Oscar-Nominated Actress Ruby Dee Dies at 91

Ruby Dee
Ruby Dee
 AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian

Ruby Dee, the Oscar-nominated actress whose career in film and theater spanned five decades, died Wednesday, her agent, Michael Livingston, confirms to The Hollywood Reporter. She was 91. 

Dee passed away peacefully at her New Rochelle, N.Y., home from age-related causes, Livingston said.

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Dee won an Obie Award in 1971 for her portrayal of Lena in Athol Fugard's Boseman and Lena (1970) and a Drama Desk Award for Wedding Band (1974). She was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Ridley Scott's 2007 drama American Gangster

She had an impressive stage career, including a highly praised performance in Purlie Victorious (1963). Also on stage, Dee was notable as the proud working mother Ruth in A Raisin in the Sun (1961). In 1988, she starred with Denzel Washington and Paul Winfield in Checkmates on Broadway and was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.

Along with her late husband, Ossie Davis, Dee was honored with the Screen Actors Guild's Life Achievement Award in 2001. They were the second couple to receive that distinction, with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward so honored in 1995. With Davis, Dee also was honored in 1970 with the Frederick Douglass Award from New York's Urban League for bringing “a sense of fervor and pride to countless millions.”

SAG-AFTRA released a statement on Thursday, saying that it "mourns the loss" of the "multitalented" Dee, quoting from her Life Achievement Award speech.

“We are artists also, and workers above all. We are image-makers,” she said during her speech. “Why can’t we image-makers become peacemakers too? Why cannot we, in such a time as this, use all the magic of our vaunted powers to lift the pistol from the schoolboy’s backpack and replace it with bright images of peace, with images of hope and faith in humankind? Of life lit by some large vision of goodness and beauty and truth?”

SAG-AFTRA president Ken Howard added: “Ruby Dee was truly one of a kind. She was a woman who believed deeply in fairness, a conviction that motivated her lifelong efforts to advance civil rights. The acting community -- and the world -- is a poorer place for her loss.”

In 1989, Davis and Dee were voted into the NAACP Image Award Hall of Fame.

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Dee was the first black actress to play a leading role in the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., when she played in King Lear (1965). She later triumphed in The Taming of the Shrew (1965) on Broadway.

Dee and Davis conceived the acclaimed PBS series With Ossie & Ruby (1981).The couple co-hosted, performed and co-produced 26 half-hour programs. She co-produced The Ossie Davis and Rudy Dee Story Hour (1974), broadcast over the national Black Network from 1974-78.

In film, she starred most notably in Buck and the Preacher (1972), which featured Sidney Poitier's directorial debut. She also performed in such movies as St. Louis Blues (1958), Cat People (1982) and Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), where she starred as the stern mother of the block. She also performed in two other Lee films: Get On the Bus (1996) and Jungle Fever (1991).

Other films include Go, Man, Go! (1954), St. Louis Blues (1958), Our Virgin Island (1959), The Balcony (1963), The Incident (1967) and, more recently, Cop and a Half (1993).

On TV, she performed in All God's Children and Roots II: The New Generation. She had a leading role in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and It's Good to Be Alive, a bio of Roy Campanella. She also starred in To Be Young, Gifted and Black and appeared on Peyton Place.

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She played Mary Tyrone in the ABC cable production of Long Day's Journey into Night, which was her husband's favorite performance of hers.

She directed and starred in Zora Is My Name! for PBS.

She was born Ruby Ann Wallace on Oct. 27, 1922, in Cleveland but was raised in Harlem. She graduated from Hunter College. She first performed professionally in 1941 at the American Negro Theatre, where her classmates included Poitier and Harry Belafonte. The three starred in Buck and the Preacher, with Dee playing a no-nonsense pioneer woman. Dee made her Broadway debut in 1946 with a well-reviewed performance in Anna Lucasta.

She made her film debut in No Way Out in 1950. That same year she played Jackie Robinson's wife in The Jackie Robinson Story. Forty years later, she played Robinson's mother in a TV biopic.

Dee's talents included writing. She penned a column for the Amsterdam News and served as a contributing editor on Freedomways Magazine. She also co-wrote a film, Uptight. In addition, she created a “poedansical,” Take It From the Top. She made many recordings of poems and stories and regularly gave concert readings, primarily from the works of black writers.

Active in politics, Dee was a member of the NAACP, CORE, Southern Christian Leadership Council and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. The couple had three children: Nora, Guy and Hasna.

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