February is all about loving oneself and others and celebrating Black History Month. Therefore, it is only fair to dedicate this month’s Old Hollywood Spotlight to the inspiring Ruby Dee. The titles actress, playwright, screenwriter, journalist, poet, and activist describe her well-rounded life and career.
Ruby Dee’s life began in Ohio, and she grew up in New York’s Harlem neighborhood while acting as a teenager. She joined the American Negro Theatre in 1941, eventually becoming a Hollywood star.
She was born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 27, 1922. While attending the American Negro Theatre — which also taught Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte — Ruby Dee studied at Hunter College. Five years after being in ANT, she got her first major acting opportunity in the company’s Broadway production Anna Lucasta, where she played the title character. During that same time in 1946, she met actor Ossie Davis, and they married two years later; they had three children together.
Dee soon made the transition from stage to screen with the 1950 bio film The Jackie Robinson Story, where she played the wife of the baseball legend. She appeared with Sidney Poitier in Go Man Go (1954), Edge of the City (1957), and Our Virgin Island (1958), and she appeared with Nat ‘King’ Cole in the musical biography St. Louis Blues (1958).
Dee’s acting career began to shine brighter, especially after she got the role of Ruth Younger in the 1959 Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. She starred alongside Poitier in the play, which was about a struggling African-American family. The play earned such great feedback that Dee and Poitier retook their starring roles for the 1961 movie version.
In the early 1960s, Dee began working with her husband, Ossie Davis, for what would become a string of projects throughout their marriage. He wrote the Southern comedy play Purlie Victorious, and they both co-starred in the play as well as in the 1963 film version. Besides being a couple and a professional duo, Dee and Davis participated together in the Civil Rights Movement by attending marches and giving speeches about racial equality. They were also friends of the Civil Rights activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The kind of beauty I want most is the hard-to-get kind that comes from within: strength, courage, dignity.” — Ruby Dee
The skills of Dee went beyond being an actor and activist. She starred and co-wrote the screenplay Uptight (1968), she appeared in the television soap opera Peyton Place, and she had her own TV series with her husband in the 1980s called With Ossie & Ruby . She produced TV specials with her husband, including Today is Ours, Martin Luther King: The Dream and The Drum, and A Walk Through the 20th Century with Bill Moyers. Dee and Davis even founded their own production company titled Emmalyn II Production Company, Inc.
In the 1970s, Dee received the Drama Desk and Obie awards for the 1970 play Boesman and Lena, and she received an Emmy Award nomination for her 1979 role in Roots: The Next Generations. Dee worked with her family on the theater musical Take It from the Top!; Dee wrote the book and lyrics while her son, Guy, composed the music and her husband directed.
The 1980s were filled with new projects, such as writing for publications and receiving recognitions for her career as an actress. Dee wrote one book of poems and short stories, two children’s books, a collection of writings, and an autobiography she co-authored with her husband. In 1988, Dee was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame, and both she and her husband were inducted into the NAACP Image Award Hall of Fame. She was also awarded the Silver Circle Award by the Academy of Television Arts and Science, the National Medal of Arts Award, and the Screen Actors Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Dee and Davis were recipients of the John F. Kennedy Center Honors in 2004.
After nearly 60 years of marriage, Dee’s beloved husband, Ossie Davis, died unexpectedly in 2005 while she was away in New Zealand for filming. That same year, the inseparable duo won a Grammy Award for the audio version of their book With Ossie and Ruby.
Despite her loss, Dee continued to work well into her 80s, proving age did not ruin her acting abilities. She received great praise for her performance in American Gangster (2007), for which she received an Academy Award nomination and an award from the Screen Actors Guild. She narrated the Lifetime original movie Betty and Coretta (2013), which was about the lives of Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz after their husbands were assassinated.
On June 11, 2014, Ruby Dee died at age 91 of natural causes at her home in New Rochelle, New York.
Ruby Dee was a trailblazer. She proved being an African-American had no limits, no restrictions, no failures. At a time when being non-white was frowned upon, Ruby Dee proved just how smart, talented, hardworking, and inspiring a person of color could be. She showed that everyone from any background can follow their dreams and have a happy and successful life and career, as long as you have the courage to prove others wrong about their prejudice.
“The greatest gift is not being afraid to question.” — Ruby Dee