Ossie Davis (born 1917) was a leading African American playwright, actor, director, and television and movie star.
Ossie Davis was born in Cogdell, Ga., on Dec. 18, 1917. He grew up in Waycross. At Howard University in Washington, D.C., he was encouraged to pursue an acting career. He joined an acting group in Harlem in New York City and took part in the American Negro Theater, founded there in 1940.
Davis made his debut in the play Joy Exceeding Glory (1941). During Army service in World War II he wrote and produced shows. While playing his first Broadway role in Jeb (1946), he met actress Ruby Dee, and they were married two years later.
Davis's first movie role was in No Way Out (1950). This was followed by Broadway performances in No Time for Sergeants, Raisin in the Sun, and Jamaica. Other movie roles included The Cardinal, Shock Treatment, Slaves, and, in 1989, Do the Right Thing. An important achievement was his pioneer work as an African American actor in television, appearing in dramas and on such regular series as The Defenders and The Nurses. He also wrote television scripts.
Equally talented, Davis and Ruby Dee played together many times on the stage, in television, cabaret, and movies. They starred in Davis's own play Purlie Victorious (1961) and in the movie based on it, Gone Are the Days. Purlie Victorious was published and also reprinted in anthologies. Davis coauthored the musical version of this hilarious satire, Purlie (1970), which enjoyed great success during its Broadway run.
In the late 1960s Davis pioneered in Hollywood as a African American film director with Cotton Comes to Harlem, among other films. With Ruby Dee he appeared on stage and television, reading the poetry of famous African Americans, and he made recordings of African American literature. Perhaps one of his most memorable endeavors was his eulogy on Malcolm X in 1965, when he called the slain leader "Our Shining Black Prince." Davis frequently lectured and read at universities and schools.
Davis's published essays include "The Wonderful World of Law and Order," "The Flight from Broadway," and "Plays of Insight Are Needed to Make the Stage Vital in Our Lives." He also wrote the play Last Dance for Sybil and the musical adaptation of Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson.
In his eighth decade, Davis remained very active, mostly in television, with a three-year run on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) program With Ossie and Ruby as well as the popular series Evening Shade. He also helped to usher in a new generation of African American film directors, spearheaded by Spike Lee. Davis even performed in three of Lee's films. As an author, fiction has proven to be fertile ground for Davis; his novel Just Like Martin, a paean to the civil rights movement, was published in 1992.
Davis had a deep love for his people and his heritage. He was an example of African American identity and pride, and he devoted much time and talent to the civil rights movement in America. He received a number of awards, including the Mississippi Democratic Party Citation, the Howard University Alumni Achievement Award in dramatics, and the Frederick A. Douglass Award (with Ruby Dee) from the New York Urban League. The Davises had three children and made their home in New Rochelle, New York.
Further Reading on Ossie Davis
Lindsay Patterson, ed., Anthology of the American Negro in the Theatre: A Critical Approach (2nd edition, 1968), includes a short article by Davis. Other works which discuss him are Harry A. Ploski and Roscoe C. Brown, Jr., The Negro Almanac (1967); Mitchell Loften, Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theatre (1967); and Doris E. Abramson, Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925-1959 (1969).
Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Film and Television, Garland (New York), 1988.
American Visions, April/May, 1992.