Clifton Davis this week plays an over-anxious father watching in horror as his daughter ventures off on her first date. It's a far cry from his weekly role on "Amen" as the devilishly handsome Rev. Reuben Gregory. For the actor, his role in "Dream Date" (Monday at 9 on NBC) is an opportunity to be seen in a different role, to remind viewers -- and maybe prospective producers -- that he can do something other than play the preacher. But if the role is a shock to viewers accustomed to three seasons of Davis as Rev. Gregory, it is a mild shock indeed compared with the web of surprises, contrasts and contradictions laced through Davis' real life. "That character of Reuben Gregory is not that distant from me," said Davis. "I'm not that naive, but I'm surely that kindly." Indeed, some of the similarities and parallels are obvious, starting with the fact that Davis is himself a minister, an assistant at Loma Linda (Calif.) Seventh Day Adventist Church until his work load forced a leave of absence. But wait, there's so much more. The preacher-actor identity only begins to tell Davis' story. Is "Renaissance man" too glowing a term? Definitely not. And if that title fits, then his bout with addiction is surely all the more tragic. His upbringing, he said, was not the kind that might be expected to give rise to a young man with interests running from stage to screen to cockpit. "I would attribute that to the kind of childhood that was stereotypical of a black man in the '50s and '60s," he said, "and yet atypical in other ways. "There were segregated communities, yet it was a time when integration was the keynote of life. Martin Luther King Jr. -- his teachings were a keynote to my youth." A call from a preacher. A preacher's calling. And some inspiration from his father. "He always reminded me I was a first-class, not a second-class, citizen and could do what I wanted. I wanted to push the envelope -- to go beyond what people thought I could do, things that black people don't usually get to do." And push the envelope he did. He pushed it, he punched it. He bent it all out of shape. And, ultimately, the envelope broke and spilled Davis into the void outside. "I always admired the jet-setters," said Davis. "Where they went, what they did, the world travel, the facility with languages. I didn't have the kind of education that pushed things I was interested in." So Davis took his education into his own hands and dropped out of college when money ran short -- he would later return for his master of divinity degree at Andrews University. Using his passion for reading as a foundation, he set out on his own self-improvement program. He taught himself to speak Spanish. He taught himself French. He fed a long-standing desire to become a pilot by joining the Air Force. There he found he had a congenital heart defect that would not only ground him but restrict his participation in sports. It was a setback he was not about to take sitting down. "I decided to rise above this obstacle," he said. Rise above it or ignore it. Inspired by those glorious scenes in "The Thomas Crown Affair," Davis decided that if Steve McQueen could soar, so could he. In 1969, during a visit to California, he got a friend to take him up in a sailplane. "I've got 30 hours in sailplanes," Davis said. But that wasn't enough. He took lessons in powered flight and in 1979 got his license. Later, open-heart surgery would correct his congenital defect. His restored physical capacity is put on display in "Dream Date," in which he works out on the heavy bag and sprints with his dog. And, in what must have been a terribly savory experience, the Air Force recently let him take the controls of an F-4 Phantom jet. It all sounds like a triumphant story, overcoming the limitations of an inner-city Chicago rearing to develop and flourish in so many directions. But there came a pitfall, which is a little like referring to the Grand Canyon as a hole in the ground. No matter who you are, says Davis, there is a common psychological pool into which you fall when you get hooked on drugs. "The chemicals have an effect on the mind that produces similar false realities -- no matter what the background of people." So all of Davis' striving -- the self-improvement, the blossoming as an actor -- all of that nearly came to naught when he fell into the dead pool of drugs. The drug-stimulated sense of low self-esteem and paranoia contribute to a "downward cycle that feeds on itself," said Davis. "It's not just a high associated with drugs -- there's a low. You find friends who've experienced it, and there's something in common. You try more drugs, to get as high as you were the last time, and the lows that follow are lower than before. "It re-forms your mind. You're angry, paranoid. There's denial. Eventually you're suicidal. No matter where you start, this is where you end up." For Davis, the situation was complicated by the insecurity and periodic unemployment commonly associated with acting. "I found I was living at odds with my own spiritual teachings, feeling that my success was a fleeting thing. When there were no jobs, I became depressed. I thought, this is the real me. And I took drugs." Davis credits Jesus Christ and a timely phone call from his brother with saving him. His renewed faith brought him back to his spiritual side. "If God could believe enough in me to send Christ to die for me," said Davis, then he could do his share to pull himself back together. And it also helped that at Christmastime in 1980, when he reached the "point at which there was no point to going on," his brother, also a minister, came to the rescue. "I was hooked," Davis said. "I had alienated everyone. I was in a tomb in my own home. The only thing to do was to die. "In one of my few lucid moments, my brother called and said something that moved me. I found a way to put my life back together. I told myself, 'I'm not going to quit. I'm going to give life a chance.' " He has since pieced together his own ministry, which includes work on behalf a half-dozen wide-ranging causes, from the hungry to the blind to the PTA. This personal tapestry, with all of its shadings, is the backdrop for a more visible professional career that has been as just as diverse. On television, Davis starred as a Washington, D.C., neighborhood barber in "That's My Mama" in 1974 and '75. In 1971, he was a member of the company of the series "Love, American Style." The next year, 1972, he had a summer variety series with Melba Moore -- "The Melba Moore-Clifton Davis Show" -- at a time when both of them were bright new lights on Broadway. Broadway. His break there came when he won a part in the chorus of the Pearl Bailey edition of "Hello, Dolly!" He went on to win a Theatre World Award for his part in "Do It Again," and a Tony nomination for "Two Gentlemen of Verona." Other theater credits: "Slow Dance on the Killing Ground," "The Engagement Baby" and "Jimmy Shine." And then there's music. He earned a Grammy nomination in 1971 for his composition "Never Can Say Goodbye," which sold 2 million copies for The Jackson Five. And oh, yes, he's married and has two children. This week, Davis is part of a largely black cast that did not have to be black -- "Dream Date" could as easily have been built around white characters. Congratulations to NBC on the casting, but the show itself is the lightest of fluff. On hand are "Cosby" daughter Tempestt Bledsoe, Kadeem Hardison ("A Different World's" Dwayne Wayne) and Anne-Marie Johnson from "In the Heat of the Night." "Night Court's" Richard Moll does a nice turn as the last creature you'd ever want to sit next to at a horror show. "Dream Date" was directed by Anson Williams, who played Potsie in "Happy Days." And for Davis -- who turned 44 last week -- it's another line in a resume that might win him who-knows-what when NBC says amen to "Amen." "I don't see why people can't do anything they dream of," said Davis. "You have to have the ambition, confidence and chutzpah to push a few doors down."