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Ruby Dee was a formidable force on screen, in civil rights movement

Award-winning actress died peacefully at home, rep says

Alan Duke and Todd Leopold | 6/13/2014, 6 a.m.
Ruby Dee appeared in the 1961 film "A Rasin in the Sun." (Courtesy The Everett Collection)

— Ruby Dee, the award-winning actress whose seven-decade career included triumphs on stage and screen, has died. She was 91.

Dee died peacefully Wednesday at her New Rochelle, New York, home, according to her representative, Michael Livingston.

Dee -- often with her late husband, Ossie Davis -- was a formidable force in both the performing arts community and the civil rights movement. The couple were master and mistress of ceremonies at the 1963 March on Washingon, and she was friends with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Dee received the Frederick Douglass Award in 1970 from the New York Urban League.

As an actress, her film credits included "The Jackie Robinson Story" (1950), "A Raisin in the Sun" (1961), "Buck and the Preacher" (1972), "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and "American Gangster" (2007).

Dee earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in "Gangster." She won an Emmy and Grammy for other work.

Broadway star Audra McDonald paid tribute to Dee when she accepted a Tony Award on Sunday, crediting Dee, Maya Angelou, Diahann Carroll and Billie Holiday for making her career possible. McDonald won a best actress Tony in 2004 for playing the same role Dee created on Broadway in 1959 and in the 1961 film version of "Raisin."

In a statement, Gil Robertson IV of the African American Film Critics Association praised Dee's contributions.

"The members of the African American Film Critics Association are deeply saddened at the loss of actress and humanitarian Ruby Dee," said Robertson. "Throughout her seven-decade career, Ms. Dee embraced different creative platforms with her various interpretations of black womanhood and also used her gifts to champion for Human Rights. Her strength, courage and beauty will be greatly missed."

Dee was born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1922, and moved to New York's Harlem as a child. She took the surname Dee after marrying blues singer Frankie Dee two decades later. She divorced Dee after a short marriage and was wedded to Davis in 1948. Davis preceded his wife in death in 2005.

Her acting career started in New York in the 1940s, first appearing onscreen in the 1946 musical "That Man of Mine." A role in "The Jackie Robinson Story" brought her national attention.

Dee became known to a younger generation with roles in two Spike Lee films. She co-starred with Davis in Lee's "Do the Right Thing" and in his 1991 film "Jungle Fever."

First lady Michelle Obama tweeted that she was "deeply saddened" by Dee's death. "I'll never forget seeing her in 'Do the Right Thing' on my first date with Barack."

Dee's television work included 20 episodes of "Peyton Place" in 1969 and the role of Queen Haley in the 1979 miniseries "Roots: The Next Generation."

'The finest performance I have ever seen'

She was regularly praised for her acting.

In the 1961 film version of "Raisin," Lorraine Hansberry's play about a working-class black family trying to move up in the world, she played Ruth Younger, the wife of Sidney Poitier's striving Walter.