NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Pioneering African-American actress Ruby Dee has died, her agent said Thursday.
The legendary stage and screen actress and civil rights activist was 91.
Dee died at the same New Rochelle, New York, home she shared with her husband of 56 years, actor Ossie Davis, until his death in 2005.
She was surrounded by friends and family at the time of her death Wednesday night.
“Ruby Dee was a phenomenally rare artist and a jewel to our nation and community,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. “I was privileged to work on several civil rights cases with her and her husband, Ossie Davis. She was as committed to social justice as she was to the screen and stage. She will be greatly missed. ”
Dee was raised in Harlem and graduated from Hunter College in 1944. She told 1010 WINS’ Larry Mullins in 2012 her mother and her girlfriends’ mothers were responsible for letting NYC know that segregated schools were unacceptable.
Dee’s breakout film was 1950’s “The Jackie Robinson Story,” in which she co-starred with her friend who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier.
Her Broadway career started in 1943. Her sixth play, in 1959, was “A Raisin in the Sun,” which became an American classic. Dee originated the role of Ruth, the struggling housewife — a role she re-created for film opposite Sidney Poitier.
Dee made more than 70 films.
After learning of Dee’s death, director Spike Lee, who worked with her and Davis on his 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” posted on Instragram: “God bless you Ruby Dee. God bless you Ossie Davis. The both of you told us ‘To Always Do The Right Thing.'”
Dee’s long career brought her an Oscar nomination at age 83 for best supporting actress for her role in the 2007 film “American Gangster.”
She was appreciative of the nomination, but it wasn’t easy getting there.
“I’d given up sort of in Hollywood because it had given up on me,” she said at the time.
She also won an Emmy and was nominated for several others.
During the Tony Awards on Sunday, winning actress Audra McDonald offered praise when accepting her sixth Tony.
“I’m standing on Lena Horne’s shoulders,” she said. “I’m standing on Maya Angelou’s shoulders. I’m standing on Diahann Carroll and Ruby Dee.”
The Broadway cast of “A Raisin in the Sun” is dedicating Thursday’s performance to Dee, CBS 2’s Dana Tyler reported.
“It has been such a privilege and honor to play the role she originated on the very same stage every night,” said Tony-winning actress Sophie Okendo, who plays Ruth. “Tonight, I will be thinking of her and sending her a prayer as the curtain goes up.”
The revival’s Tony-winning director, Kenny Leon, added: “I will never forget the passion for the play and her example as a true American theatre artist that inspired many of us to speak through our art.”
Dee was also an activist, having worked with the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP and other groups that she and her late husband supported.
Dee and Davis were friends with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and spoke at his march on Washington in 1963.
n 2004, the couple received Kennedy Center Honors
As 1010 WINS’ Carol D’Auria reported, Dee had intimate relationship with the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She performed there, and her husband served as chairman of the theater’s board.
Theater historian Billy Mitchell said Dee had a presence about her that seemed regal, and she wasn’t afraid to mix her work with her activism.
“She did films that were socially conscious, plays that were socially conscious, and it made you think,” Mitchell told D’Auria.
Grace Jones, who knew Dee personally, said she was a role model.
“She gave her all,” Jones said. “She didn’t pull any punches. She was an individual that helped you to find whatever you were looking for.”
Dee was also a poet, playwright, screenwriter and journalist.
New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson told WCBS 880 that Dee was active in the community by supporting arts organizations and promoting education.
“Her talent was really just remarkable, and I think anyone who’s observed her knows that,” Bramson said. “But it’s the other side — that sort of warm approachability — that I think may be better known to her neighbors in New Rochelle.”
She is survived by three children and seven grandchildren.
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