Ruby Dee was an American actress, screenwriter, poet, playwright and civil rights activist who had an illustrious career spanning more than 50 years. She was born on October 27, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio. She grew up in Harlem, New York and began acting as a teenager. She attended Hunter College and studied acting at the American Negro Theatre. Her first major role was the lead in a Broadway production titled “Anna Lucasta” in 1946. That same year she met her future husband Ossie Davis while working on the play “Jeb”. They were married in 1948 and had three children together.
In 1950 she played the wife of the baseball superstar Jackie Robinson in the movie “The Jackie Robinson Story”. One of her greatest performances was the lead role in the 1959 Broadway play “A Raisin in the Sun” by the famous playwright Lorraine Hansberry. She played the role of Ruth Younger who struggles to keep her family together whereas the role of Jackie Robinson was played by the acclaimed actor Sidney Poitier. She also acted in the film version of the play that was made 2 years later. She again starred with Poitier in the 1957 American drama film “Edge of the City”.
Dee and her husband Davis co-starred in the play “Purlie Victorious” which was written by Davis and later adapted to the big screen in 1963 in which the couple revived their roles. She had her own television show with her husband titled “With Ossie & Ruby”. In 1965, she performed in lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival, playing the role of Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew” and Cordelia in “King Lear”. She was the first black actress to play lead roles in the festival. She also undertook politically charged roles in the films “Gone Are the Days” and “The Incident”.
Both Dee and Davis were Civil Rights Activists. Dee was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The couple were friends with Civil Rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In 1968, she co-wrote the film “Up Tight!” and also starred in it. She appeared in 20 episodes of the television soap opera “Peyton Place”.
In 1970, she starred in the play “Boesman and Lena” for which she received Drama Desk and Obie awards and in 1979 she received an Emmy Award nomination for playing a leading role in “Roots: The Next Generation”. She also wrote and starred in the musical “Take It From The Top!” which was directed by her husband and the music was composed by her son Guy. She portrayed the character of the acclaimed author and poet Zora Neale Hurston in the drama “Zora is My Name” in the 1980s. Both she and Davis worked with the acclaimed director Spike Lee on his 1989 film “Do the Right Thing”. In 1991, she won an Emmy Award for the movie “Decoration Day”. They published a joint autobiography titled “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together”.
Davis passed away in 2005 while Dee was filming a project in New Zealand. She was greatly affected by his loss and the couple won a Grammy Award for best spoken word album for the audio version of “With Ossie and Ruby” that same year. In 2007, she received an Academy Award nomination for playing the role of the mother of a gangster Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington. She also won the Screen Actors Guild Award for her role. In 2013, she narrated the movie “Betty and Coretta” based on the life of Coretta Scott King, the wife of Martin Luther King Jr. After a long and illustrious career, Ruby Dee died on June 11, 2014 at the age of 91.