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Ruby Dee, actress and civil rights activist, dies at 91

FILE  JUNE 12:  Actress Ruby Dee died June 11 2014 her home Rochelle New York.  She was

FILE JUNE 12: Actress Ruby Dee died June 11, 2014 at her home in Rochelle, New York. She was 91. NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 13: Ruby Dee attends "The Mountaintop" Broadway opening night at The Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on October 13, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 129173974

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Updated: June 25, 2014 12:09PM

Ruby Dee, an acclaimed actress and civil rights activist whose versatile career spanned stage, radio television and film, has died at age 91, according to her daughter.

Nora Davis Day told The Associated Press on Thursday that her mother died at home in New Rochelle on Wednesday night of “natural causes.”

Ms. Dee, who frequently acted alongside her husband of 56 years, Ossie Davis, was with loved ones, she added.

“We have had her for so long and we loved her so much,” Day said. “She took her final bow last night at home surrounded by her children and grandchildren.”

Day added: “We gave her our permission to set sail. She opened her eyes, closed her eyes and away she went.”

Her long career brought her an Oscar nomination at age 83 for best supporting actress for her maternal role in the 2007 film “American Gangster.” She also won an Emmy and was nominated for several others. Age didn’t slow her down.

“I think you mustn’t tell your body, you mustn’t tell your soul, ‘I’m going to retire,’” Ms. Dee told The Associated Press in 2001. “You may be changing your life emphasis, but there’s still things that you have in mind to do that now seems the right time to do. I really don’t believe in retiring as long as you can breathe.”

She and her late husband were frequent collaborators. Their partnership rivaled the achievements of other celebrated acting couples. But they were more than performers; they were also activists who fought for civil rights, particularly for blacks.

“We used the arts as part of our struggle,” she said in 2006. “Ossie said he knew he had to conduct himself differently with skill and thought.”

In 1998, the pair celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and an even longer association in show business with the publication of a dual autobiography, “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.”

Mr. Davis died in February 2005. Among those who mourned at his funeral included former President Bill Clinton, Harry Belafonte and Spike Lee.

Mr. Davis and Ms. Dee met in 1945 when she auditioned for the Broadway play “Jeb,” starring Davis (both were cast in it). In December 1948, on a day off from rehearsals from another play, Davis and Dee took a bus to New Jersey to get married. They already were so close that “it felt almost like an appointment we finally got around to keeping,” Ms. Dee wrote in “In This Life Together.”

They shared billing in 11 stage productions and five movies during long parallel careers. Ms. Dee’s fifth film, “No Way Out” with Sidney Poitier in 1950, was her husband’s first. Along with film, stage and television, their richly honored careers extended to a radio show, “The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour,” that featured a mix of black themes. Davis directed one of their joint film appearances, “Countdown at Kusini” (1976).

Ms. Dee was born in Cleveland, Ohio, raised in Harlem, and began her acting career in in 1940 with the American Negro Theatre, a troupe housed in the basement of a Harlem public library. But it was in 1959 that she set Broadway on fire, playing a crucial role in Lorraine Hansberry’s quintessentially Chicago-bred play, “A Raisin in the Sun” (she also starred in the play’s critically acclaimed 1961 film version alongside Sidney Poitier and Louis Gossett).

Ms. Dee played Ruth Younger, the attractive but exhausted domestic worker who is the mother of a young son and the wife to Walter Younger (played by Poitier) a man determined to forge a business of his own. While she wants to support her husband’s dream, she also leans toward here mother-in-law’s desire for the family to own a house, rather than continuing to live in a cramped, shabby apartment on Chicago’s South Side. Hansberry’s play was the first written by a black woman to reach Broadway. And Ms. Dee brought her innate elegance, modernity and subtle acting skills to the role both on the stage and in the play’s film version.

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.”

At the Tony Awards this past Sunday night, actress Audra McDonald (who played Ruth in a 2004 Broadway revival of the play), named several black women whose “shoulders she stood on,” and Ruby Dee was on her list.

Ms. Dee and Davis were active in civil rights issues and efforts to promote the cause of blacks in the entertainment industry and elsewhere. Ms. Dee and Davis served as masters of ceremonies for the historic 1963 March on Washington and she spoke at both the funerals for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X.

The couple’s battle in that arena was lifelong: In 1999, the couple was arrested while protesting the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, by New York City police.

“Ruby Dee was a phenomenally rare artist and a jewel to our nation and community. I was privileged to work on several civil rights cases with her and her husband Ossie Davis,” said Rev. Al Sharpton in a statement. “She was as committed to social justice as she was to the screen and stage. She will be greatly missed.”

On television, Dee was a leading cast member on the soap operas “Guiding Light” and “Peyton Place,” a rare sight for a black actress in the 1950s and 60s. As she aged, her career did not ebb. Ms. 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.” 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 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. In 2007, Davis and Dee’s book won a Grammy for best spoken word album.

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.

Day said funeral services will be private but a public memorial is planned.

Contributing: Hedy Weiss, Sun-Times theater critic

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