By Alan Duke and Todd Leopold
(CNN) – 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 Washington, 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 June 8, 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 A Raisin in the Sun.
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. Her 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.
Dee and Davis were married 56 years but were an odd couple in some ways: She from New York, he from Waycross, Georgia. She was small and stylish, he was big and bluff. But their beliefs were often as one, and they practiced what they preached.
“We shared a great deal in common; we didn’t have any distractions as to where we stood in society. We were black activists. We had a common understanding,” she told Ebony magazine in 1988.
Dee and Davis met while acting in the 1945 Broadway play Jeb in 1945. He proposed three years later with a telegram he sent from Chicago, where he was touring in a play, according to their joint autobiography With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, published near their 50th anniversary. The telegram to his girlfriend said he “might as well marry” her. Dee wrote back, “Don’t do me any favors.”
There was no television in their home for years, The New York Times observed in a 1995 profile, because “television represented an industry that refused to hire black people in significant numbers or in anything other than stereotypical roles.”
They appeared at protest rallies and took their children with them. She admitted to a fiery temperament: In a famous American Gangster scene, she slaps star Denzel Washington across the face, noting she put everything into the motion.
“It’s not far from my nature to whack,” she told USA Today. “There’s a streak in me.”
Dee and Davis were arrested in 1999 while protesting outside New York City police headquarters against the police shooting of an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo. Dee told reporters the shooting “reminds me of when there were lynchings all over the country. We’ve got to start saying ‘No further. This must stop,'” Dee said.