Sad news arrived today, with word from her family that the great Ruby Dee, an actress who won almost every award you can win while making an enormous impact on the world beyond her art, has passed away at the age of 91. But while it’s sad, it’s also a fine chance to celebrate the life of a truly remarkable woman.
Dee was born as Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland in 1922, and graduated from Hunter College in 1944. She married singer Frankie Dee in her mid-20s, and quickly divorced, with Dee going on to marry actor Ossie Davis in 1948, the pair staying together until his death in 2005. She became quickly established on Broadway before breaking through in film as playing the title character’s wife in 1950’s “The Jackie Robinson Story,” a biopic of the legendary baseball player in which Robinson played himself.
She remained a stage fixture, but took on one of her most notable roles in 1959 with the debut of Lorraine Hansberry‘s classic play “A Raisin In The Sun,” playing Ruth, the wife of main character Walter (played by Sidney Poitier) .The pair reprised their roles in the 1961 film version, Dee winning the National Board of Review prize for Best Supporting Actress for it. She would also reunited with Poitier on “Buck And The Preacher,” and also worked regularly with Davis, notably in the 1980s and 1990s on Spike Lee‘s seminal “Do The Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever.”
Though she retired from the stage in 2003, she continued to work on film and television up until last year, and finally picked up an Oscar nomination, and winning the SAG Prize, for her supporting turn in Ridley Scott‘s “American Gangster” (Dee also picked up Grammy, Emmy, Obie and Drama Desk awards across her long career, as well as the National Medal For The Arts. And perhaps more importantly than anything, she was, along with Davis, intimately involved in the civil rights movement: the pair were personal friends of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and were awarded the Lifetime Achievement Freedom Award in 2005.
It’s a titanic loss, and she’ll be sorely missed. They’re survived by their three children, one of whom is blues musician Guy Davis.