Tall, dignified veteran character player of the American stage and screen with a career spanning nearly half a century. With his wife and frequent collaborator, actor Ruby Dee, Davis was a staple of black theater. Both are longstanding political activists who were highly visible during the height of the civil rights movement and continue to speak out at rallies for progressive and humanitarian causes.
Davis delivered the moving eulogy at the funeral of slain civil rights leader Malcolm X (which he repeated for the extended coda to Spike Lee's 1992 biopic). As a playwright, screenwriter, director, producer, and actor, Davis has often been associated with works that celebrate and inculcate the lessons of black history in the US. He remains an inspirational and iconic presence in contemporary African-American culture.
The young Davis set out on foot from Waycross, GA, to Washington, DC, to attend Howard University. He left before graduation and moved to New York, where he joined Harlem's Rose McClendon Players and studied acting under Lloyd Richards. After a stint in the Army during WWII, Davis made his Broadway debut in 1946, playing the title role of "Jeb". This also marked his first collaboration with Ruby Dee, who was also in the cast.
The pair went on to tour together in a production of "Anna Lucasta" and married in 1948. Davis amassed numerous roles on Broadway including the lead in "A Raisin in the Sun" (succeeding Sidney Poitier). In 1961, he wrote and starred in the Broadway hit, "Purlie Victorious", an irreverent send-up of racism in the Old South, which he then adapted for the screen as "Gone Are the Days" (1963). He also wrote the book for "Purlie", the well-received 1970 Broadway musical version. Davis debuted in features (along with Poitier) with "No Way Out" (1950), a powerful tale of racial hatred directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Subsequent film credits included "The Cardinal" (1963), "The Hill" (1965), and "The Scalphunters" (1968). Davis made a memorable feature debut as a writer-director in 1970 with a jaunty adaptation of Chester Himes's colorful novel, "Cotton Comes to Harlem", and subsequently directed "Kongi's Harvest" (1971), "Black Girl" (1972), "Gordon's War" (1973) and "Countdown at Kusini" (1976).
He has since become a fixture in the films of Spike Lee, playing the enthusiuastic football coach in "School Daze" (1988), the wise neighborhood drunk in "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and the righteously intolerant minister father of Wesley Snipes in "Jungle Fever" (1991). Davis's recent film credits are not limited to "Spike Lee Joints". The septuagenarian supporting player was far more dapper than the two top-billed "Grumpy Old Men" (1993) and he again presided as a jurist in "The Client" (1994), a role he recreated in the TV spin-off.
He lived in New York City with his wife of 54 years, actress Ruby Dee. Mr. Davis passed away on Feb. 4, 2005 at the age of 87 of undetermined causes. He was in Miami filming the movie "Retirement." Rest in Peace, Ossie.