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Ruby Dee dead at 91

News Desk | 6/12/2014, 1:56 p.m.
Born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland to parents who soon split, Dee moved to Harlem as an infant with a ...

Among her best-known films was "A Raisin in the Sun," in 1961, the classic play that explored racial discrimination and black frustration. On television, she was a leading cast member on the soap operas such in the 1950s and '60s, a rare sight for a black actress in the 1950s and 60s.

As she aged, her career did not ebb. Dee was the voice of wisdom and reason as Mother Sister in Spike Lee's 1989 film, "Do the Right Thing," alongside her husband. She won an Emmy as supporting actress in a miniseries or special for 1990's "Decoration Day."

She won a National Medal of the Arts in 1995 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2000. In 2004, she and Davis received Kennedy Center Honors. Another honor came in 2007, after Davis' death, when the recording of their memoir won a Grammy for best spoken word album, a category that includes audio books.

The role that brought her an Oscar nomination at age 83 was as the mother of Denzel Washington's title character in Ridley Scott's crime drama "American Gangster."

Born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland to parents who soon split, Dee moved to Harlem as an infant with a brother and two sisters, living with relatives and neighbors. She graduated from highly competitive Hunter High School in 1939 and enrolled at Hunter College. "I wanted to be an actor but the chances for success did not look promising," she wrote in their joint autobiography.

But in 1940 she got a part in a Harlem production of a new play, "On Strivers Row," which she later called "one giant step" to becoming a person and a performer.

In 1965, she became the first black woman to play lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival. She won an Obie Award for the title role in Athol Fugard's "Boesman and Lena" and a Drama Desk Award for her role in "Wedding Band."

Most recently, Dee performed her one-woman stage show, "My One Good Nerve: A Visit With Ruby Dee," in theaters across the country. The show was a compilation of some of the short stories, humor and poetry in her book of the same title.

She is survived by three children: Nora, Hasna and Guy, and seven grandchildren.