Storybook Musicals adaptation of The Red Shoes aired on February 7, 1990. In 2000, he voiced the role of Yar in Disney's live-action animated film Dinosaur.

Davis's last role was a several episode guest role on the Showtime drama series The L Word, as a father struggling with the acceptance of his daughter Bette (Jennifer Beals) parenting a child with her lesbian partner. In his final episodes, his character took ill and died. His wife Ruby Dee was present during the filming of his own death scene. That episode, which aired shortly after Davis's own death, aired with a dedication to the actor.[11] After Davis's death, actor Dennis Haysbert portrayed him in the 2015 film Experimenter.


In 1989, Ossie Davis and his wife, actress/activist Ruby Dee, were named to the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame. In 1995, they were awarded the National Medal of Arts, the nation's highest honor conferred to an individual artist on behalf of the country and presented in a White House ceremony by the President of the United States.[5] In 2004, they were recipients of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors.[12] According to the Kennedy Center Honors:

"The Honors recipients recognized for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts— whether in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television — are selected by the Center's Board of Trustees. The primary criterion in the selection process is excellence. The Honors are not designated by art form or category of artistic achievement; the selection process, over the years, has produced balance among the various arts and artistic disciplines."[13]

In 1994, Davis was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.[14]


Davis with activist and opera star Stacey Robinson (left) in 1998

Davis and Dee were well known as civil rights activists during the Civil Rights Movement and were close friends of Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. and other icons of the era. They were involved in organizing the 1963 civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and served as its emcees. Davis, alongside Ahmed Osman, delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X.[15] He re-read part of this eulogy at the end of Spike Lee's film Malcolm X. He also delivered a stirring tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, at a memorial in New York's Central Park the day after King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

Personal life

Davis and Dee

In 1948, Davis married actress Ruby Dee, whom he had met on the set of Robert Ardrey's 1946 play Jeb. In their joint autobiography With Ossie and Ruby, they described their decision to have an open marriage, later changing their minds.[16] In the mid-1960s they moved to the New York suburb of New Rochelle, where they remained ever after.[17][18] Their son Guy Davis is a blues musician and former actor, who appeared in the film Beat Street (1984) and the daytime soap opera One Life to Live. Their daughters are Nora Davis Day and Hasna Muhammad.


Davis was found dead in a Miami Beach hotel room on February 4, 2005. He was 87 years old. An official cause of death was not released, but he was known to have had heart problems.[19] His ashes were interred at Ferncliff Cemetery.

Davis's funeral was held in New York City on February 12, 2005. The line to enter The Riverside Church, located on the edge of Harlem, stretched for several blocks, with a thousand or more members of the public unable to attend as the church filled to its 2,100 capacity.[20] Speakers included Davis's children and grandchildren, as well as Alan Alda, Burt Reynolds, Amiri Baraka, Avery Brooks, Angela Bassett, Spike Lee, Attallah Shabazz, Tavis Smiley, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, Harry Belafonte, and former president Bill Clinton, among many others.[21] Wynton Marsalis performed a musical tribute. Burt Reynolds, who early in his career had worked with Davis, said "Ossie Davis took the bad parts of the South out of me.... I know what a man is because of Ossie Davis." Ms. Shabazz, oldest daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, spoke lovingly of the man she and her five sisters called Uncle Ossie, saying he had provided exceptional support to her and her sisters after her father's assassination. Bill Clinton arrived midway through the service, and said from the pulpit "I asked to be seated in the back. I would proudly ride on the back of Ossie Davis's bus any day," adding that Davis "would have made a great president."[22]

Delivering the eulogy, Harry Belafonte said: Ossie Davis "embraced the greatest forces of our times. Paul Robeson, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Eleanor Roosevelt, A. Philip Randolph, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and so many, many more. At the time of one of our most anxious and conflicted moments, when 'Our America' was torn apart by seething issues of race, Ossie paused, at the tomb of one of our noblest warriors, and in the eulogy he delivered, insured that history would clearly understand the voice of Black people, and what Malcolm X meant to us in the African-American struggle for freedom.... 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. But how fortunate we were to have him as long as we did."[23]




Video game




  • Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1: (Folkways Records, 1966)
  • Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 2: (Folkways, 1966)
  • Frederick Douglass' The Meaning of July 4 for the Negro: (Folkways, 1975)
  • Frederick Douglass' Speeches inc. The Dred Scott Decision: (Folkways, 1976)


  • Davis, Ossie (1961). Purlie Victorious. New York: Samuel French Inc. Plays. ISBN 978-0-573-61435-4.
  • Davis, Ossie (1977). Escape to Freedom: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass. New York: Samuel French. ISBN 978-0-573-65031-4.
  • Davis, Ossie (1982). Langston. New York: Delacorte Press. ISBN 978-0-440-04634-9.
  • Davis, Ossie; Dee, Ruby (1984). Why Mosquitos Buzz in People's Ears (Audio). Caedmon. ISBN 978-0-694-51187-7.
  • Davis, Ossie (1992). Just Like Martin. New York: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing. ISBN 978-0-671-73202-8.
  • Davis, Ossie; Dee, Ruby (1998). With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. New York: William Morrow. ISBN 978-0-688-15396-0.
  • Davis, Ossie (2006). Dee, Ruby (ed.). Life Lit by Some Large Vision: Selected Speeches and Writings. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-416-52549-3.


  1. ^ Ossie Davis – Awards IMDb. 2012. Retrieved March 17, 2012
  2. ^ Ossie Davis Television Credits Archived April 23, 2012, at the Wayback Machine Official Website of Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee. 2012. Retrieved March 17, 2012
  3. ^ Books Archived April 23, 2012, at the Wayback Machine Official Website oOssie Davis & Ruby Dee. 2012. Retrieved March 17, 2012
  4. ^ Dagan, Carmel Oscar-Nominated Actress Ruby Dee Dies at 91. Variety. June 12, 2014. Retrieved March 30, 2016
  5. ^ a b Lifetime Honors – National Medal of Arts Archived 2013-08-26 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ "Ossie Davis Biography". filmreference. 2008. Retrieved January 22, 2009.
  7. ^ "Davis, Laura Cooper". The Journal News. White Plains, New York. June 9, 2004. Archived from the original on January 30, 2013.
  8. ^ "Ossie Davis Biography". IMDb. 2008. Retrieved January 11, 2007.
  9. ^ Davis, William C. (February 1, 2013). "The HistoryMakers® Video Oral History Interview with William Davis" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on December 13, 2017.
  10. ^ Heller, Jason (June 6, 2016). "Remembering Muhammad Ali's Trippy, Anti-Cavity Kids' Record". Rolling Stone. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  11. ^ Severo, Richard; Martin, Douglas (February 5, 2005). "Ossie Davis, Actor, Writer and Eloquent Champion of Racial Justice, Dies at 87". The New York Times. Retrieved February 6, 2007.
  12. ^ Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Archived March 25, 2012, at the Wayback Machine Kennedy Center Honors. September 2004. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
  13. ^ 34th Annual Kennedy Center Honors Kennedy Center Honors. 2011. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
  14. ^ "Ossie Davis". The History Makers.
  15. ^ Davis, Ossie (February 27, 1965). "Malcolm X's Eulogy". The Official Website of Malcolm X. Archived from the original on October 6, 2014. Retrieved September 6, 2009.
  16. ^ Sheri Stritof; Bob Stritof. "Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee on Open Marriage". Archived from the original on February 10, 2007. Retrieved January 11, 2007.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  17. ^ Greene, Donna. "Q&A/Ossie Davis; Involved in a Community Beyond Theater", The New York Times, October 25, 1998.
  18. ^ "Lincoln Avenue Corridor NEW ROCHELLE, NEW YORK". The Cultural Landscape Foundation. Retrieved December 27, 2021.
  19. ^ "Ossie Davis found dead in Miami hotel room". Today. Associated Press. February 9, 2005.
  20. ^ "Celebs Say Goodbye to Ossie Davis in Harlem". Fox News. Associated Press. January 13, 2015.
  21. ^ "<Remembering Ossie Davis 1917-2005: Maya Angelou, Harry Belafonte, Bill Clinton Pay Tribute to the Famed Actor & Civil Rights Activist". Democracy Now!. February 14, 2005.
  22. ^ Kilgannon, Corey (February 13, 2005). "Thousands Bid Farewell to Ossie Davis". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved January 20, 2023.
  23. ^ "Ossie Davis: He belonged to all of us". The Final Call. February 17, 2005.
  24. ^ Black shadows on a silver screen. July 11, 1975. OCLC 4186675 – via Open WorldCat.
  25. ^ "Benjamin Banneker: The Man Who Loved the Stars". Baltimore, Maryland: Enoch Pratt Free Library. Archived from the original on September 24, 2015. Retrieved September 21, 2012.
  26. ^ Erikson, Hal (2016). "Review Summary: Benjamin Banneker: The Man Who Loved the Stars (1989)". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Archived from the original on March 25, 2016. Retrieved September 21, 2012.

External links

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