NEW YORK — Ruby Dee, an acclaimed actor and civil rights activist whose versatile career spanned stage, radio, television and film, has died at age 91, according to her daughter.
Nora Davis Day said Thursday that her mother died at home in New Rochelle, New York, on Wednesday night.
Dee, who frequently acted alongside her husband of 56 years, Ossie Davis, was surrounded by family and friends, she said.
Her long career brought her an Oscar nomination at age 83 for best supporting actress for her role in the 2007 film “American Gangster.” She also won an Emmy and was nominated for several others.
“I think you mustn’t tell your body, you mustn’t tell your soul, ‘I’m going to retire,’” Dee said in 2001. “You may be changing your life emphasis, but there’s still things that you have in mind to do that now seems the right time to do. I really don’t believe in retiring as long as you can breathe.”
Since meeting on Broadway in 1946, she and her late husband were frequent collaborators. But they were also activists who fought for civil rights.
“We used the arts as part of our struggle,” she said in 2006. “Ossie said he knew he had to conduct himself differently with skill and thought.”
In 1998, the pair celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and an even longer association in show business with the publication of a dual autobiography, “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.”
Davis and Dee met when she auditioned for the Broadway play “Jeb,” starring Davis. In December 1948, on a day off from rehearsals for another play, “The Smile of the World,” they took a bus to New Jersey to get married.
They shared billing in 11 stage productions and five movies during long parallel careers. Dee’s fifth film, “No Way Out” with Sidney Poitier in 1950, was her husband’s first. Along with film, stage and television, their richly honored careers extended to a radio show, “The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour,” that featutred a mix of black themes. Davis directed one of their joint film appearances, “Countdown at Kusini” (1976).
Like her husband, Dee was active in civil rights issues and efforts to promote the cause of blacks in the entertainment industry. As young performers, they found themselves caught up in the growing debate over social and racial justice in the United States. In 1999, they were arrested while protesting the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, by New York City police.
They were friends with baseball star Jackie Robinson and his wife, Rachel – Dee played her, opposite Robinson himself, in the 1950 movie, “The Jackie Robinson Story” – and with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X. Dee and Davis served as masters of ceremonies for the historic 1963 March on Washington and she spoke at the funerals for both King and Malcom X.
Among her best-known films was “A Raisin in the Sun” in 1961, the classic play that explored racial discrimination and black frustration. On television, she was a leading cast member on soap operas, a rare sight for a black actress in the 1950s and 60s.
As she aged, her career did not ebb. Dee was the voice of wisdom and reason as Mother Sister in Spike Lee’s 1989 film, “Do the Right Thing,” alongside her husband. She won an Emmy as supporting actress in a miniseries or special for 1990′s “Decoration Day.”
She won a National Medal of the Arts in 1995 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2000. In 2004, she and Davis received Kennedy Center Honors.