Ossie Davis, Groundbreaking Playwright-Actor Who Created Purlie Victorious, Dead at 87

Obituaries   Ossie Davis, Groundbreaking Playwright-Actor Who Created Purlie Victorious, Dead at 87 Tony Award-nominated actor-writer Ossie Davis, an icon of 20th century African-American theatre, was found dead Feb. 4 in his hotel room in Miami, where he was filming a movie, according to the Associated Press.
From Top: Ossie Davis; Davis in the original Broadway production of I'm Not Rappaport
From Top: Ossie Davis; Davis in the original Broadway production of I'm Not Rappaport Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Mr. Davis was 87, and was often mentioned in the same breath with his wife, actress Ruby Dee, who survives him. The pair received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2004 for their life's work.

The veteran of such films as "Do the Right Thing," "School Daze" and "Jungle Fever," was librettist of the Best Musical Tony nominee Purlie, which was the musical version of his play, Purlie Victorious, and was nominated for his acting in the musical Jamaica. At the time of his death, he was working on a movie called "Retirement," AP reported, citing Arminda Thomas, who works in his office in New Rochelle, NY.

Mr. Davis and Dee celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998. They penned an autobiography, "In This Life Together."

As recently as 2002, Dee appeared in a new play by Mr. Davis, A Last Dance for Sybil, about two families — one rich from selling oil and slaves, the other challenged by blood, sweat and struggles. Dee appeared in the title role, at Off-Broadway's St. Clement's Theatre in a staging by New Federal Theatre.

Actors' Equity Association made this statement Feb. 4: "Actors' Equity Association mourns the passing of Ossie Davis, one of our most distinguished members and an icon in the American theater. He was a great humanist and an outspoken activist for human rights and for the arts. He made significant contributions to the cultural life of our nation and helped to pave the road for the next generation of African-American actors, writers and directors. Mr. Davis, and his wife Ruby Dee, are American treasures and his death is a great loss to us all." Mr. Davis was one of the leading figures in American black theatre, and an inspiration to artists who would follow. The native of Cogdell, GA, attended Howard University 1938-41. He served in the U.S. Army 1942-45. He and Dee married in 1948.

He made his theatrical debut in as a member of Rose McClendon's Players, appearing in Joy Exceeding Glory in Harlem in 1941. By 1946, he made his Broadway debut in the title role of Jeb. Broadway credits include The Leading Lady, The Smile of the World, The Wisteria Trees, The Green Pastures, Remains to be Seen, Touchstone and No Time for Sergeants.

He succeeded Sidney Poitier in the original Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, and starred in his own 1961 play, Purlie Victorious, a sort of Southern fable about black and white relations on a plantation. Purlie!, the 1970 musical of the play will get a concert revival by Encores! at City Center this spring.

The writer-actor's source play was also made into a 1963 film called "Gone Are the Days!," in which Mr. Davis played Purlie (and wrote the screenplay). Most of the Broadway cast reprised their roles for the screen.

Mr. Davis replaced Cleavon Little as Midge in the Broadway run of Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport (opposite Hal Linden) in the 1980s and later starred in the film version (opposite Walter Matthau). Ironically, Little had won a Tony Award playing the title role in the musical Purlie! 15 years before Mr. Davis' turn in Rappaport.

His screen career included "No Way Out" (his debut in 1950), "The Joe Louis Story," "The Cardinal," "The Client," "The Hill" and Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," in which he played himself (in voiceover), reading one of two famous eulogies he presented in real life (the other being for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.).

His TV credits include "Roots: The Next Generation," "Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum," "Evening Shade," "The Defenders," "Miss Evers' Boys" and "The Stand," among many other TV projects.

"The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour," a radio show, was heard on 65 stations for four years in the mid-1970s.

As a film director, Mr. Davis helmed "Cotton Comes to Harlem" (1970) and "Countdown at Kusini" (1976).

Off-stage, Mr. Davis and Dee worked for social causes, spreading the message of social equality and Civil Rights.

A scene from the original Broadway production of <i>Purlie!</i>, with a book by Ossie Davis and based on his play <i>Purlie Victorious.</i>
A scene from the original Broadway production of Purlie!, with a book by Ossie Davis and based on his play Purlie Victorious.