Born on December 18, 1917 in Cogdell, Georgia, Davis attended Howard University but left before graduation in order to move to New York and study acting. After a stint in the army during World War II, Davis returned to New York and made his Broadway debut in 1946 playing the title role in the play Jeb. This was his first collaboration with Ruby Dee, whom he married in 1948, after touring together in Anna Lucasta. His stage presence and talent garnered him acclaim in a wide variety of roles. He was nominated for a 1958 Tony Award for his featured performance in Jamaica and a 1970 Tony Award for his lead performance in Purlie. His other Broadway credits include The Leading Lady, The Smile of the World, The Wisteria Trees, The Green Pastures, A Raisin in the Sun, The Zulu and the Zayda and I'm Not Rappaport. He also wrote and starred in the play Purlie Victorious on which the musical Purlie is based.
Davis was also a fixture on both the small and big screens. He received Emmy Awards nominations for his work in television's Teacher, Teacher, King and Miss Evers' Boys and a Golden Globe nomination for his featured performance in the 1969 film The Scalphunters. In addition to The Scalphunters, his film credits include No Way Out, The Cardinal, The Hill, A Man Called Adam, The Outsider, Slaves, Harry and Son, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Joe Versus the Volcano, Jungle Fever, Gladiator, Malcolm X, Grumpy Old Men, The Client, I'm Not Rappaport, Doctor Doolittle, Proud and She Hate Me. He also wrote and starred in the feature films Gone Are the Days! also based on Purlie Victorious and Countdown at Kusini. Among his numerous television credits is Ossie and Ruby!, a show he hosted with Dee. Among their host of awards, Davis received a Life Achievement Award by the Screen Actors Guild in 2001. Davis and Dee were awarded a Kennedy Center Honor last year.
Davis and Dee were also well known for their civil rights activism.