Ruby Dee, an actress who defied segregation-era stereotypes by landing lead roles in movies and on Broadway while maintaining a second high-profile career as a civil rights advocate, died Wednesday at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 91.
In a career spanning seven decades, Dee was known for a quietly commanding presence opposite powerful leading men, including Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and James Earl Jones.
As a young woman she won acclaim as a chauffeur’s steadfast wife in the Broadway and film versions of “A Raisin in the Sun,” starring Poitier, and then earned an Academy Award nomination in 2007 for her supporting role as the mother of a drug kingpin played by Washington in “American Gangster.”
Dee’s marriage to actor and playwright Ossie Davis was widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s most enduring and romantic, lasting 56 years, until his death in 2005. The couple’s careers were deeply intertwined as they co-starred in films such as 1989’s “Do the Right Thing” and 1991’s “Jungle Fever,” both directed by Spike Lee; and collaborated on the comedic play “Purlie Victorious,” which Davis wrote and in which Dee starred on Broadway in 1961.
When Dee and Davis received Kennedy Center Honors in 2004, it was said that they opened “many a door previously shut tight to African-American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America’s multicultural humanity.”
Dee and Davis stood by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington, at which King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Throughout the decades the actors spoke out against lynching, protested apartheid in South Africa and pressured white-owned banks to give business loans to blacks in Harlem.
Dee had long advocated for racial equality in the performing arts, telling a reporter in 1970: “I’m sick of being offered scripts about hookers or goody-good nurses! Black women fall in love and have adventures and secrets and are just as driven and gutsy as a lot of white ladies in middle America.”
She and her husband took up other social causes, too, rallying against the Vietnam War and defending Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Americans who were executed in 1953 after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage.
Although Dee is best known for her work on the stage and the big screen, she had many roles on television as well. She won an Emmy Award in 1991 for her portrayal of a housekeeper in the made-for-television movie “Decoration Day,” a story about race relations in the South. And she was a five-time Emmy nominee for roles in miniseries and guest spots on regular programs.
Dee shared many awards with Davis for their joint achievements, including the 1995 National Medal of Arts. They were inducted into the NAACP Hall of Fame in 1989.
Ruby Ann Wallace was born in Cleveland on Oct. 27, 1922. Dee’s father, a porter and waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and her mother, a teacher, moved the family to Harlem when Ruby was young.
“Painfully shy” as a youth, she remembered a day at school when she read aloud a passage from a play to her classmates and they broke into applause. She said the reaction spurred her acting career.
She joined the American Negro Theatre, a group that met in the basement of the New York Public Library and whose members included Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Hilda Simms.
In 1941, she married Frankie Dee Brown and began using his middle name as a stage name. They were divorced in 1945.
In 1946, Dee landed a key role in “Jeb,” a short-lived Broadway play about a black soldier trying to make a new life for himself in the American South after being critically wounded in battle. While working on “Jeb,” she met Davis, who was playing the title role.
Davis and Dee married in 1948 in between rehearsals for another play. Survivors include their three children; and seven grandchildren.
Dee transitioned to acting in films including “The Jackie Robinson Story” in 1950, in which she played the legendary athlete’s wife. Robinson played himself.
Dee won a Grammy Award in 2007 for best spoken word album for “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.”
She said she planned to have her ashes placed in the same urn as her husband’s, with an inscription written by Davis: “In this thing together.”
In 2008, Dee described the epitaph to Jet magazine: “If I leave any thought behind, it is that. We were in this thing together, so let’s love each other right now. Let’s make sense of things right now. Let’s make it count somehow right now, because we are in this thing together.”