Davis was making a film called Retirement at the time of his death. With his wife, actress Ruby Dee, he fought tirelessly for the rights of black performers in the entertainment industry throughout his life and performed frequently on stage and screen. Davis is perhaps best known to theater audiences for writing and starring in the play Purlie Victorious, which premiered on Broadway in 1961 and was the basis for the Broadway musical Purlie.
He was born in Georgia in 1917 and studied drama at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Davis began his acting career in 1939 with the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem. He then served in World War II before making his Broadway debut opposite Dee in Jeb (1946). Davis and Dee were married two years later.
Davis's other stage credits include the original Broadway productions of The Leading Lady, The Wisteria Trees, Remains to Be Seen, Touchstone, Jamaica, and The Zulu and the Zayda. He replaced Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun and Cleavon Little in I'm Not Rappaport, later co-starring with Walter Matthau in the film version of the latter play. Among Davis's many film and television credits are The Emperor Jones, Roots: The Next Generation, Miss Evers' Boys, Evening Shade, movies by Spike Lee (School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Malcolm X, in which he recreated the euology he delivered at Malcolm X's funeral), The Cardinal, The Hill, Grumpy Old Men, and The Client. In the mid 1970s, he and his wife hosted The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour on radio.
His autobiography, titled In This Life Together and written with Dee, was published on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. Davis and Dee were among the artists who received Kennedy Center Honors in 2004, and Davis had been scheduled to host a 35th anniversary tribute to the New Federal Theatre at The Town Hall in New York on Sunday, February 13.
Davis is survived by Dee and the couple's three children, including actor Guy Davis. According to the League of American Theatres and Producers, the marquee lights of all Broadway theaters will be dimmed for one minute at 8pm tonight in Davis's memory.