The great stage and screen actress and civil rights activist Ruby Dee passed away on Wednesday at her home at age 91, surrounded by her children in what seems to have been a natural and peaceful death--a most appropriate final act for this graceful, authentic, gifted actress and selfless human being. Her impressive career began on the stage in the early 1940s. She made her first film, That Man of Mine in 1946 and continued acting in movies, television, and theater right through this year. She won early acclaim in the groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun along side Sidney Poitier. In the sixties she became known for her roles in politically charged films like Gone Are the Days (1963) and The Incident (1967). She was a regular on television from the 1960s series Peyton Place (in which she appeared in 20 episodes), to the 1979 miniseries Roots: The Next Generations (in which she played Alex Haley’s grandmother Queen Haley), to the 1994 miniseries of Stephen King's epic novel The Stand. All in all she was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, winning once for her role in the TV film Decoration Day (1990). Later in life she appeared in Spike Lee’s iconic pictures Do The Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991), and she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the age of 83 for her role in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007). In addition to her Emmy, she was the recipient of Grammy, Obie, Drama Desk, and Screen Actors Guild Awards, and was given the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors.
She met her husband of 56 years, the late great Ossie Davis, while they were auditioning for the play Jeb, and the two shared their lives together from that year forward--even co-authoring their joint biography in 1998. Ruby and Ossie’s love story is a rare successful one in show biz marriages. They got married in 1948 during a day off from rehearsal for a Broadway show called The Smile of the World, in which Ossie was playing a manservant and Ruby was playing a maid. They hopped a bus to New Jersey, because at that time there was a three-day waiting period to get a marriage license in New York. They grabbed two witnesses, found a Baptist preacher, had a very simple ceremony, and then zipped right back over the bridge to resume work on the play the next day. They co-starred in 11 stage productions and 5 movies, and were very much a team when it came to their political activism, working tirelessly together on a variety of civil rights and social justice causes. However, most of their greatest professional successes were in projects where they did not work together. They had an open and enlightened attitude about love, sex, marriage, and fidelity, and their union was strong enough to weather the up-and-down lifestyle of working actors, and, even more impressively, the hot and cold culture of movie stars.
I had the honor of working with Ruby Dee in 1998 when she narrated my film, A Time To Dance, a documentary feature that tells the life story of dance therapy pioneer Norma Canner. I made that film with my creative partner Webb Wilcoxen, my mother Anne Brownell, and producer Judith Quain, and when the four of us realized we were going to need a narrator, the selection of that voice was easy. Norma had been a successful young New York actress in the '40s, and we wanted a famous narrator who had gotten her start in the same place and time, but had not given up the theater to start a family and begin an entirely new career, as Norma had. Each of us involved in A Time To Dance set about creating a catalog of ideal narrators and it turned out we all made the identical list with only two names on it: Anne Bancroft and Ruby Dee. We sent letters out to both actresses and got a response from Ruby’s people right away. We were told she always needed to read a script before signing on to anything, and so we sent the current transcription of our constantly changing documentary with the drafts of narration we were all struggling to write. Ruby, who apparently read our script in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, got back to us right away saying she would love to do it.
I will never forget the day we spent with her. Webb and I picked her up at her home in New Rochelle. We had never even spoken with her on the phone, and she kept us waiting outside her house for a long time. We began to get worried--had it all happened too easily, was Ruby Dee really going to get into our car with us, drive to the city and be the voice of our film? When she finally did come out she seemed scattered, her voice was hoarse, and she wasn’t talking in complete sentences. Our concern then shifted to her state of mind--we weren’t actually sure how old she was at the time. She clearly had a staff of people working for her and Ossie out of their large home, but she brought no assistant or manager with her. The drive to the recording studio was surreal and even a bit farcical. Here she was, jumping into a car with two 25-year-old guys she’d never met, and giving us conflicting directions as to the best way into the city.
But when we got down to the actual recording session, everything changed. Ruby simply cleared her throat and suddenly her calm, powerful, sonorous voice of wisdom and authority was there in the room with us. We laid down all of her narration over the next few hours and then had a wonderful drive back to New Rochelle, laughing, chatting, and listening to stories of her life. She and Ossie had just finished their autobiography, which they had wanted to call, Ruby and Ossie in a Dirty Two-Shot, but the publisher was insisting they go with the more dignified (but generic) With Ruby and Ossie: In This Life Together, and she was bubbling over with tales both from it and about the writing of it. I only got to spend one brief day in the extraordinary life of this talented trailblazer and kindhearted woman, but I will always cherish that memory.
Tonight, in honor of Ruby Dee’s passing. I will be screening perhaps her most famous film, A Raisin in the Sun.
IN THE SUN (1961) 128 min
director: Daniel Petrie, Writer: Lorraine Hansberry, Producers: Philip Rose & David Susskind
with Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Roy Glenn, and Louis Gossett
Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed A Raisin in the Sun, the story of a young black family struggling to live, thrive, and survive in Chicago, was the first play by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. The landmark production was considered a long shot for success in 1959, because of its all-black cast, and its complex issues of identity, gender politics, and generational attitudes in working-class African American families. But rather than alienate the almost entirely white Broadway audience of the time, A Raisin in the Sun was a major hit with theatergoers and one of the first shows to draw a significant black audience to Broadway. It has since been revived and adapted many times over and inspired countless other socially conscious dramas. Frank Rich of the New York Times said it, “changed American theater forever.”
When Ruby Dee was first sent the script by director Lloyd Richards (the first black director of a drama on Broadway) she assumed he had her in mind for the role of Beneatha, the ambitious little sister of the main character Walter Lee. Her heart sank when Richards explained he wanted her to play Ruth, Walter Lee’s wife. She felt she had been playing this same role for her entire career, often opposite the very actor who would play Lee, Sidney Poitier. Dee had played Poitier’s stoic, long-suffering wife in two films, Go, Man, Go (1954) and Edge of the City (1957), as she had played Ossie’s wife in No Way Out (1950), Jackie Robinson’s wife in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), and Nat Cole’s betrothed in The St. Louis Blues (1958). She longed for a new challenge and the role of Beneatha, a modern, flashy, rebellious girl, clearly based on the play’s young author, would have been a fresh and exciting challenge. But Richards explained that he needed “a special kind of actress” to make the role of Ruth work. Indeed, Ruth is the least showy but most difficult role in the play. Almost all her emotions remain bottled up inside her, and she’s the only character who doesn’t get to express herself through one of Hansberry’s passionate, argumentative exchanges of dialogue. But Ruth is the character who links all the other parts together, and Dee’s understated quality is ideally suited to the role.
When the film
version was made in 1961, producers Philip Rose and David Susskind cast the original
stars of the Broadway production-- Poitier, Dee, and Claudia McNeil (who plays
the family matriarch)--to reprise their roles. The movie adaptation by Hansberry,
who wrote the screenplay, and director Daniel Petrie (Sybil, Fort
Apache the Bronx) sticks close to the play, resulting in a film that comes
off as a bit theatrical and claustrophobic, despite the fine black and white
compositions of the photography. Much of the humor that plays so well in live
productions is lacking in the more earnest film version. But while these sober and stage-bound
qualities date the picture a little bit, they also give a wonderful sense of
what it must have been like to see the young Poitier and Dee in the live show.
These early screen performances by all the actors still resonate today, as do
the important themes about the dangers of dreams deferred that this powerful
play expresses so richly.
Ruby Dee (center) with Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, and Diana Sands
in the film of A Raison in the Sun (1961)
Ruby Dee (center) with me and co-director Webb Wilcoxen at the recoding session for
A Time To Dance, The Life and Work of Norma Canner (1998)