- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

United and apart, actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee have, for more than half a century, been true to their craft and their convictions, remaining firmly anchored in the ever-changing (and often turbulent) sea of American entertainment.

Born Ruby Ann Wallace in 1924, the Emmy-winning Miss Dee is a Cleveland native and Hunter College graduate. She made her Broadway debut with a walk-on role in the musical “South Pacific.” She starred as the original Ruth Younger in the groundbreaking play “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway in 1959. Two years later, she reprised the role in the film adaptation of the Lorraine Hansberry drama — again starring with fellow members of the original theatrical cast, including Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon and Louis Gossett Jr.

Ever the Southern gentleman, Mr. Davis was born Raiford Chatman Davis in Cogdell, Ga. After graduating from Howard University, he joined the Army in World War II, serving from 1942 to 1945. After the war, he established himself in New York City.

Along with acting, Mr. Davis has written and directed works for both stage and screen. His play “Purlie Victorious” was adapted for the screen as “Gone Are the Days!” in 1963. Mr. Davis penned the screenplay for the film, in which he co-starred with Miss Dee. He also authored the book when “Purlie Victorious” resurfaced as the Tony-winning musical “Purlie” in 1970.

Miss Dee and Mr. Davis — who met during a play that ran for only nine performances — wed on Dec. 9, 1948.

In their choice of roles over the years, both actors have strived to depict positive images, often playing sturdy, salt-of-the-earth figures with solid values.

Miss Dee was the loyal Rachel Robinson in 1950’s “The Jackie Robinson Story” (one of her early big-screen roles); the feisty Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany in CBS’ televised adaptation of “Having Our Say” (1995) and a blind sharecropper in the touching “Tuesday Morning Ride,” an Oscar-nominated short about two terminally ill seniors who embark on a final journey. In the upcoming “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (adapted from the novel by Zora Neale Hurston), she plays Nanny, the ambitious family matriarch.

Mr. Davis was the Good Reverend Doctor Purify, the protective patriarch whose love of family leads to murder in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” (1991). In Showtime’s “Deacons for Defense,” he was a proud activist. He’s been routinely cast as a jurist (most recently as Judge Buchanan in Mr. Lee’s “She Hate Me”) and as a gentle philosopher — from Ponder Blue on “Evening Shade” to the homeless and ill-fated Jeremiah in Mr. Lee’s “Get on the Bus.”

There have been numerous joint appearances for the two as well, including co-starring roles in two Lee projects (the aforementioned “Jungle Fever” and the Oscar-nominated “Do the Right Thing”). The duo also hosted “Ossie and Ruby!” — their award-winning PBS series in the early 1980s — and chronicled their story in “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together,” a best-selling memoir published four years ago.

Their most important and enduring partnership, of course, has been their nearly six-decade marriage. The rarity of such a stable union in a profession rife with divorce prompts Mr. Davis to comment on the nation’s so-called cultural divide.

“I don’t think it’s that much of a divide, but it’s not a fabrication,” he says. “In our haste to adjust to the fast-paced spirit of our society, we often neglect the natural order of things.”

In his nearly 87 years, the actor has been on familiar terms with the tumultuous social changes of a century in which the tempo of history itself seemed to accelerate: an early era of movies by black filmmakers that all but disappeared after World War II; the Hollywood blacklist of the early 1950s, which snuffed out the careers of dozens of artists (including his longtime friend, the multitalented Paul Robeson); and the scourge of segregation, the emergence of integration and a shocking wave of political assassinations.

Mr. Davis and Miss Dee served as masters of ceremony for the 1963 March on Washington. Two years later, he delivered the eulogy for Malcolm X, the charismatic and polarizing firebrand who was gunned down while speaking at a Harlem ballroom in 1965.

“Every so often, we need to remind one another from whence and where we came,” Miss Dee says.

The recent brouhaha over ABC’s “Monday Night Football” promotional tease featuring “Desperate Housewives” star Nicolette Sheridan disrobing before Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens reminds Mr. Davis, he says, of a time in the nation’s not-so-distant past when such a stunt involving a black man and a white woman would have been unthinkable — and possibly dangerous.

“I remember the time when Harry Belafonte was performing onstage with [pop singer] Petula Clark,” recalls Mr. Davis, referring to a 1968 TV special that sparked controversy when sponsors requested that the spot be cut to appease NBC’s Southern affiliates. “They barely touched, and some people had a fit.” Ultimately, the network aired the program in its entirety.

“We have to rescue each other,” Mr. Davis says in his commanding yet mellow voice during a phone interview from his home in New Rochelle, N.Y. “One of the things I have admired about Ruby and Ossie over the years is that we have always been fortunate enough to embrace family values.” (The couple has three children.)

That, he says, along with the couple’s determination to depict positive images, has kept them focused.

“One of the reasons we found a way to survive when we said ‘no’ to the business is … we found a way to service the needs of our community,” Miss Dee adds. “That community [in turn] found a way to provide us with an income. We weren’t rich, but [the black community] didn’t let us starve. We went to college campuses and spoke at churches. We always had something to fall back on.”

She proposes a simple remedy for the cultural divisions in our national life. “We need an infusion of values, and we need to get together, not just in the United States, but with the family of the world,” she explains, waxing philosophical. “It’s too late to segregate ourselves as black or white.”

Things have changed, she acknowledges. But racism survives in new guises, says Miss Dee, who starred as Amanda in Arena Stage’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” during its 1989-90 season. “It’s subtle now, but it’s still there.”

And some changes, however well-intended, haven’t always been for the best, she observes. “Our [black] film community was taken from us,” says Miss Dee, citing directors Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams (best known to audiences as Andy on the controversial sitcom “Amos ‘n’ Andy”) and matinee idol Herb Jeffries. “When we were doing it ourselves; we set our own table. With inclusion, we got the scraps.”

Still, Miss Dee surveys the contemporary scene with hope, even if it’s a hope tinged with past disillusionment. “What’s so sad is that in this country, we have the capacity to turn everything around,” she says.

Her soul mate agrees.

“We’re filled with enthusiasm and optimism,” Mr. Davis says. “We’re going through a period of cultural confusion. Once we can focus, we’ll find a diagnosis of what’s wrong. I just think of the American spirit. I’m not prepared to give up on this nation.”

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