02/21/2005 at 01:00 AM EST
Ossie Davis's longtime friend, Black Enterprise
magazine publisher Earl Graves Sr., remembers the actor joking in his later years: "I don't know why people keep asking me to make movies when I should be retired. But the money's not bad, so I guess I'll keep doing it."
A warm, avuncular actor with a commanding baritone, Davis, 87, had just begun shooting his 40th film—a comedy called, ironically, Retirement—when he was discovered dead of natural causes Feb. 4 in his Miami Beach hotel room. A crueler irony: Davis's wife of 56 years, actress Ruby Dee, from whom he was usually inseparable, having teamed in projects ranging from Broadway's A Raisin in the Sun
(1959) to Spike Lee's Jungle Fever
(1991), was on the other side of world, filming in New Zealand. Dee, 82, immediately flew home to New Rochelle, N.Y., the suburb where the couple had lived since the 1960s, and was soon joined by their three children, seven grand-children and close family friends. "We had a prayer at the funeral home after we brought him home," says Graves. "We had a circle around the coffin and each one spoke. I said to Ruby, 'Ossie's legacy is your family. It's all of you.' "
In fact, Davis's legacy also embraces several generations of black actors inspired by his prolific career. "You could just look at him and see the whole of where we come from and where we are," says Oscar nominee Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda
). Adds Lisa Gay Hamilton (The Practice
): "He is my Malcolm X, my Martin Luther King and my Bobby kennedy."
Close to both King and Malcolm X, Davis was an indefatigable civil rights activist who unleashed his eloquence at countless rallies, including the 1963 March on Washington, which he helped organize. Protest invigorated Davis, who had grown up in a small Georgia town where the Ku Klux Klan threatened his father, an illiterate railway construction worker who encouraged his son's education. "Like exercise strengthens the body, struggle strengthens the character," Davis told People in 1998. "He spent his life in the service of everyday human beings," says his friend Sidney Poitier. "He was a stand-up individual."
It was his partnership with Dee that his admirers remember most fondly. Their devotion to each other was legendary. "They're like one word, 'ossie davisandrubydee,' " said friend Denzel Washington
at a Harlem tribute. "They were always an example to me."
When they met in 1945 on the set of the Broadway play Jeb, Dee was newly divorced and a bit wary of her leading man, who had moved to Harlem after attending Howard University. "He looked like a country bumpkin," she wrote in the couple's 1998 memoir, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together
. Still, "she made me feel exceedingly comfortable," he said, and the two soon fell in love. In 1948, taking a day off from rehearsing their third play together, they wed. One of the great acting couples, often compared with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, they went on to act in nine more plays, five films and miniseries like Roots: The Next Generation
and Stephen King's The Stand
On his own, Davis applied his activism to his art. He wrote Purlie Victorious
, a 1961 stage sendup of racism that was later turned into a film and a Broadway musical. And for Lee's Malcolm X (1992), Davis reprised the 1965 eulogy he delivered for his slain friend.
His own mortality did not seem to concern Davis, despite a recent bout with pneumonia. "He called me one day," says Graves, "and said, 'I'm not going to be around to see the settlement of the Social Security issue, but tell me—if I lived 50 more years, what should I be worried about?' " As the family prepared for Davis's Feb. 12 funeral in New York City, another old friend may have had the last, best word. "I would like him to rest in peace," says Sidney Poitier. "His life was so well-spent."
Mike Lipton. Liza Hamm, Diane Herbst, Jennifer Odell. Omoronke Idowu-Reeves and Sue Miller Wiltz in New York City and Champ Clark in Los Angeles