Ossie Davis, perhaps best known as Da Mayor in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989), was one of the most versatile and prolific actors of the 20th century. Originally intending to be a playwright, Davis became an actor as well, and made his Broadway debut in the 1940’s after serving in the army during World War II. It was during this time that he met and married his wife, the equally talented Ruby Dee, and the pair began a personal and professional partnership that lasted the rest of their lives.
Ossie Davis moved easily from dramas to musicals and comedies. In 1963 alone, he played a priest victimized by the Ku Klux Klan in the drama, “The Cardinal,” starred in the movie, “Gone Are the Days” (an adaptation of his own play, “Purlie Victorious”), and he played a recurring role in the television sitcom “Car 54, Where Are You?” His personal life also reflected these multitudes. The politically active Davis not only read the eulogy at the funeral for Malcolm X, he was also life-long friends with Burt Reynolds after the two met working on the New York stage in the 1950’s. Davis can been seen starring alongside Reynolds in the MGM western, “Sam Whiskey” (1969).
Ossie Davis spent his life showing all aspects of the African-American experience. This is also reflected in some of the other movies featuring Davis in the MGM movie library, including “King” (1978) with Paul Winfield and Cecily Tyson, and the Davis-directed thriller, “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970).
This month enjoy one of Ossie Davis’ later performances in the cult classic, “Bubba Ho-Tep” (2002). In this low budget horror comedy, Davis turns in a delightful performance as a man who believes he is JFK. He must join his friend who may, or may not be, Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) to destroy a soul-sucking, centuries-old, Egyptian mummy from preying on their nursing home. As outlandish as the movie sounds – and trust us, it is – it is also a fine example of Ossie Davis’ range as an actor. Davis’ performance as JFK demonstrated his ability to ground a performance with humor, pathos, and humanity to make something ultimately heroic.
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were honored for their contributions to the culture with a National Medal for the Arts in 1995 and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2004.
You can watch Ossie Davis in Bubba Ho-Tep and Sam Whiskey this September on MGM HD.