Actor Ossie Davis

Raiford Chatman “Ossie” Davis (December 18, 1917 – February 4, 2005) was an American actor, director, writer, and activist.

He was married to Ruby Dee, with whom he frequently performed, until his death.

He and his wife were named to the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame; were awarded the National Medal of Arts and were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. He was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1994.

Early life

Raiford Chatman Davis was born in Cogdell, Georgia, the son of Kince Charles Davis, a railway construction engineer, and his wife Laura (née Cooper; July 9, 1898 – June 6, 2004). He inadvertently became known as “Ossie” when his birth certificate was being filed and his mother’s pronunciation of his name as “R. C. Davis” was misheard by the courthouse clerk in Clinch County, Ga. Davis experienced racism from an early age when the KKK threatened to shoot his father, whose job they felt was too advanced for a black man to have. His siblings included scientist William Conan Davis, social worker Essie Morgan Davis, pharmacist Kenneth Curtis Davis, and biology teacher James Davis.

Following the wishes of his parents, he attended Howard University but dropped out in 1939 to fulfill his desire for an acting career in New York after a recommendation by Alain Locke; he later attended Columbia University School of General Studies. His acting career began in 1939 with the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem. During World War II, Davis served in the United States Army in the Medical Corps. He made his film debut in 1950 in the Sidney Poitier film No Way Out.


When Davis wanted to pursue a career in acting, he ran into the usual roadblocks that black people suffered at that time as they generally could only portray stereotypical characters such as Stepin Fetchit. Instead, he tried to follow the example of Sidney Poitier and play more distinguished characters. When he found it necessary to play a Pullman porter or a butler, he played those characters realistically, not as a caricature.

In addition to acting, Davis, along with Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks, was one of the notable black directors of his generation: he directed movies such as Gordon’s War, Black Girl and Cotton Comes to Harlem. Along with Bill Cosby and Poitier, Davis was one of a handful of black actors able to find commercial success while avoiding stereotypical roles prior to 1970, which also included a significant role in the 1965 movie The Hill alongside Sean Connery plus roles in The Cardinal and The Scalphunters. However, Davis never had the tremendous commercial or critical success that Cosby and Poitier enjoyed. As a playwright, Davis wrote Paul Robeson: All-American, which is frequently performed in theatre programs for young audiences.

In 1976, Davis appeared on Muhammad Ali’s novelty album for children, The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay.

Davis found recognition late in his life by working in several of director Spike Lee’s films, including Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, She Hate Me and Get on the Bus. He also found work as a commercial voice-over artist and served as the narrator of the early-1990s CBS sitcom Evening Shade, starring Burt Reynolds, where he also played one of the residents of a small southern town.

In 1999, Davis appeared as a theater caretaker in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra film The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, which was released on DVD two years later.

For many years, he hosted the annual National Memorial Day Concert from Washington, DC.

He voiced Anansi the spider on the PBS children’s television series Sesame Street in its animation segments.

Davis’s last role was a several episode guest role on the Showtime drama series The L Word, as a father struggling with the acceptance of his daughter Bette (Jennifer Beals) parenting a child with her lesbian partner. In his final episodes, his character was taken ill and died. His wife Ruby Dee was present during the filming of his own death scene. That episode, which aired shortly after Davis’s own death, aired with a dedication to the actor. After Davis’s passing, actor Dennis Haysbert portrayed him in the 2015 film Experimenter.


In 1989, Ossie Davis and his wife, actress/activist Ruby Dee, were named to the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame. In 1995, they were awarded the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest honor conferred to an individual artist on behalf of the country and presented in a White House ceremony by the President of the United States. In 2004, they were recipients of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. According to the Kennedy Center Honors:

In 1994, Davis was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.


Davis and Dee were well known as civil rights activists during the Civil Rights Movement and were close friends of Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. and other icons of the era. They were involved in organizing the 1963 civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and served as its emcees. Davis, alongside Ahmed Osman, delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X. He re-read part of this eulogy at the end of Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X. He also delivered a stirring tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, at a memorial in New York’s Central Park the day after King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

Personal life

In 1948, Davis married actress Ruby Dee, whom he had met on the set of Robert Ardrey’s 1946 play Jeb. In their joint autobiography With Ossie and Ruby, they described their decision to have an open marriage, later changing their minds. In the mid-1960s they moved to the New York suburb of New Rochelle, where they remained ever after. Their son Guy Davis is a blues musician and former actor, who appeared in the film Beat Street (1984) and the daytime soap opera One Life to Live. Their daughters are Nora Davis Day and Hasna Muhammad.


Davis was found dead in a Miami Beach hotel room on February 4, 2005. An official cause of death was not released, but he was known to have had heart problems. His ashes were interred at Ferncliff Cemetery.



  • No Way Out (1950) as John Brooks (uncredited)
  • Fourteen Hours (1951) as Cab Driver (uncredited)
  • The Joe Louis Story (1953) as Bob (uncredited)
  • Gone Are the Days! (aka Purlie Victorious) (1963) as Reverend Purlie Victorious Judson
  • The Cardinal (1963) as Father Gillis
  • Shock Treatment (1964) as Capshaw
  • The Hill (1965) as Jacko King
  • A Man Called Adam (1966) as Nelson Davis
  • Silent Revolution (1967)
  • The Scalphunters (1968) as Joseph Lee
  • Sam Whiskey (1969) as Jed Hooker
  • Slaves (1969) as Luke
  • Wattstax (1973) as Himself (uncredited)
  • Let’s Do It Again (1975) as Elder Johnson
  • Countdown at Kusini (1976) as Ernest Motapo
  • Hot Stuff (1979) as Captain John Geiberger
  • Benjamin Banneker: The Man Who Loved the Stars (1979)
  • Harry & Son (1984) as Raymond
  • The House of God (1984) as Dr. Sanders
  • Avenging Angel (1985) as Captain Harry Moradian
  • From Dreams To Reality: A Tribute to Minority Inventors (1986, Documentary) as Himself
  • School Daze (1988) as Coach Odom
  • Do the Right Thing (1989) as Da Mayor
  • Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) as Marshall
  • Preminger: Anatomy of a Filmmaker (1991, Documentary) as Himself
  • Jungle Fever (1991) as The Good Reverend Doctor Purify
  • Gladiator (1992) as Noah
  • Malcolm X (1992) as Eulogy Performer (voice)
  • Cop and a Half (1993) as Detective in Squad Room (uncredited)
  • Grumpy Old Men (1993) as Chuck
  • The Client (1994) as Harry Roosevelt
  • Get on the Bus (1996) as Jeremiah
  • I’m Not Rappaport (1996) as Midge Carter
  • 4 Little Girls (1997, Documentary) as Himself – Actor and Playwright
  • Dr. Dolittle (1998) as Archer Dolittle
  • Alyson’s Closet (1998, Short) as Postman Extraordinaire
  • The Unfinished Journey (1999, Documentary, Short) as Narration (voice)
  • The Gospel According to Mr. Allen (2000, Documentary) as Narrator
  • Dinosaur (2000) as Yar (voice)
  • Here’s to Life! (2000) as Duncan Cox
  • Voice of the Voiceless (2001, Documentary) as Himself
  • Why Can’t We Be a Family Again? (2002, Documentary, Short) as Narrator (voice)
  • Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) as Jack
  • Unchained Memories (2003, Documentary) as Reader #6
  • Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003, Documentary) as Himself
  • Beah: A Black Woman Speaks (2003, Documentary) as Himself
  • BAADASSSSS! (2003) as Granddad
  • She Hate Me (2004) as Judge Buchanan
  • Proud (2004) as Lorenzo DuFau
  • A Trumpet at the Walls of Jericho (2005, Documentary)
  • Television

  • The Emperor Jones (1955, TV Movie) as Brutus Jones
  • Seven Times Monday (1962, TV Movie) as Will
  • Car 54 Where Are You? (1962-1963) as Officer Omar Anderson
  • The Fugitive (1966) as Lieutenant Johnny Gaines
  • 12 O’Clock High (1967) as Major Glenn Luke
  • Bonanza: The Wish (1969) as Sam Davis
  • Night Gallery (1969) as Osmund Portifoy
  • Hawaii Five-O (1974) as Ramon Borelle
  • The Sheriff (1971, TV Movie) as Sheriff James Lucas
  • The Tenth Level (1976, TV Movie) as Reed
  • Billy: Portrait of a Street Kid (1977, TV Movie) as Dr. Fredericks
  • King (1978, TV Mini-Series) as Reverend Martin Luther King Sr.
  • Roots: The Next Generations (1979, TV Mini-Series) as Dad Jones
  • Freedom Road (1979, TV Movie) as Narrator
  • All God’s Children (1980, TV Movie) as Blaine Whitfield
  • Ossie and Ruby! (1980) as Co-host (1980-1981)
  • Don’t Look Back: The Story of Leroy “Satchel” Paige (1981, TV Movie) as Chuffy Russell
  • Death of a Prophet (1981, TV Movie) as Himself
  • Benjamin Banneker: The Man Who Loved the Stars (1989)
  • B.L. Stryker (1989–1990) as ‘Oz’ Jackson
  • We’ll Take Manhattan (1990, TV Movie) as Man in Subway
  • Evening Shade (1990–1994) as Ponder Blue
  • Alex Haley’s Queen (1993, TV Mini-Series) as Parson Dick
  • The Ernest Green Story (1993, TV Movie) as Grandfather
  • The Stand (1994, TV Mini-Series) as Judge Richard Farris
  • Ray Alexander (1995, TV Movie) as Uncle Phil
  • The Android Affair (1995, TV Movie) as Dr. Winston
  • The Client (1995–1996) as Judge Harry Roosevelt
  • Home of the Brave (1996, TV Movie) as Erasmus Jones
  • Promised Land (1996–1998) as Erasmus Jones
  • Touched By An Angel (1996–2002) as Erasmus Jones / Gabriel / Gabe
  • Miss Evers’ Boys (1997, TV Movie) as Mr. Evers
  • 12 Angry Men (1997, TV Movie) as Juror #2
  • The Secret Path (1999, TV Movie) as ‘Too Tall’
  • The Soul Collector (1999, TV Movie) as Mordecai
  • The Ghosts of Christmas Eve (1999, TV Movie) as The Caretaker
  • A Vow to Cherish (1999, TV Movie) as Alexander Billman
  • Between the Lions (1999–2005)
  • Finding Buck McHenry (2000, TV Movie) as Buck McHenry
  • Legend of the Candy Cane (2001, TV Movie) as Julius (voice)
  • The Feast of All Saints (2001, TV Movie) as Jean-Jacques
  • Persidio Med (2002) as Otis Clayton
  • Deacons for Defense (2003, TV Movie) as Reverend Gregory
  • JAG (2003) as Terrence Minnerly
  • The L Word (2004–2005) as Melvin Porter (final appearance)
  • Directing

  • Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)
  • Black Girl (1972)
  • Gordon’s War (1973)
  • Kongi’s Harvest (1973)
  • Countdown at Kusini (1976)
  • Crown Dick (1987 TV movie)
  • Theatre

  • Joy Exceeding Glory (1939)
  • On Strivers Row (1940)
  • Booker T. Washington (1940)
  • Black Women in White (1941)
  • Jeb (1946)
  • Anna Lucasta (1946) (replacement for Earle Hyman)
  • The Leading Lady (1948)
  • The Washington Years (1948)
  • The Smile of the World (1949)
  • Stevedore (1949)
  • The Wisteria Trees (1950)
  • The Royal Family (1951)
  • The Green Pastures (1951)
  • Remains to Be Seen (1951)
  • Touchstone (1953)
  • The Wisteria Trees (1955)
  • No Time for Sergeants (1956) (replacement for Earle Hyman)
  • Jamaica (1957)
  • A Raisin in the Sun (1959) (replacement for Sidney Poitier)
  • Purlie Victorious (1961)
  • Ballad for Bimshire (1963)
  • A Treasury of Negro World Writing (1964)
  • The Talking Skull (1965)
  • The Zulu and the Zayda (1965)
  • Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1972)
  • Take It from the Top (1979)
  • Zora is My Name! (1983)
  • I’m Not Rappaport (1986) (replacement for Cleavon Little)
  • A Celebration of Paul Robeson (1988) (benefit concert)
  • Two Hah Hahs and a Homeboy (1995)
  • Discography

  • Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1: (Folkways Records, 1966)
  • Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 2: (Folkways, 1966)
  • Frederick Douglass’ The Meaning of July 4 for the Negro: (Folkways, 1975)
  • Frederick Douglass’ Speeches inc. The Dred Scott Decision: (Folkways, 1976)
  • External Links

    Actor Ossie Davis – Wikipedia

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