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Ruby Dee: Yes, an impact on TV, too

Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson starred as himself in

Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson starred as himself in "The Jackie Robinson Story" (1950) opposite Ruby Dee, who played his wife, Rachel. Photo Credit: Getty Images / FPG

Ruby Dee, who has died at the age of 91, had a career that spanned 70 years, began just after the war, and which has continued, virtually uninterrupted, until now. She was a beautiful, elegant actress whose screen presence was imbued with a haunting dignity that absolutely came to vibrant life on the big screen, especially in films like "A Raisin in the Sun."  

But she also had a long run on TV: She was an early pioneer on this medium that wasn't always so welcoming to African-American pioneers in those days. An early string of credits, most from the '60s, suggest that she had established a beach head as opposed to a full-scale invasion of a medium that wouldn't really open its doors to African-American women until Hal Kanter cast Diahann Carroll in 1971's "Julia." While Carroll is often considered the First, Dee came before, in a number of major shows -- "Peyton Place," "East Side/West Side," and "The Defenders" -- so maybe that made HER the First.

Nevertheless,  the big TV break never really came even though there were a number of TV gigs in later years, like "The Stand" and "Roots: The Next Generation." Why remains a mystery, although her activism during the '50's and '60s would have made her about as welcome a presence on the big, bland commercial networks as the Smothers Brothers.

I've posted a handful of clips below, including a couple concerning Zora Neale Hurston, the folklorist and writer ("Their Eyes Were Watching God") whom Dee channeled so memorably long ago, including on TV's "American Playhouse."

Plus, there's something here from "Purlie" -- the musical starring and written by Ossie Davis, her husband of many years who died in 2005 and which also was on TV. Meanwhile, check out the trailers from the classics: "The Jackie Robinson Story" -- in which she played Rae Robinson and Jackie played himself, from 1950 -- and a clip from "A Raisin in the Sun."

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