Ossie Davis was born Raiford Chatman Davis in Cogdell, Georgia, on December 18, 1917. The name “Ossie” was accidentally given, when a county clerk misheard his mother’s pronunciation of his initials “R.C.” Ossie enrolled at Howard University but later dropped out in 1939 to pursue an acting career in New York City. He then left New York to serve in World War II, returning in 1946, also the year he met his soul ma-te Ruby Dee.
Davis modeled his career after the legendary Sidney Poitier who was able to push past the stereotypical roles most frequently offered to African Americans. Davis sought to bring dignity to the characters he played, including those with menial jobs or from poor backgrounds.
His early gigs on Broadway made way for a long career in television and film. Davis starred in respected films including The Cardinal and Do the Right Thing over the course of five decades. Davis also wrote and directed plays and films. Along with Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks, Davis was one of the most notable African American direc-tors of his generation, directing films including Cotton Comes to Harlem.
In 1989, Davis and his wife Dee were inducted into the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame. In 1995, they received the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest honor con-ferred to an artist on behalf of the country. They were also honored by the Kennedy Center in 2004.
At the age of 87, Davis was unfortunately found dead in Miami, Florida, on February 4, 2005. The cause of death was natural and may have been related to Davis’s recurring heart problems.