Ossie Davis was born in Cogdell, Georgia. He graduated high school in Waycross, Georgia, and attended Howard University. In 1939, he began his career as a writer and actor with the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem.
In 1946, Mr. Davis made his Broadway debut in Jeb, and went on to perform in many Broadway productions, including Anna Lucasta, The Wisteria Trees, Green Pastures, Jamaica, Ballad for Bimshire (which he co-produced), The Zulu and the Zayda, and I’m Not Rappaport (which he later reprised on film with Walter Matthau). In 1961, Mr. Davis wrote and starred in the critically acclaimed Purlie Victorious. He was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1994.
After making his film debut in No Way Out (1950, with Sidney Poitier), Mr. Davis appeared in such films as The Cardinal, The Hill, The Scalphunters, Let’s Do It Again, Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Grumpy Old Men, Get on the Bus, Doctor Dolittle, Bubba Ho-Tep and Baadassss. In 1970, Mr. Davis directed his first feature film, Cotton Comes to Harlem. He went on to direct four others: Gordon’s War, Kongi’s Harvest, Black Girl, and Countdown at Kusini, which he also co-produced with his wife, Ruby Dee.
Mr. Davis’ small screen debut was in the 1955 production of The Emperor Jones, in the title role. He received Emmy Award nominations for his work in Teacher, Teacher, King, and Miss Evers Boys; in 2001, Mr. Davis was awarded a Daytime Emmy for playing the title role in the children’s special Finding Buck McHenry. He was a regular or recurring player in the series The Defenders, With Ossie & Ruby, B.L. Stryker, Evening Shade, The Client, Promised Land and The L Word. Additional television credits include Night Gallery, The Sheriff, Bonanza, Roots: The Next Generation, Alex Haley’s Queen, The Stand, Showtime’s 12 Angry Men, Touched By An Angel, Third Watch, City of Angels, and Deacons for Defense. His television writing credits include episodes of East Side/West Side and the teleplay For Us, The Living, for which he received the Neil Simon Jury Award.
With his wife, Mr. Davis produced several television specials, including Today is Ours, Martin Luther King: The Dream & The Drum, and two segments of A Walk Through the 20th Century with Bill Moyers. They also co-produced the television series With Ossie & Ruby, which aired for three seasons. In 1980, Mr. Davis and Ms. Dee founded their own production company, Emmalyn II Productions Company, Inc.
Mr. Davis was the author of three children’s books: Escape to Freedom (honored by the American Library Association and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award); Langston; and Just Like Martin. In 1998, he and Ruby Dee marked their 50th wedding anniversary with the publication of their joint autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, the audio version of which won a Grammy.
Mr. Davis received many honors and citations, including the N.Y. Urban League Frederick Douglass Award, the NAACP Image Award, the National Medal of Arts, and the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. In December 2004, Mr. Davis and Ms. Dee were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors.
Mr. Davis died on February 4, 2005 at the age of 87.