Goodbye, Ruby Dee…

15 Jun

Ruby Dee at the 2007/2008 Screen Actors Guild, the year in which she won for her supporting performance in American Gangster.

The indomitable Ruby Dee died this past week, June 11, at the age of 91. Funny thing, I didn’t see that much coverage in the major news outlets, not really.  Oh, I read a headline late one night, but I don’t remember seeing anything on the next day’s morning news shows.  Maybe I missed it. I’ve had a hectic week; however, I do remember what seemed like wall-to-wall coverage a week or so earlier when poet-activist Maya Angelou passed away and then again when venerable TV actress Ann B. Davis died as well.

Coincidentally, I had just been thinking about Ruby Dee a few days earlier as I watched last Sunday’s Tony awards presentation, and London born Sophie Okonedo, Oscar nominated for 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, snared Best Featured Actress in a play honors for her performance as Ruth Younger, wife of scheming Walter Lee Younger, in the acclaimed revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play, A Raisin in the Sun. Of course, Dee portrayed Ruth Younger in the original stage production back in 1959, the first play by an African-American woman on Broadway, and then later in the 1961 film version, for which she won Best Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review. I’m pretty sure that I first saw Dee in Raisin when it first aired on TV, and then I saw her again, again, and again as she forged an impressive career that actually began well before her work with Hansberry.


Ruby Dee recreating her stage role as Ruth Younger in the film version of Raisin in the Sun, for which the National Board of Review hailed her as the year’s Best Supporting Actress.

Dee’s IMDb profile boasts a staggering 111 acting credits, including playing Rae Robinson in a 1950 film based on the life of baseball great Jackie Robinson–with no less than Robinson actually portraying himself (more than six decades before last spring’s hit 42 starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie and Nicole Behari as Rae/Rachel).  Dee also made her mark in the long running daytime drama The Guiding Light as well as prime time’s  phenomenally popular Peyton Place in the 1960s. In the early 1980s, She co-hosted a PBS series with her husband of 50+ years–and fellow Civil Rights actvist–Ossie Davis, who passed away in 2005.  She once had a guest-starring role on The Golden Girls, playing a much cherished yet misunderstood  character from Blanche’s childhood. She played iconic Mary Tyrone in a 1982 tele-adaptation of Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, for which she won a Cable ACE award (a big deal at the time as cable TV was all but ignored by Emmy voters).  When it comes to Emmy awards, well, Dee made quite an impression there as well, logging six Primetime nominations, including one for a stint on Evening Shade (on which Davis worked as a cast member) and one win, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Special for Decoration Day (1990); furthermore, she garnered three more Emmy nods for her work in daytime television. Whew!  That’s a lot.

Dee was a frequent NAACP Image award honoree. As recently as 2010 she was nominated for the TV movie America. She earned a total of eight Image nominations, including the fact-based Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years (1999), co-starring Diahann Carroll. She won twice, for the series Promised Land and for  Spike Lee’s hit, Do the Right Thing; she later appeared, to devastating results, in Lee’s 1991 Jungle Fever–as the mother of Wesley Snipes as well as Samuel L. Jackson’s  unstrung crack addict, Gator. Additionally, Dee was inducted into the Image Hall of Fame along with Davis in 1989 and won the President’s Award in 2008, the same year she was nominated for American Gangster.


Ruby Dee in 2007’s American Gangster, her sole Oscar nominated role as the mother of the real life drug lord played by Denzel Washington.

Ah, American Gangster. The 2007 epic docudrama based on the exploits of drug smuggler Frank Lucas. The movie starred Denzel Washington as Lucas opposite Russell Crowe as New Jersey based law enforcer Richie Roberts. No matter those two megawatt stars, Dee stole the show as Lucas’s mother and earned her only Oscar nomination–seven years after sharing with Davis a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. Indeed, for her work in American Gangster, Dee actually won her only competitive SAG Award: Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role. She was 85 at the time, and only 5’2″, but no worse for wear as she hauled off and slapped Washington in what for me was the overblown movie’s best scene. By Oscar week, Dee seemed neck-and-neck-and-neck in a tight three way race for the gold that included Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) and Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton)–not to mention gender bending Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There and thirteen year old Saoirse Ronan in Atonement. Talk about spanning the gamut right? An 85 year old and a 13 year year old in the same category? At any rate, Swinton’s name was called when the contents of the coveted envelope were revealed at last.  Dee lost the Oscar, true, but it wasn’t a total defeat as she continued to work in acclaimed projects for the next several years.

Her many other accolades include the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of the Arts, from the National Endowment for the Arts; she shared both honors with Davis. Looking back, Dee never delivered a stirring poem at a presidential inauguration or wrote a literary classic like Angelou did, but she still made her mark as an activist for change. A whole column could be devoted to her work on behalf of justice and civil rights; likewise, as much as I loved the late Ann B. Davis, both as the ever dependable housekeeper Alice on The Brady Bunch or in her Emmy winning role as sidekick Schultzy on The Bob Cummings Show, I think Dee’s acting accomplishments inspire ever greater awe. Whether with Ossie Davis or on her own, Dee’s hard work, devotion to excellence, and indefatigable spirit, led her to the heights of American acting royalty, a true jewel in the crown.

Thanks, Ruby….

Ruby Dee at the Internet Movie Database:

Bosley Crowther reviews The Jackie Robinson Story in the New York Times, May 17, 1950:



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