NEW YORK — Ruby Dee — one of the most enduring actresses of theater and film, whose public profile and activist’s passions made her, along with her husband, Ossie Davis, a leading advocate for civil rights both in show business and in the wider world — died Wednesday at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 91.
Her daughter Nora Davis Day confirmed the death.
A diminutive, placid beauty with a sense of persistent social distress and a restless, probing intelligence, Ms. Dee was always a critical favorite but never really a leading lady. Her performing career began in the 1940s and continued well into the 21st century. But, more introspective than outgoing, she was perhaps more naturally suited to character roles than starring ones.
Her most successful central role was off-Broadway, in the 1970 Athol Fugard drama, “Boesman and Lena,” about a pair of nomadic mixed-race South Africans, for which she received overwhelming praise. Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times, “Ruby Dee as Lena is giving one of the finest performances I have ever seen.”
Her most famous performance came more than a decade earlier, in 1959, in a supporting role in “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark drama about the quotidian struggle of a black family in Chicago at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Ms. Dee played Ruth Younger, the wife of the main character, Walter Lee Younger, played by Sidney Poitier, and the daughter-in-law of the leading female character, the family matriarch, Lena (Claudia McNeil).
Ms. Dee’s was a haunting portrait of a young woman whose desperation to maintain grace under pressure does not keep her from being occasionally broken by it.
The play ran 530 performances on Broadway and was reprised, with much of the cast intact, as a 1961 film.
The loyal but worried loved one was a role Ms. Dee played frequently, in films like “The Jackie Robinson Story” (in which she played Rachel Robinson, wife of the pioneering black ballplayer, who starred as himself) and “No Way Out,” a tough racial drama in which she played the sister of a young prison doctor (Poitier).
In the course of Ms. Dee’s career, she went from being a disciple of Paul Robeson to a costar of Poitier, a featured player in the films of Spike Lee, and an Oscar nominee for a supporting role; in the 2007 film “American Gangster,” about a Harlem drug lord (Denzel Washington), she was the loving mother who turned a blind eye to her son’s criminality.
In 1965, playing Cordelia in “King Lear” and Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew,” she was a theatrical pioneer, the first black woman to appear in major roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. In 1968, she became the first black actress to be regularly featured on the titillating prime-time TV series “Peyton Place.”
She appeared in two of Lee’s earliest films, “Do the Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever.” Meanwhile, she picketed Broadway theaters whose shows were not employing black actors and spoke out against film crews that employed few or no blacks.
She was an active member of the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Ruby Ann Wallace, as she was known when she was born in Cleveland, grew up in Harlem. In “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together” (1998), a joint autobiography she wrote with Davis, she said she entered Hunter College in 1940.
In 1946, she joined the cast of a Broadway-bound play called “Jeb,” about a black soldier who has lost a leg in World War II and discovers his sacrifice for his country is of little value in the face of the racism he encounters on his return home. Hired as the understudy for the role of Libby, the title character’s loving girlfriend, Ms. Dee not only replaced the original actress in the role before opening night; she also fell in love with the star, Ossie Davis. The show lasted nine performances, the relationship nearly 60 years, until Davis’s death in 2005. They married in 1948.
In addition to her daughter Nora, Ms. Dee leaves another daughter, Dr. Hasna Muhammad; a son, Guy Davis; a sister, Angelina Roach, and seven grandchildren.
The partnership between Ms. Dee and Davis was romantic, familial, professional, artistic, and political, and it was jointly that they received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton.
During their careers, they performed together many times, including in “Raisin,” when Davis took over the stage role of Walter Younger from Poitier, and in “Purlie Victorious,” Davis’s own broad satire about a charismatic preacher in the Jim Crow South, in 1961 on Broadway, as well as in the 1963 film version, “Gone Are the Days!”