Ossie Davis Biography

Actor, Civil Rights Activist, Director, Playwright (1917–2005)
Ossie Davis was an American actor, writer and director best known for his screen roles and for his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

Who Was Ossie Davis?

Ossie Davis was born on December 18, 1917, in Cogdell, Georgia. After serving in World War II, Davis embarked on an acting career that would span decades. He starred on Broadway and television and in films. He also wrote and directed. Davis and his wife, actress Ruby Dee, were prominently involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Davis died on February 4, 2005, in Miami, Florida.

Early Life

Raiford Chatman Davis was born in Cogdell, Georgia, on December 18, 1917. The name "Ossie" was bestowed accidentally, when a county clerk misheard his mother's pronunciation of the initials "R.C."

Ossie enrolled at Howard University but dropped out in 1939 to pursue an acting career in New York City. He left New York to serve in World War II, returning in 1946.


Davis modeled his career on the example of Sidney Poitier—an actor who was able to push past the stereotypical roles most frequently offered to African Americans. Like Poitier, Davis sought to bring dignity to the characters he played, including those with menial jobs or from poor backgrounds.

His early jobs on Broadway paved the way for a long career in television and film. While never achieving the commercial success of Poitier, Davis starred in respected films including The Cardinal and Do the Right Thing over the course of five decades. He also worked on television programs such as Evening Shade and The L Word.

In addition to acting, Davis wrote and directed plays and films. Along with Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks, Davis as one of the notable African American directors of his generation, directing films including Cotton Comes to Harlem.

Personal Life

Davis married actress Ruby Dee in 1948. The couple spent most of their married lives in New Rochelle, New York, where they raised a family.

Both Davis and Dee were civil rights activists, maintaining close relationships with Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr., among others. Davis delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X and participated in a tribute to King at a New York service for the slain leader.


In 1989, Davis and Dee were inducted into the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame. In 1995, they received the National Medal of Arts—the nation's highest honor conferred to an artist on behalf of the country. They were honored by the Kennedy Center in 2004.


Davis was found dead in Miami, Florida, on February 4, 2005. The cause of death was natural and may have been related to Davis's recurring heart problems.

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