Since 1999, the Christmas season has been a good time to appreciate the many talents of actor Ossie Davis, who starred in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s musical TV movie, “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve.”
Davis also narrated the dialog-free story about a young runaway girl (Allie Sheridan) who eventually finds her way home. A music video from the 46-minute modern holiday favorite features the TSO and accompanying children’s choir performing the popular Pachelbel Canon (renamed the Christmas Canon) and became an Internet sensation with more than 12 million YouTube views.
But as this year draws to a close, there is another reason to celebrate the late actor — Dec. 18 is the centenary of Davis’ (1917-2005) birth.
Born and raised in rural Georgia (Cogdell, Valdosta, Waycross), Davis eventually made his way to New York City where he appeared in theater and early live television dramas such as “Kraft Television Theatre” and “Playhouse 90.” His first recurring TV role was as Officer Omar Anderson in a half-dozen episodes of the early 1960s comedy “Car 54, Where Are You?” filmed in the Bronx.
“Ossie already had the reputation of being a fine actor rather than another comic, but boy could he handle the funny lines,” said Hank Garrett, who played Officer Ed Nicholson throughout the series. “To do those 90-minute live TV dramas with long dialogues meant you had to be letter perfect, as Ossie was on ‘Car 54.’”
Garrett said the show’s creator and writer Nat Hiken was a groundbreaker because he hired Davis and comedian Nipsey Russell to play regular supporting characters, rather than the stereotypical tradesmen roles that African American actors were usually given in movies from previous decades.
“Nat caught a lot of flak, but he loved Ossie and Nipsey,” said Garrett. “It became the No. 1 show.”
In addition to his stage work, Davis would go on to appear in more than 120 films (“The Scalphunters,” “I'm Not Rappaport,” “Grumpy Old Men”) and TV shows (“Evening Shade,” “B.L. Stryker,” “Touched by an Angel”). In his final role, Davis played Jennifer Beals’ father on Showtime’s “The L Word” in 2005.
“I was so excited that he had been cast to play my father,” recalled Beals. “Sometimes, I would move my cast chair to sit next to him off set, just to be near him. When I told my mother he was playing my father, she was so excited. When he left her a message on her answering machine, she was like a giggly little kid.”
Davis only appeared in four episodes and his character was killed off, but the dramatic scenes left an impression on the actress.
“He was wonderful to work with — thoughtful and generous,” she said. “I felt his warmth, his kindness and his intelligence. It crushed me to watch him die when he was playing my father. It broke my heart to hear the news of his actual death. My heart went out to his family, particularly Ruby. What an extraordinary, meaningful life they had together.”
Ossie married actress Ruby Dee (1922-2014) in 1948. The couple worked together off and on throughout their careers and off-screen were actively involved in the civil rights movement, but son Guy Davis says his father’s progressive on-screen roles also helped African-American actors gain better recognition and opportunities in the profession.
“There were times when he played those stereotypical porters or servants, but he did so with pride,” said Davis, himself a successful actor and blues musician. “I’m going to use a historically black derogative term here, and say that he took the ‘coon’ factor out of those characters. He went on to play teachers and doctors, and it was important for him to play parts that were uplifting and showed diversity. Both he and my mother tried to bring basic human dignity to their roles.”
Guy says his father didn’t often discuss his own personal experiences with prejudice or racism with the family.
“I don’t think dad liked to express things from his own past that were painful, although some of it did come out in the autobiography my mom and dad wrote jointly,” said Guy, referring to their 2000 book “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.”
Even though Davis was an entertainer, Guy believes his father also “thought of his job as enabling him to bring dialog, understanding and wisdom to areas of conflict. That was his way of being a leader.”
Understandably, perhaps, growing up in the shadow of two famous entertainers wasn’t always easy for Guy.
“I was glad people knew who my father was and celebrated him, but it could be constraining as I wanted to be free to be the crazy, goofy kid I was,” he said. “As I got older, I also felt some people wanted to be near me as a way of being near my father. But eventually, I found my own identity as an entertainer and performer. There will always be people who identify me with my father, but that’s okay now. He was a generous and gentle man and I’m ever so grateful he was my dad.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama, and has written features, columns and interviews for more than 650 newspapers and magazines. See more at tinseltowntalks.com.