Obituary: Ossie Davis

Campaigning `father figure' for black actors

THE WRITER, director, actor and producer Ossie Davis was an outspoken advocate for human rights, and a highly respected "father figure" for African Americans in the performing arts. A few years older than Sidney Poitier, Davis never wanted the international fame of his contemporary, but he remained a strong character player for over half a century after making his screen debut with Poitier in No Way Out.

In addition to more than 120 appearances as an actor in films and on television, Davis also spread his wings in the film industry, making his directorial debut with Cotton Comes to Harlem, based on Chester Himes's 1965 novel. Asked why his career did not result in a "Poitier-like" stardom, Davis said,

There are ways you can make yourself a more saleable commodity. I didn't pursue those ways. My wife [the actress Ruby Dee] and I did build careers for ourselves and in the process did many theatrical things . . . on street corners, churches, union halls, schools. And, in doing it our way, we didn't have to sell more of ourselves than we could get back before the sun went down.

Ossie Davis was born Raiford Chatman Davis in 1917 in Cogdell, Georgia ("R.C." became "Ossie"). His father was a railroad engineer and his mother, Davis recalled, "carried a pistol in her bosom to protect her five children". After finishing high school in 1935, Davis hitchhiked north, to Washington, DC, and enrolled at Howard University. In 1939, he left for New York, hoping to become a writer, but he found the going tough.

Before joining the Harlem-based Rose McClendon Players theatre group, Davis worked as a janitor and stock clerk, and then pushed a handcart in a garment district. Shortly thereafter he was drafted, and during the Second World War he served in the medical corps in West Africa, and wrote and produced shows for the troops.

After his discharge, Davis made his Broadway stage debut in Jeb, as a wounded veteran returning to the race-baiting South. Also in the cast was Ruby Dee, whom he married in December 1948. Some 50 years later, with three grown-up children, and hundreds of writing, acting and directing projects behind them, the couple continued to share many common interests. Davis said:

You start out as lovers, then you're husband and wife, then you're parents, then co-workers, and ultimately you arrive at being friends.

In 1989 Davis and Dee were inducted into the NAACP Image Hall of Fame and last year they were among the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors - with Warren Beatty, Sir Elton John, Dame Joan Sutherland and John Williams.

Davis made his film debut in No Way Out (1950). Until then, he hadn't thought about the role of cinema as anything but an entertainment. He later reflected,

It's the great American drive toward trivialising every damn thing . . . I never thought of movies as making major statements, although I was impressed with Grapes of Wrath [1940] . . . The first motion picture I was in, No Way Out, had to do with black folks struggling to be treated fairly in the country and it was not a bad statement, so I liked that.

During the 1950s he continued to appear in small roles in films and in 1955 he made one of his first television appearances with a leading role in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. Over the next half-century he made numerous appearances on American television, including such top-rated shows as The Defenders, Bonanza, Roots: The Next Generations, Touched by an Angel and Cosby, and highly regarded made-for-television movies like Miss Evers' Boys (1997). In 1969 he was nominated for an Emmy for his role in Teacher, Teacher. On Broadway he supported Lena Horne in the long-running musical Jamaica (1957), for which he was nominated for a Tony, and in 1959 he replaced Sidney Poitier in Lorraine Hansberry's acclaimed drama A Raisin in the Sun.

His one-act play Alice in Wonder, dealing with the politics of the McCarthy era, was produced in Harlem in 1953 and in 1961 he brought Purlie Victorious, his hilarious satire on racial attitudes in the old South, to Broadway, starring in it alongside Ruby Dee and Godfrey Cambridge. Two years later it was filmed as Gone are the Days!. His most recent play, Last Dance for Sybil, which starred Ruby Dee, premiered in New York in 2002.

In 1965 he made his British film debut in Sidney Lumet's The Hill, playing a soldier jailed in a disciplinary camp. Sean Connery starred. For his portrayal of a defiant fugitive slave in The Scalphunters (1968) he received a nomination for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor.

He was originally contracted to play Coffin Ed in Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970). The film's producer, Sam Goldwyn Jnr, asked him to rewrite some of the script when, Davis explained, "I was finally sidetracked and sandbagged into rewriting the whole script!" He was later persuaded by Goldwyn to take over as director and Raymond St Jacques replaced him as Coffin Ed.

The following year Davis became a founder member of a group called Third World Cinema Corporation, aimed at increasing the opportunities for African Americans and Puerto Ricans in cinema. He also attacked some of the so- called "blaxploitation" films of the era, including Superfly (1972). "We're paying for images of our degradation," he complained.

Other films as a director included a 1971 adaptation of Wole Soyinka's Kongi's Harvest, shot in Nigeria, Black Girl (1972), a moving study of black family life and a young woman's attempt to escape the ghetto, Gordon's War (1973) and Countdown to Kusini (1976), which he financed himself, a tale about a fight in Africa for liberation.

Davis was the chairman of the Angela Davis Defense Fund and delivered eulogies at the funerals of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. In 1978 he was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of Martin Luther King's father in King, a television mini-series, and in 1992 he appeared in Spike Lee's Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington. About Malcolm X, Davis once said, "He was our manhood, our living black manhood! And, in honouring him, we honour the best in ourselves." In 1999 he narrated St Clair Bourne's American Masters documentary Paul Robeson: Here I Stand.

After appearing in Spike Lee's School Daze (1988), Davis joined that director's repertory company, and was cast in memorable roles in Do the Right Thing (1989), as Da Mayor, the drink-dependent elder statesman, Jungle Fever (1991), Get On the Bus (1996) and She Hate Me (2004). In a 1997 interview with Allister Harry, he said:

I believe that in some sense I do represent a floating father figure in Spike's films. I provide him with the parameters that he will not go beyond. I think he says to himself if Ossie understands it then the rest of the old black folk will understand.

When Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Sidney Poitier received Oscars at the 2003 ceremony, Davis commented,

One of the things I hate most about Hollywood is the whole Oscar idea, but, having said that, I'm very glad, even at this late date, that Halle and Denzel did win, although I was sorry that the films themselves were so negative and to sometime degree perverse . . . We [black people]'ve always had to come into the American kingdom from the whorehouse or the shithouse; they wouldn't let us in the front door . . . and I'm glad they gave old Sidney that lifetime award. So to me the Oscar situation was a positive one . . . but I think that, if you're going to have bullshit, at least have equal-rights bullshit - let black folks be involved too.

Raiford Chatman ("Ossie") Davis, writer, director, actor and producer: born Cogdell, Georgia 18 December 1917; married 1948 Ruby Dee (one son, two daughters); died Miami Beach, Florida 4 February 2005.

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