Davis, Raiford Chatman (“Ossie”)
Davis, Raiford Chatman (“Ossie”)
(b. 18 December 1917 in Cogdell, Georgia; d. 4 February 2005 in Miami, Florida), African-American actor who was a commanding presence on stage and screen and a noteworthy playwright, screenwriter, producer, director, and civil rights activist.
Davis was born the oldest of five children in 1917 in the small town of Cogdell, Georgia. His given name was Raiford Chatman, but he became known as Ossie when his mother, Laura Cooper Davis, explained to the courthouse clerk in Clinch River that her baby’s initials were “R.C.” The clerk, who was white, mistakenly believed that she had said “Ossie.” Given the subservient demeanor expected of black Americans in the Deep South, she did not correct him. Davis’s father, Kince Charles Davis, planned and oversaw the construction of railroads—a position of responsibility and an unusual profession for an African American at that time. One of Davis’s earliest recollections was of racists taunting his father because of his “uppity” occupation. While Davis was still a child, he settled with his family in Waycross, Georgia, where he attended Waycross High School.
In his youth Davis wanted to become a writer and cultivated an interest in Shakespeare. He completed high school in 1935 and, assisted by a scholarship from the National Youth Administration and a part-time job in a library, entered Howard University in Washington, D.C. While studying with Alain Le Roy Locke, the first African-American Rhodes Scholar, he gained an awareness of black literature and theater. During Davis’s time in Washington, the African-American singer Marian Anderson was prohibited from performing at Constitution Hall, then the city’s foremost recital hall. Davis was among the 75,000 concertgoers present on 9 April 1939 for Anderson’s free, open-air performance at an alternate venue: the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Years later he noted, “I understood fully for the first time the importance of black song, black music, black arts. I was handed my spiritual assignment that night.”
Anxious to start his career, Davis left Howard after three years without earning a degree and moved to New York City, where he became a member of the Rose McClendon Players, a Harlem-based theater group. Still primarily intent on a writing career, he toiled as a set painter and janitor and occasionally took acting roles in the group’s productions. Davis was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and worked as a surgical technician in a military hospital in Liberia. Upon his discharge in 1945, he won the starring role in Jeb (1946), playing a veteran and winner of a Purple Heart who experiences racism upon returning to his Louisiana hometown. Despite the failure of Jeb—it lasted nine performances on Broadway—Davis earned favorable notices. More important, he and Ruby Dee, the actress playing the female lead, became romantically involved. The couple toured in the American Negro Theatre’s production of Anna Lucasta (which had opened on Broadway in 1944) and married on 9 December 1948 while rehearsing Garson Kanin’s play The Smile of the World (1949).
Dee was Davis’s frequent collaborator and acting partner, and over the next five and a half decades they earned acclaim as one of America’s most respected acting couples. The pair appeared together in five films and eleven stage productions, costarred in The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour, a 1970s radio program, and created their own Public Broadcasting Service television series, With Ossie & Ruby (1980–1982), which spotlighted young black artists. One of their three children, Guy Davis, became a notable blues guitarist. For decades they lived in New Rochelle, a New York City suburb.
Davis debuted on screen in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950), one of the early Hollywood films to examine racial tensions in the United States. Sidney Poitier, also in his first screen role, plays a young African-American doctor who tries and fails to save the life of a white criminal who has been wounded by a policeman during a robbery—and who is victimized by the taunts of the deceased thug’s psychotic, racist brother. Davis was cast in an unbilled supporting role, as the doctor’s brother. The theme explored in No Way Out—the essential need for racial tolerance and equality—mirrors Davis’s own later political concerns.
Davis continued to work steadily on the stage, in movies, and on television. During the early 1950s he was scrutinized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and briefly blacklisted because of his outspokenness on civil rights and his criticism of the practice of blacklisting artists who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a controversial government committee then investigating alleged Communist influence in the motion picture industry. Davis even authored a one-act play, Alice in Wonder (1953), in which he condemned the committee’s activities. After his blacklisting ended, he starred in a 1955 production of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones, broadcast on Kraft Television Theatre. One of his most significant early stage roles was the character of Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), a landmark drama spotlighting the hopes and ambitions of African Americans. Davis did not create the character but replaced Poitier in the Broadway production. Next, Davis penned and starred in his best-known stage work, Purlie Victorious (1961), a controversial comic satire about a self-ordained black minister who opens an integrated church in the Deep South. Purlie Victorious was filmed under the title Gone Are the Days (1963) and made into a stage musical titled Purlie (1970).
As the years passed, Davis and Dee became high-profile civil rights activists. They enjoyed close friendships with other activists, such as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, and Jesse Jackson. They raised money for civil rights causes, joined in marches in the American South, and assisted in the organization of and emceed the landmark 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C.—the event at which King delivered his celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1965 and 1968, respectively, Davis spoke at the funerals of Malcolm X and King. At the former event, he famously described Malcolm X as “our shining black prince.”
Davis scripted and directed several films, including Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), a smash-hit action comedy that was one of the first Hollywood films directed by an African American, and Countdown at Kusini (1976), a U.S.-financed feature made in Africa by African-American professionals. For television he scripted For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story (1983) and acted in such high-profile movies and miniseries as King (1978), playing Martin Luther King, Sr.; Roots: The Next Generations (1979); Don’t Look Back: The Story of Leroy “Satchel” Paige (1981); The Stand (1994); Miss Evers’ Boys (1997); and 12 Angry Men (1997). Davis and Dee formed their own production company, Emmalyn Enterprises, which produced the Public Broadcasting Service special Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum (1986).
As he aged, Davis became known to a new generation of moviegoers for his appearances in supporting roles in films directed by Spike Lee: School Daze (1988); Do the Right Thing (1989), in which he offered an eye-opening performance as Da Mayor; Jungle Fever (1991); Malcolm X (1992), in which he reread part of the eulogy he had delivered at the slain civil rights activist’s funeral; Get on the Bus (1996); and She Hate Me (2004). Lee created all these roles with Davis in mind. Two of Davis’s best late-career roles were Ponder Blue, the philosophical owner of a barbecue joint on the television series EveningShade (1990–1994), and Midge Carter, a half-blind Manhattan apartment superintendent in the stage (1986) and screen (1996) versions of I’m Not Rappaport. Other screen appearances came in Grumpy Old Men (1993), The Client (1994), and Doctor Doolittle (1998).
During the later stages of their careers, Davis and Dee were showered with lifetime achievement awards. In 1989 they entered the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Awards Hall of Fame. Six years later they were awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 2000 and 2004 they received the Screen Actor’s Guild Life Achievement Award and the Kennedy Center honors, respectively. Speaking for himself and Dee, Davis observed at the December 2004 Kennedy Center ceremony, “We knew that every time we got a job and every time we were onstage, America was looking to make judgments about all black folks on the basis of how you looked, how you sounded, how you carried yourself. So any role you had was a role that was involved in the struggle for black identification. You couldn’t escape it.”
The following year Davis was cast in a new film to be titled Retirement and traveled to Florida to begin location shooting. On 4 February he was found dead in his Miami hotel room; Guy Davis suggested that his father died of a heart attack. On the evening of Davis’s death, the lights on Broadway theaters were dimmed for one minute at curtain time in his honor. His funeral, held on 12 February at Manhattan’s Riverside Church, was attended by many celebrated Americans, including President Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Alan Alda, Maya Angelou, and Oprah Winfrey. In his eulogy Clinton declared, “I’d proudly ride in the back of Ossie Davis’s bus any day. I was never in Ossie Davis’s presence when I didn’t want to stand up a little straighter.” Davis was cremated.
Appropriately, Davis’s final acting role embraced a social issue. He appeared in four episiodes of the cable television series The L Word, playing a father struggling to understand the motivations of his daughter, a lesbian parenting a child with her partner. The final episode, in which his character becomes ill and dies, was broadcast shortly after Davis’s own death, with a dedication to the actor.
Davis’s career spanned the era before the civil rights movement to the time of the new African-American cinema of Spike Lee. Early on he spurned the stereotypical shuffling and servile roles that mostly were available to African-American actors. Still, he was able to carve out a respectable and, at times, exemplary creative career and was among the more eloquent proponents of equal rights for African Americans.
Davis’s life is chronicled in With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (1998), the richly detailed memoir he coauthored with Dee. A selection of Davis’s writings, letters, and speeches, compiled by Dee, may be found in Life Lit by Some Large Vision: Selected Speeches and Writings (2006). Obituaries are in the Chicago Sun-Times (4 Feb. 2005), Washington Post (4 and 5 Feb. 2005), and New York Times (5 Feb. 2005). Coverage of his funeral is in the New York Times (13 Feb. 2005).