Ruby Dee

Active - 1947 - 2019  |   Born - Oct 27, 1924 in Cleveland, Ohio, United States  |   Died - Jun 11, 2014   |   Genres - Drama

Share on

Biography by Hal Erickson

African-American stage, film, and TV luminary Ruby Dee was born in Cleveland, the daughter of a Pullman-porter father and schoolteacher mother. While growing up in Harlem, Dee developed an interest in the theater. In 1941, she began studying under Morris Carnovsky at the American Negro Theatre. While attending Hunter College, she made her first professional stage appearance in South Pacific (not the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, but a short-lived 1943 drama). On Broadway from 1946, Dee's first major success was as the title character in Anna Lucasta. In 1948, she married actor Ossie Davis, with whom she appeared in everything from Shakespeare to TV margarine commercials. Though she and Davis were both uncredited in their joint film debut, 1950's No Way Out, Dee achieved second billing in her next feature, The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). Among her favorite stage roles were Ruth Younger in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, and Luttiebelle in her husband Ossie Davis' play Purlie Victorious, roles that she would commit to film in 1961 and 1963 respectively. On TV, Dee was a regular on The Guiding Light, Roots: The Next Generations, and The Middle Ages;

Dee worked steadily throughout the 1970s, '80s, dividing her time more or less equally between television [with turns in such small-screen movies as The Atlanta Child Murders (1981), The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson (1990) and the 1990 Decoration Day, for which she won an Emmy] and the big screen, where her credits included the features Cat People (1982), Cop and a Half (1993) and A Simple Wish (1997). Dee received a career resurgence thanks to her prominent enlistment in the features of Spike Lee (alongside Davis), notably Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991). As time rolled on, she also began to participate in documentaries, such as the 1998 Christianity: The First Thousand Years and the 1999 Smithsonian World: Nigerian Art - Kindred Spirits); made guest appearances in such prime-time series as Touched by an Angel; and essayed a prominent role opposite Halle Berry in the telemovie Oprah Winfrey Presents: Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005). She continued to work steadily after Davis's death in early 2005, and in fact received her first Best Supporting Actress Oscar Nomination for her role in Ridley Scott's period crime saga American Gangster (2007). In 2011 she participated in Sing Your Song, a well-received biography of Harry Belafonte from HBO.

In addition to her acting credits, Ruby Dee was an accomplished writer; she contributed a weekly column to New York's Amsterdam News, co-authored the script for the 1967 film Up Tight!, penned the 1975 TV play Twin-Bit Gardens, and published a book of poetry, Glowchild (1972).

Dee died of natural causes in June 2014 at age 91.

Movie Highlights

See Full Filmography


  • As a teenager in Harlem, studied at the America Negro Theater; classmates included Sidney Poitier, with whom she later appeared in both the 1959 Broadway production and 1961 film version of A Raisin in the Sun.
  • Made her Broadway debut in a 1943 non-musical version of South Pacific.
  • Met husband Ossie Davis while performing in the Broadway drama Jeb in 1946. It was the first of some 50 performances together.
  • Earned recognition in the 1950 biopic The Jackie Robinson Story, as Robinson's wife, Rachel; Jackie Robinson played himself.
  • Was a regular on the CBS soap opera The Guiding Light in 1967.
  • With Davis, wrote a memoir, In This Life Together; also published volumes of poetry as well as several film and stage scripts.
  • With Davis, was inducted into the NAACP Image Award Hall of Fame (1989); was awarded the American National Medal of the Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts (1995); and was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors (2004).
  • Was honored at a celeb-filled bash in Harlem for her 90th birthday in October 2012 that included an excerpt from a documentary about her life with Ossie Davis produced by grandson Muta'Ali Muhammad.