RUBY DEE, A RINGING VOICE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS, ONSTAGE AND OFF
Her daughter Nora Davis Day confirmed the death.
A diminutive beauty with a sense of persistent social distress and a restless, probing intelligence, Ms. Dee began her performing career in the 1940s, and it continued well into the 21st century. She was always a critical favorite, though not often cast as a leading lady.
Her most successful central role was Off Broadway, in the 1970 Athol Fugard drama, “Boesman and Lena,” about a pair of nomadic mixed-race South Africans, for which she received overwhelming praise. Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times, “Ruby Dee as Lena is giving one of the finest performances I have ever seen.”
Her most famous performance came more than a decade earlier, in 1959, in a supporting role in “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark drama about the quotidian struggle of a black family in Chicago at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Ms. Dee played Ruth Younger, the wife of the main character, Walter Lee Younger, played by Sidney Poitier, and the daughter-in-law of the leading female character, the family matriarch, Lena (Claudia McNeil).
Ruth is a character with far too much on her plate: an overcrowded home, a troubled husband, a young son, an overbearing mother-in-law, a wearying job and an unwanted pregnancy, not to mention the shared burden of black people everywhere in a society skewed against them. Ms. Dee’s was a haunting portrait of a young woman whose desperation to maintain grace under pressure doesn’t keep her from being occasionally broken by it.
The play had 530 performances on Broadway and was reprised, with much of the cast intact, as a 1961 film. On screen, Edith Oliver wrote in The New Yorker, Ms. Dee was “even more impressive” than she was onstage. “Is there a better young actress in America, or one who can make everything she does seem so effortless?” Ms. Oliver wrote.
The loyal but worried loved one was a role Ms. Dee played frequently, in films like “The Jackie Robinson Story” (in which she played the wife of the pioneering black ballplayer, who starred as himself) and “No Way Out,” a tough racial drama in which she played the sister of a young doctor (Mr. Poitier).
Over the course of Ms. Dee’s career, the lives of American blacks, both extraordinary and ordinary, belatedly emerged as rich subject matter for mainstream theater productions and films, and black performers went from being consigned to marginal and often belittling roles to starring in Hollywood megahits.
Ms. Dee went from being a disciple of Paul Robeson to starring with Mr. Poitier on Broadway. She was a featured player in the films of Spike Lee and an Oscar nominee for a supporting role in the 2007 movie “American Gangster,” about a Harlem drug lord (Denzel Washington); she played a loving mother who turned a blind eye to her son’s criminality.
But Ms. Dee not only took part in that evolution; through her visibility in a wide range of projects, from classics onstage to contemporary film dramas to television soap operas, she also helped bring it about.
In 1965, playing Cordelia in “King Lear” and Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew,” she was the first black woman to appear in major roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. In 1968, she became the first black actress to be featured regularly on the titillating prime-time TV series “Peyton Place.”
She appeared in two of Mr. Lee’s earliest films, “Do the Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever.” (On Thursday, Michelle Obama tweeted about Ms. Dee: “I’ll never forget seeing her in ‘Do the Right Thing’ on my first date with Barack.”)
Ms. Dee picketed Broadway theaters that were not employing black actors for their shows and spoke out against film crews that hired few or no blacks.
Having made her name in films that addressed racial issues, she began seeking out more of them. She collaborated with the director Jules Dassin on the screenplay for “Up Tight!,” a 1968 adaptation of “The Informer,” Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 novel set after the Irish civil war. (It had also been filmed by John Ford.) Mr. Dassin and Ms. Dee shifted the tale of betrayal among revolutionaries to 1960s Cleveland; Ms. Dee played a welfare mother who helped feed her family by resorting to prostitution.
She also lent her voice and presence to the cause of racial equality outside show business. She was an active member of the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
At the Tony Awards ceremony on Sunday, Audra McDonald, in accepting her sixth acting award for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” acknowledged Ms. Dee as one of five black women whose shoulders she stands upon. (The others were Holiday, Maya Angelou, Diahann Carroll and Lena Horne.)
A revival of “Raisin in the Sun,” now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway, the same stage as the original production, won three Tonys, including one for Sophie Okonedo, who plays Ruth Younger. In a statement, Ms. Okonedo called Ms. Dee “one of my heroines.”
Ruby Ann Wallace, as she was known when she was born in Cleveland on Oct. 27, 1922, grew up in Harlem. The third child of teenage parents, she was reared mostly by her father, Marshall Wallace, who became a waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and his second wife, the former Emma Amelia Benson, a college-educated teacher who was 13 years older than he. Ms. Dee described her as a strict but loving mother, a stickler for elocution and the person who introduced her to poetry, music and dance.
By the mid-1940s, when she graduated from Hunter College, Ms. Dee was already a working actress, having appeared on Broadway and in productions of the American Negro Theater, then a fledgling professional company housed in the basement of the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library.
She had also been married, in 1941, to the singer Frankie Dee Brown. The marriage dissolved within four years, but it gave Ms. Dee the name by which she would be known for the rest of her life.
She made her Broadway debut in December 1943 in a short-lived play called “South Pacific,” unrelated to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that came along more than five years later. In 1946 she joined the cast of a Broadway-bound play called “Jeb,” about a black soldier who has lost a leg in World War II and discovers that his sacrifice for his country is of little value in the face of the racism he encounters on his return home.
Hired as the understudy for the role of Libby, the title character’s loving girlfriend, Ms. Dee not only replaced the original actress in the role before opening night but also fell in love with the star, Ossie Davis. The show lasted for nine performances, the relationship nearly 60 years, until Mr. Davis’s death in 2005. They married in 1948.
Besides her daughter Nora, Ms. Dee is survived by another daughter, Hasna Muhammad; a son, the singer Guy Davis; a sister, Angelina Roach; and seven grandchildren.
The partnership between Ms. Dee and Mr. Davis was romantic, familial, professional, artistic and political, and they jointly received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton.
During their careers they performed together many times, including in “Raisin,” when Mr. Davis took over the stage role of Walter Younger from Mr. Poitier, and in “Purlie Victorious,” Mr. Davis’s own broad satire about a charismatic preacher in the Jim Crow South, on Broadway in 1961 and in the 1963 film version, “Gone Are the Days!”
In 1998 they published a joint autobiography, “With Ossie & Ruby: In This Life Together,” to commemorate their 50th wedding anniversary. The book is remarkable for its candor, not only about their careers and upbringings but also about their intimate lives, together and apart, and their reflections on race relations, politics and art. Told in separate, alternating voices, it was a book-length public conversation that testified to a lifelong private one.
Ms. Dee and Mr. Davis stood together, far to the political left, on behalf of numerous causes. They spoke out in the 1950s against the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and against the persecution of American Communists (and purported Communists) in the investigations by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. When, under the McCarran Internal Security Act, the government revoked the passport of Robeson, the great black actor, singer and outspoken socialist, they helped organize the campaign to have it restored.
They were friends and supporters of both the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, whose eulogy, after his assassination in 1965, was delivered by Mr. Davis. On Aug. 28, 1963, the day of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which culminated in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Ms. Dee and Mr. Davis were the M.C.’s of the entertainment event at the foot of the Washington Monument that preceded the march to the Lincoln Memorial. They raised money for the Black Panthers. They demonstrated against the Vietnam War.
In 2005 Ms. Dee received a lifetime achievement award from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
“You can only appreciate freedom,” she said then, “when you find yourself in a position to fight for someone else’s freedom and not worry about your own.”
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the name of Ms. Dee’s first husband. He was Frankie Dee Brown, not Freddie Dee Brown.
An earlier version of this obituary referred imprecisely to the part Sidney Poitier played in the film “No Way Out,” in which Ms. Dee also appeared. He was a doctor in a county hospital that had a prison ward; he was not a prison doctor.SOURCE
His death was announced by Danny Deraney, a spokesman for Mr. Kasem’s daughter Kerri. Mr. Kasem had Lewy body dementia, a progressive disease of the body’s neurological and muscle cells.
In his final months, Mr. Kasem, who had lived in Beverly Hills, Calif., was at the center of a family legal battle over the terms of his death, pitting his wife, the actress Jean Kasem, against his three adult children from a previous marriage. Ms. Kasem removed her husband from a Santa Monica nursing home on May 7 and took him to stay with friends in Washington State. By court order, he was moved to the hospital on June 1.
Mr. Kasem’s “American Top 40,” which first aired in the summer of 1970, was a weekly four-hour feast of homey sentiment and American optimism that ran headlong into the prevailing spirit of rebellion in the music culture of the day.
The show gave new life to the Top 40 format at a time when the popularity of the 45 r.p.m. record was waning and FM disc jockeys were experimenting with more personal formats, creating playlists from their favorite long-playing album cuts.
Mr. Kasem, instead, featured only the singles that Billboard magazine had ranked as the country’s most popular in the past week, based on its analysis of airplay — a playlist, in effect, based on the national pop consensus.
Building a radio show on the notion that such a consensus existed was considered a risky proposition in that culturally splintered time. As Time magazine put it, “He embraced corniness as Vietnam-era cynicism peaked.” But the format struck a chord.
Only five radio stations carried the debut of “American Top 40” on July 4, 1970. But within a year more than 100 did, and by the mid-1970s it had reached nearly 1,000 outlets “coast to coast,” as Mr. Kasem liked to say, making him one of the best-known D.J.’s in the country.
He had modeled the show, he later told interviewers, on the old NBC radio program “Your Hit Parade” (also known as “The Lucky Strike Hit Parade”). “I thought we’d be around for at least 20 years,” he said. “Because I knew the formula worked.”
“American Top 40” became a mainstay of American radio, offering a crowd-pleasing menu of hits seasoned with Mr. Kasem’s heartfelt readings of listeners’ song dedications, wholesome anecdotes about the lives of the pop stars, and an endless store of solid, if cringe-inducing, pieces of advice, like his touchstone signoff: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
(Not all the dedications were necessarily feel-good, however. A pregnant teenager addressed her boyfriend in prison, for example, and a mother begged her runaway daughter to come home.)
Mr. Kasem also hosted a syndicated television version of the show in the 1980s. But his relationship with “American Top 40” ended in 1988 because of a contract dispute with his syndication company. The next year, he started “Casey’s Top 40,” a competing radio program on another network, bringing most of his old audience there with him.
About 10 years later, after acquiring the rights to the name, he was again hosting a show with the title “American Top 40” (for a time he hosted both that and the competing “Casey’s Top 40”). He ended his three-decade run in 2004, handing the hosting duties to Ryan Seacrest, who continues in that role. Mr. Kasem retired in 2009.
Mr. Kasem, who had a financial interest in his shows, had a net worth estimated by several sources at $80 million. Last year he put his house in the Holmby Hills area of Los Angeles on the market for $42 million.
Rock ’n’ roll was never Mr. Kasem’s passion, he told interviewers. He knew his subject, and kept up with it in a professional way, but when home, he told Billboard, “I find myself just wanting to sit in my office and make it as quiet as possible.”
“If I were doing a real rock show,” he told The New York Times in 1990, “then it would matter to know how I felt about what I was playing.” But, he added, “I’m just counting them down as they appear on the chart, 1 through 40. What really matters is what I say between the songs.”
Between the songs Mr. Kasem managed to herald the newest of the new with a broadcast style that felt comfortingly old. He set the tone with a neighborly but precise 1940s-style diction, honed to amiable perfection in a second career as a voice-over artist. With plain-spoken warmth and a partiality to sentiments and phrases (“coast to coast” and “sweetheart” were his favorites, hands down), his delivery evoked another time.
“Hello again, everybody,” he said to open most of his shows. “I’m Casey Kasem, and welcome to ‘American Top 40.’ I’m all set to count down the 40 most popular songs in the U.S.A.”
When he used biographical teasers to introduce songs (“a high school dropout and a runaway, with a mother who was married six times — coming up,” referring to Cher), Mr. Kasem echoed Paul Harvey on his folksy, long-running news broadcasts. But he told The Times that the technique harked back to his childhood in a Middle Eastern immigrant neighborhood of Detroit.
“I was drawing on the Arabic tradition of storytelling one-upmanship,” he said. “When I was a kid, men would gather in my parents’ living room and tell tales and try to outdo each other. I couldn’t understand the language, but I was fascinated.”
Kemal Amen Kasem was born in Detroit on April 27, 1932. His parents, Amin and Helen Kasem, were Lebanese immigrants who owned a grocery store. After graduating from Wayne State University in Detroit, he worked in local radio, produced broadcasts for the Armed Forces Network during a stint in the Army and landed in Los Angeles, at KRLA, where he developed his trademark of introducing records with historical tidbits about the artists and their songs. For a time he also had local television dance show.
In 1970, along with Don Bustany, a Hollywood movie producer and childhood friend, Mr. Kasem came up with the idea of a countdown radio show modeled after “Your Hit Parade” and proposed it to the syndication company Watermark Inc., which was later bought by ABC Radio Networks. Mr. Kasem had always wanted to be a movie actor, he told interviewers, but never had much success beyond cameo roles in films like “New York, New York” (1977), in which he played a 1940s disc jockey, and “Ghostbusters” (1984), in which he played himself.
His biggest role off the radio was in the TV cartoon series “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” as the voice of Shaggy, the canine hero’s goofy companion. In the 1970s and ‘80s his voice was heard on television commercials for Sears, Ford, Chevron and Oscar Mayer.
Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Mr. Kasem, whose parents belonged to the Druze sect in Lebanon, an offshoot of Islam, became a vocal advocate for Middle East peace and Arab-American causes. In later years he was active in promoting Arab-Israeli dialogue, making personal appearances at mosques and synagogues around the country.
In addition to his wife, who played the tall, blond, dimwitted character Loretta Tortelli on the sitcom “Cheers,” and their daughter, Liberty, his survivors include his three children from a previous marriage, which ended in divorce: Julie, Michael and Kerri Kasem.
In 2007, after he learned he had Lewy body dementia, Mr. Kasem gave his three eldest children legal authority to act as his health care proxy at whatever point he became unable to make decisions himself. The agreement stipulated that he did not want to be kept alive with “any form of life-sustaining procedures, including nutrition and hydration,” if he lost all cognitive function and was given no hope of recovery. Differences between the three older children and Mr. Kasem’s wife played out in increasingly bitter courtroom clashes in the final months.
Mr. Kasem, with an audience of 10 million listeners in his heyday, made politeness and decorum hallmarks of his broadcast. His courtly voice seemed capable of rendering the most raunchy song titles in appropriate-sounding phonemes, and when not able, to swerve around the problem effortlessly.
He would not say “I Want Your Sex” when that was the title of a 1987 hit song, for instance. Instead, Mr. Kasem introduced that one as “George Michael’s latest.”
Given the audience he imagined for himself, Mr. Kasem could hardly do otherwise. “I picture people in a car, with Mom and Dad in the front seat, a couple of kids in the back seat, and a grandparent as well,” he told Billboard.
In another interview, he said: “I feel good that you can be going to synagogue or church and listen to me, and nobody is going to be embarrassed by the language that I use, the innuendo. Quite frankly, I think we’re good for America.”