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.