Activist, actor Ossie Davis dies at 87

WASHINGTON-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 Tuesday 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.

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 for the funeral of Malcolm X in 1965, in which he called the slain civil rights leader “our own black shining prince.”

Between his frequent appearances on stage and in film, Davis had prominent roles on the nation’s political stages. 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 briefly blacklisted 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 the 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.

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

Leaving Howard one year short of graduation, Davis moved to New York to join the Rose McClendon Players, a black theater group in Harlem.

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 were 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.

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, “Just Like Martin” in 1992. 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 and one 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.”

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.