"One of the high spots of my life," Davis recalled more than a half-century later in an interview with National Public Radio, "was being in that -- I can't call it a crowd -- being in that group of worshipers."
Leaving Howard one year short of graduation, Davis moved to New York to join the Rose McClendon Players, a black theater group in Harlem. He held odd jobs and sometimes slept on park benches while trying to make his way as an actor.
Kennedy Center honored Davis, 87.
(J. Scott Applewhite -- AP)
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In 1942, he was drafted into the Army. He spent most of World War II as a surgical technician with a medical unit in Liberia. He later wrote and produced shows for soldiers.
Returning to New York in 1946, he had his first starring role, in "Jeb" by Robert Ardrey, about a black veteran who has lost a leg in the war, only to face racial prejudice in the South. The actor met Ruby Dee while working on that play, and the two married in 1948.
In the late 1940s, Davis studied playwriting at Columbia University and began getting increasingly meaty parts in plays. He appeared in his first movie in 1950, "No Way Out," with Dee. In 1955, he had the lead role in a television production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones."
After appearing in "No Time for Sergeants" and in "Jamaica," opposite Lena Horne, Davis took over the lead role from Sidney Poitier in "A Raisin in the Sun" in 1959, with his wife as the female lead.
In 1961, Davis wrote and starred in "Purlie Victorious," a play that satirized both black and white stereotypes of life in the South. He and his wife also starred in the film version in 1963.
Despite critical success, neither Davis nor Dee made the leap to superstardom, possibly because of their unapologetic political stances. They were investigated by the FBI in the 1950s, and in the 1960s they marched with King in the South. Their friends included baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson and Malcolm X.
After Malcolm X was assassinated at a Harlem rally in 1965, Davis wrote and delivered a eulogy at his funeral.
"Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood," he said. "We shall know him . . . for what he was and is -- a prince, our own black shining prince -- who didn't hesitate to die because he loved us so."
Davis often narrated documentaries, beginning in 1965 with public television's "History of the Negro People." He recorded the poetry of Langston Hughes, as well as the New Testament, for a company owned by his family.
In the 1970s, Davis turned his attention to directing, beginning with "Cotton Comes to Harlem" (1970). He directed four other films, including "Countdown at Kusini" (1976), which he also wrote. From 1978 to 2001, he directed nine TV movies, including "Roots: The Next Generations" (1979) and "Don't Look Back: The Story of Leroy 'Satchel' Paige" (1981).
In the past two decades, Davis found himself in demand as an actor and as a respected veteran of the nation's cultural and racial wars. From 1990 to 1994, he appeared regularly on the NBC show "Evening Shade" as Ponder Blue, the philosophical owner of a barbecue shack. He was filming his 35th movie, "Retirement," at the time of his death.
Davis continued to write plays, including a musical version of "The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars" and an adaptation of Mark Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson." He wrote a novel, 1992's "Just Like Martin." In 1998, he published an autobiography with his wife, "With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together."
He lived for many years in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he taught Sunday school at a Baptist church.
Survivors include his wife, who was making a film in New Zealand when her husband died; two daughters; a son; and seven grandchildren.
Davis continued his activism to the end, most recently protesting the war in Iraq.
"We can't float through life," he told NPR radio host Tavis Smiley in November. "We can't be incidental or accidental. We must fix our gaze on a guiding star as soon as one comes upon the horizon, and once we have attached ourselves to that star, we must keep our eyes on it and our hands on the plow."