Ruby Dee, an actress and civil-rights activist whose work on stage and off culminated in her 2008 Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress in “American Gangster,” has died. She was 91.
She died yesterday at her home in New Rochelle, New York, according to her daughter, Hasna Muhammad.
Dee made her acting career and her interest in civil rights a parallel pursuit. She played the wife of baseball’s pioneering black star in “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950) and co-starred in the play and movie versions of “A Raisin in the Sun,” the Lorraine Hansberry play about the hardships of an African-American family in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.
In 1965, she became the first black woman to play leading roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, performing as Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew” and Cordelia in “King Lear.”
With her husband, actor Ossie Davis, Dee campaigned for racial equality. The couple founded the Association of Artists for Freedom, marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and served as goodwill ambassadors to Lagos, Nigeria. They were inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1989.
“We need to make the changes, do the revolutions and make things right that will make it easier for our children and grandchildren,” Dee said, according to 1998 New York Times article.
Dee and Davis, who died in 2005, had one of Hollywood’s most durable relationships. They had three children and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998 by publishing a joint autobiography, “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.”
“That we arrived at 50 years together is due as much to luck as to love, and a talent for knowing, when we stumble, where we fall, and how to get up again,” they wrote.
The couple accepted a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2000.
A documentary about them, “Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee,” made by their grandson, Muta’Ali Muhammad, will premiere on June 22 in New York City as part of Film Life’s 18th annual American Black Film Festival.
Dee was born Ruby Ann Wallace on Oct. 27, 1922, in Cleveland, the daughter of Gladys Hightower and Marshall Edward, a Pennsylvania Railroad waiter. She was 1 when her mother deserted her and her three siblings. Their father remarried schoolteacher Emma Benson and moved the family to New York’s Harlem.
She spent her childhood playing the piano and violin, reading literature and writing poetry with her sister, Angelina. Encouraged by her father and stepmother to embrace the rich creativity that characterized the cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, Dee graduated from Hunter High School and Hunter College, earning degrees in French and Spanish in 1945.
Dee acted in small-scale productions during college, including “South Pacific,” then took on greater roles at the American Negro Theater in Harlem, now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
She debuted on the Broadway stage in “Jeb” (1946), playing the lead female role in a drama about racial intolerance. There she met Davis, who played the male lead. They would marry in 1948 in Jersey City, New Jersey, on a day off from rehearsal for another play.
Also in 1946 Dee made her movie debut in “Love in Syncopation.”
Dee had the unusual experience of acting alongside Jackie Robinson, who played himself in the 1950 movie about how he broke baseball’s color barrier. Dee, portraying Rae Robinson, “is well restrained as his sweetheart,” New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote.
The original cast of “A Raisin in the Sun” (1959), drawn from Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” included Dee, Sidney Poitier, Louis Gossett Jr. and John Fiedler. The play ran for 530 performances on Broadway. The four actors also appeared in the movie version two years later.
In 1967, Dee was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a lumpectomy. “Pins. Needles, people talking, asking questions,” she recalled in the autobiography. “Count backward? I know that routine. I will not go under, get knocked out, surrender to oblivion.”
Dee won Obie and Drama Desk awards in 1971 for her role in “Boesman and Lena,” a play about apartheid in South Africa. She won another Drama Desk Award in 1973 for her performance in “Wedding Band,” the Alice Childress play about the consequences of an interracial affair.
Dee and Davis worked together in two Spike Lee productions, “Do the Right Thing” (1989) and “Jungle Fever” (1991), which introduced them to a younger generation.
Dee received an Emmy Award for supporting actress for her part as a loyal, blunt housekeeper to a retired judge (played by James Garner) in the television movie “Decoration Day” (1990). Also in 1990 she honored black folklorist Zora Neale Hurston in a one-woman television show, “Zora is My Name.”
She earned her Academy Award nomination in “American Gangster” (2007) as the mother of Frank Lucas, a drug kingpin in 1960s Harlem, played by Denzel Washington. In a performance as forceful as it is brief -- only about five minutes of screen time throughout the film -- Dee eventually confronts her son about his criminal enterprise.
“I understand women like Mama Lucas,” she told Newsweek in 2008. “I knew these women, and as a mother I can empathize with the dread a woman would feel knowing her child has turned out this way.”
Dee’s Academy Award loss, to Tilda Swinton, who won for her role in “Michael Clayton,” kept her from becoming, at 83, the oldest actor to win an Oscar.
Survivors also include two other children, Nora Davis Day and Guy Davis, and seven grandchildren.
(An earlier version of this story corrected the title of the movie “Decoration Day.”)