Oscar knocks when least expected

Associated Press

Ruby Dee and Hal Holbrook have rarely crossed paths in their acting careers, but they have much in common.

Both were born in Cleveland a few months apart in the 1920s. Both developed an early passion for literature. Both shaped early professional lives largely on the stage and then gradually built half-century careers in film and television.

Both have won Emmys, yet inclusion in the highest honors in show business, the Academy Awards, eluded them until this year, when Dee became the second-oldest actor and Holbrook the third oldest ever nominated.

Dee is up for supporting actress as Mama Lucas, the mother of Denzel Washington's Harlem drug lord in Ridley Scott's "American Gangster," while Holbrook is nominated for supporting actor as Ron Franz, a lonely widower living in the desert who befriends Emile Hirsch's wanderer in Sean Penn's "Into the Wild."

Longtime acquaintances, neither feels slighted that they never received an Oscar nomination before now. They gave up such dreams long ago, saying the roles they were able to land were not the stuff Oscars were made of.

"It was an exclusive club as far as African Americans were concerned, and also Asians and Indians and other groups," said Dee, 83, whose "American Gangster" role earned her the supporting-actress trophy at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

"I didn't have the kind of talent or personality that kept me dreaming about Hollywood. They don't hire little colored girls to do this or that. After I got that in my head, I took another direction."

Holbrook, whose 83rd birthday was Sunday, said he'd given up on an Academy Award.

"The chances were none," he said, "because I was at a point in my career before Sean gave me this wonderful role where I was playing pretty predictable guys in pinstriped suits mostly, which is not natural to me, to tell you the truth. I don't know lawyers very well. I'm an outdoors person."

Growing up in Harlem after her family left Cleveland for New York, Dee developed a taste for poetry and joined the American Negro Theater while studying at Hunter College. She worked extensively in theater and television and costarred in such films as "The Jackie Robinson Story" and "A Raisin in the Sun."

Dee and husband Ossie Davis, who died in 2005, worked together so often on stage, television and film that they were almost a package deal. Their credits include Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" and "Jungle Fever."

After studying drama in college, Holbrook toured in theater, was a regular on the 1950s soap opera "The Brighter Day" and debuted his best-known character in 1959 with the one-man show "Mark Twain, Tonight."

Holbrook has played the author in thousands of performances and did a TV version of the show in 1967.

A five-time Emmy Award winner for such parts as the title roles in the political drama "The Senator" and "Sandburg's Lincoln," Holbrook had a recurring part on the 1980s sitcom "Designing Women," which costarred his wife, Dixie Carter.

Both Dee and Holbrook said they were surprised by their Oscar nominations, noting that they had relatively little screen time.

Even so, one more thing the two have in common is who they're cheering for on Oscar night.

"I'm rooting for you," Holbrook told Dee. "I hope you're rooting for me, dear."

Replied Dee: "Oh, yes."

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