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Ruby Dee was not able to make the 80th gala celebration of the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem on Tuesday night.

But the actress, who had played such a pivotal role in supporting the culturally vital theater with her late actor husband, Ossie Davis, was there in more than spirit.

Organizers screened a previous interview with Dee that has served as an oral history — a fitting tribute to the theater, but also to the trailblazing actress who died on Wednesday.

Dee was revered not only for a career that spanned television, movies, radio and the stage, but also for her social, cultural activism and civil rights work alongside of Davis.

"It was so poignant, she was so beautiful and articulate and one of our greatest entertainers," says Jonelle Procope, president and CEO of the Apollo Theater. "We were so honored to have her with us as long as we did."

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"Both Ruby and Ossie not only made really significant contributions to the arts, but they were also good citizens of the world," Procope told USA TODAY. "Their activism, their social responsibility — that was just as important to them as the art. They were always on the forefront of social issues. They led by example. That's the way they lived their lives."

Davis and Dee met when they appeared together on stage in the play Jeb in 1946. In December 1948, while working on another play, Davis and Dee took a bus to New Jersey to get married.

They were already so close that "It felt almost like an appointment we finally got around to keeping," Dee wrote in their joint autobiography celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, With Ossie & Ruby: In This Life Together.

Daughter Nora Day said that when she thinks of her mother, she hears "the richness of her voice."

"I hear her commitment to words. She always called herself 'a word worker,'" Day said. "She delighted in language, as did my dad. People don't realize she was a writer, a poet and she loved rhythms and the co-mingling of rhythms and point-counterpoint and making jazz out of words."

In photos down through the years, Davis towers over the diminutive Dee, but Day said people underestimated Ruby Dee at their peril.

"Let's put it this way," she said. "She had to teach my dad how to throw a decent punch. She was really a serious person. She was a force of nature."

Dee and Davis shared billing in 11 stage productions and five movies during their lengthy, parallel careers. Dee's fifth film, No Way Out with Sidney Poitier in 1959, was Davis' first film.

When not on the stage or on camera, Davis and Dee were deeply involved in civil rights issues and efforts to promote the cause of blacks in the entertainment industry.

"We used the arts as part of our struggle," Dee said at an appearance in Jackson, Miss., in 2006.

They were friends with baseball star Jackie Robinson and his wife, Rachel — Dee played her, opposite Robinson himself, in the 1950 movie The Jackie Robinson Story — and with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Dee and Davis served as masters of ceremonies for the historic 1963 March on Washington and she spoke at the funerals for both King and Malcolm X.

In 2004, Dee and Davis received Kennedy Center Honors.The two served on the board of the Apollo Theater, where they had an award named in their honor — The Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis Arts & Humanitarian Award — given to deserving couples who promote the arts and community.

Davis' death in 2005 at the age of 87 was a serious blow to Dee. At his funeral, she sat near his coffin as former President Clinton led an array of famous mourners, including Harry Belafonte and Spike Lee.

"They were two sides of the same coin. But she continued to work," says Procope.

Dee's long career brought her an Oscar nomination at age 83 for best supporting actress for her role in the 2007 film American Gangster. She also won an Emmy and was nominated for several others.

Among her best-known films was A Raisin in the Sun, in 1961, the classic play that explored racial discrimination and black frustration. She was also the voice of wisdom and reason as Mother Sister in Spike Lee's 1989 film Do The Right Thing.

Within minutes of the news breaking, #RubyDee was trending on Twitter, with tributes rolling in:

Tony-winner Billy Porter ("Kinky Boots"): "Standing on the shoulders of your legend and Forever grateful for ur impact on this world and my life Miss #RubyDee. Rest on High."

Former Clinton adviser Donna Brazile: "We lost another giant. A great humanitarian #RubyDee. Actress and down home sister."

Rev. Jesse Jackson: "Mrs.#RubyDee for all of our lives has ALWAYS been there. Death cannot have her. Our memories will not let her go. RIP"

Dee will be seen in a new documentary, by her grandson, Muta' Ali Muhammad, premiering June 22 in New York City at the American Black Film Festival. "Life's Essentials with Ruby Dee" is a documentary in which Dee talks about Davis, their arts and activism. Also quoted are Alan Alda, Angela Bassett and Belafonte.

"I'm crushed by this bad news and I know Ruby has already been embraced in a warm, loving hug from her life partner of 57 years — Mr. Ossie Davis," Lee wrote on Instagram. "It has been one of my great blessings in life to work with two of the finest artists and activists — Ruby and Ossie were in the battlefields."

"Ruby And Ossie served as a living example that one could be an artist and activist too," Lee continued. "The both of you told us, 'To always do the right thing.' "

Peter D. Kramer of the Journal News in White Plains, N.Y., and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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