MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now we'd like to take a moment to remember Ruby Dee. The legendary actress and activist died Wednesday, at the age of 91. She was a veteran of both stage and screen. And she made an impact on art lovers across the generations, starting with her role as Ruth Younger in the 1961 film "A Raisin In The Sun," later in "Do The Right Thing," and 2007's "American Gangster," for which she was nominated for an Oscar at the age of 83. Her impact went far beyond her own roles. She served as an inspiration to a number of actors, particularly black performers who viewed her as a role model. One of them was Tony Award-winner Phylicia Rashad. We reached Phylicia Rashad this morning, and she told us how much she appreciated Ruby Dee for her work in the world.
PHYLICIA RASHAD: This was a woman who lived consciously. It was her deep conviction that everyone belongs to everyone else. She was not afraid to speak truth to power. She was unafraid.
MARTIN: Other performers took to social media. Actress Jada Pinkett Smith said the following on Facebook. I lost a cherished friend yesterday. Rest in peace Ruby Dee. Thank you for the gifts you shared with the world, and thank you for the time and wisdom shared with me. But most importantly, thank you for the care you always showed me. I miss you already.
Samuel L Jackson tweeted, quote, "we lost a jewel today, Mrs. Ruby Dee - so great - so love - rest in peace - all sympathy to her family." I had the chance to speak with Ruby Dee back in 2007, around the time her film "American Gangster" appeared. And we thought you'd like to hear part of that conversation again, so here it is.
RUBY DEE: My dream was I was going to be an actor. Racism occurred to me. It dawned on me that I would not be an actor. It occurred to me that I was not white. It occurred to me that being what they call colored - being a Negro was some kind of a disadvantage. All those things I knew as a kid, and that one of these days I was going to run away. And my first heroes were Franchot Tone and Robert Taylor because I didn't know any black screen idols, you know, that I see today. You know...
MARTIN: What did your parents think of your plan to become an actor? At some point people didn't think that was terribly respectable way to earn a living. What did they think about it?
DEE: Oh, well, my mother - my stepmother really - she herself had been what they call an elocutionist. And she was the one who first encouraged me to write poetry because she used to read it to us, and then when I began to write when I was about my 9-years-old, my first poem was published in the Amsterdam News. I called it "The Graveyard." Can you imagine? That was my first poem.
DEE: So quiet and lonely, a place for dead people only. Too late to live, when all they had to give is laid beneath the sod. And they published it. That was my very first poem.
MARTIN: And it was while you were at Hunter College, wasn't it - that you joined the American Negro Theater?
MARTIN: Which is where you met, you know, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte?
DEE: Yes during the - those were the days.
MARTIN: Theater is how you met your husband, yes?
DEE: Yes. And he was with another group similar to the one that I was part of, you know, called the Rose McClendon Players. And they were looking for a young man, a soldier to do the lead in this play called "Jeb" (ph). And that's how I happened to meet Ossie, at a rehearsal, you know, this long, gangly man that kind of spooned along, you know - sort of like all bones and an Adam's apple, you know. That's how I happened to meet Ossie.
MARTIN: What did you like about Ossie Davis when you first met him?
DEE: I thought he looked very hungry. He looked so - he looked so poverty-stricken or something. I think that's what I was thinking because he had on clothes that didn't fit him. But he had a very nice smile. So he knew about hunger, he knew about suffering, he knew about riding the rails and traveling through cities, getting somewhere. And it was in the days when a lot of people slept in the park. And he was one of them. But that didn't seem to bother him. I told him, I said, oh Ossie you only do that because it's romantic, you know. And he was a poet, too. A poet sleeping in the park, you know.
MARTIN: I wanted to talk about a role for which many people of a certain age surely know you and that is from "Raisin In The Sun." And I want to play short clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")
SIDNEY POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) I'm trying to talk to you about myself. And all you can say is eat them damn eggs and go to work.
DEE: (As Ruth Younger) Oh, honey, you never say nothing new. I listen to you every day, every night and every morning. And you never say nothing new. So you would rather be Mr. Arnold than be a chauffeur. So I would rather be living in Buckingham Palace.
POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) That is just what is wrong with a colored woman in this world- don't understand about building their men up, making them feel like they're somebody, like they can do something.
DEE: (As Ruth Younger) There are colored men who do things.
POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) No thanks to the colored woman.
DEE: (As Ruth Younger) Well, being a colored woman, I guess I can't help myself none.
MARTIN: When you hear that now - when you think about that role now, how does it make you feel?
DEE: Oh, I'm impressed with Lorraine Hansberry. She was a genius at whose feet I could sit. But I had questions, you know. And although I loved "A Raisin In The Sun" as I look back, so many things occur to me. And the reality mixes with the story because I remember when we - Ossie and I got married, and we wanted to move into a little house we bought. And a friend of mine, a white friend of mine called and said, you don't want to move there - said, there's too many black people over there already. Why don't you move to so-and-so where it's not integrated yet. I didn't care about being integrated or accepted, and that was the one thing that bothered me about being in "A Raisin In The Sun." But as I grew older and began to work in the civil rights movement and became, quote-unquote, "an activist," I don't remember when I really wasn't, you know.
MARTIN: Well, talk to me, if you would, about your - what you call your, quote-unquote, "activism." I'm wondering why you put it that way because many - some people have shied away from social activism, fearing that it would hurt their careers - which you and your husband were both close friends of Martin Luther King Jr., you were both emcees for the 1963 March on Washington. Ossie Davis gave the eulogy at Malcolm X's funeral. Did you ever fear that your activism would harm your ability to work?
DEE: I'm thinking, in all honesty, I never thought about myself as an activist when I was coming along. I wasn't a joiner, you know. I love the people I love. I didn't care - they could be a Democrat or Republican, Communists, you know- anything but a racist, you know.
MARTIN: But I do want to ask if you were ever afraid. You grew up in a time when leaders were being cut down - Martin Luther King was killed, Robert F. Kennedy was killed, Malcolm X was killed - all people you knew. And you did have fellow artist who lost their livelihood because of their political involvements. Were you ever afraid?
DEE: No - not personally afraid because nothing in my background surprise me. The white folks weren't getting lynched. We felt sorry for those people who were being abused, but they were just tasting a little teeny bit of what was racism and fascism and the horror of what was happening in the country.
MARTIN: You have your own body of work, but you also have this incredible partnership with Ossie Davis over, you know, almost 60 years together. I just wonder what it is been like for you to carry on without him.
DEE: Oh, my. I can't say it's been difficult because he left me so much. And also I keep thinking every time I feel something well up in me that feels like it could mature into a tear or something, I have to stop it because he was very fond of saying, can't fix it, ain't found it, well you got to down it and get around it. You know, he wasn't a mourner, you know. And I don't know, I just - I have to keep on keeping on.
MARTIN: How would you like to be remembered?
DEE: If I could be - somebody could think of me and feel encouraged. I'd like to be remembered as in those little flashes of moments, I think, that we remember each other that pick us up in some moments of despair. That's how I would like to be remembered in the recollection, to make the moment more bearable, if not enjoyable.
MARTIN: That was the legendary actress and activist Ruby Dee speaking with us back in 2007. She died this week at the age of 91. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.