Ruby Dee was an actress, poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist, and civil rights activist. Her acting career has spanned more than seven decades, and she has appeared in theatre, radio, television, and movies. A pioneer of African American theatre and cinema, Dee was also an outspoken activist for human rights.
Dee won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Female Actor in a Supporting Role and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She won a Grammy, Emmy, Obie, and Drama Desk award. Her other honors included a National Medal of Arts, a Kennedy Center Honor, and a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.
Growing up in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, she became involved in acting as a teenager. Dee began her training at the American Negro Theatre, which also trained Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. She made her acting debut on Broadway in the 1946 production of Anna Lucasta. In the same year, Dee also made her screen debut in ‘That Man of Mine’. The Jackie Robinson Story’s role in 1950 brought her national recognition.
Dean landed a starring role in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. In this drama about a struggling African American family, she won great acclaim for her portrayal of Ruth Younger. Sidney Poitier played her husband. Dee reprised her role in the film version of the play two years later.
In 1965, Dee became the first black actress to perform a lead role at the American Shakespeare Festival in ‘The Taming of the Shrew and King Lear’. Dee worked behind the scenes, writing the screenplay for the movie ‘Up Tight!’ in 1968′. She also starred in this drama. Her first appearance on television was in the popular soap opera Peyton Place, and she later had her series on public television with her husband: With Ossie & Ruby.
Dee provided many remarkable performances during the 1970s and ’80s. She received Drama Desk and Obie awards for the play ‘Boesman’ and ‘Lena’ in 1970 and was nominated for an Emmy Award for her role in the miniseries’ Roots’ in 1979. Dee played Zora Neale Hurston in Zora Is My Name, which aired on PBS in the early 1980s. The film Do the Right Thing (1989) that she and her husband worked on with Spike Lee received positive notices and awards. She won an Emmy Award in 1991 for her work on the television movie ‘Decoration Day.
Dee and her husband Ossie Davis published their life story in the book ‘With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. The couple shared their life experiences and 50 years of their marriage. The book received warm reviews for its humor and honesty. Around this time, Dee also wrote and performed her one-woman show My One Good Nerve.
Dee delivered one of her best performances in the 2007 movie ‘American Gangster. In the film, she plays the mother of notorious criminal Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington. She received an Academy Award nomination and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her work in the film. Her final movie performance came in 2013’s ‘Betty and Coretta’, a film that followed the lives of Coretta Scott King, portrayed by Angela Bassett and Betty Shabazz.
In 1941, Ruby Dee married blues singer Frankie Dee Brown and began using his middle name as her stage name. The marriage only lasted for four years and the couple divorced in 1945. She met actor Ossie Davis on the set of the play ‘Jeb’ in 1946, and they got married two years later. Over the next 50 years, Dee often appeared in plays, films, and television shows with her husband. Together they had three children: son, blues musician Guy Davis, and two daughters, Nora Day and Hasna Muhammad. Davis died unexpectedly in 2005 while he was working on a film. At the time of his death, Dee was filming a movie in New Zealand.
During the Civil Rights movement, Dee and her husband Ossie Davis were civil rights activists. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis presented Dee with the Lifetime Achievement Freedom Award in November 2005, together with her late husband.
During her lifetime, she survived breast cancer. Dee died at the age of 91 on June 11, 2014, from Natural Causes. She was cremated, and her ashes are in the same urn as Davis’s with the inscription “In this thing together”.
Below are some stunning photos of the legendary African American Actress Ruby Dee when she was young.