A tall, handsome black actor best known for his work on TV sitcoms and variety shows, Clifton Davis is also an ordained Seventh Day Adventist minister as well as a composer of such hit songs as the Jackson Five's "Never Can Say Good-bye". Davis' sitcom work has included regular stints as a barber living with his mother in what was a then-pioneering show starring African-Americans, "That's My Mama" (ABC, 1974-75), and "Amen" (NBC, 1986-1991), in which, ironically, he played Reuben Gregory, the young minister of a church assisting a wheeling-dealing deacon (Sherman Hemsley).
A native of Chicago and the son of a Baptist minister, Davis first appeared on Broadway playing Cornelius, the feed store worker with aspirations for much more, in the Pearl Bailey cast of the hit musical "Hello, Dolly!" This led to his performing at nightclubs in the New York area as well, including the famed Reno Sweeney's in Manhattan. In 1968, he was alongside Dustin Hoffman in the cast of "Jimmy Shine" on Broadway, then performed in the Off-Broadway hit "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" (1969) and won a 1971 Theatre World Award for his Broadway work in "Do It Again". While appearing in the latter, Davis had a regular role on the ABC daytime drama "A World Apart" (1970-1971), before going to Hollywood, where he was featured in the stock cast doing the comic sketch wrap-arounds on "Love, American Style" (ABC, 1971).
Returning to NYC, Davis scored a critical hit as Valentine, one of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" (1971-72), the John Guare-Galt MacDermot-Mel Shapiro musical based on the Shakespeare play, first in NYC's Central Park and later on Broadway. At the end of the theater season, Davis and co-star Raul Julia both earned Tony Award nominations as Best Actor in a Musical. Again Hollywood beckoned and Davis was teamed with Melba Moore for "The Melba Moore-Clifton Davis Show" (CBS, 1972), a summer variety series and then "That's My Mama". In 1975, Davis earned a Grammy nomination for "Never Can Say Good-Bye" and sang in the NBC special "Cotton Club '75". He made his TV-movie debut in "Little Ladies of the Night" (ABC, 1977).
Feature work has proven less steady for the actor. He appeared as one of the tenement dwellers in Hal Ashby's "The Landlord" (1970) and had perhaps his best role as Absalom (opposite Melba Moore) in the feature version of Kurt Weill's musical "Lost in the Stars" (1974). He also appeared as Louis Chauvin, who cannot read music but nevertheless partners with Billy Dee Williams' "Scott Joplin" in the 1977 biopic.
By the early 80s, however, despite a handful of guest appearances on TV shows and in longforms, Davis had all but disappeared from public view. Few knew that he had returned to school to work towards his divinity degree. In 1986, he re-emerged as a co-star of the NBC sitcom "Amen", which in turn led to more work in TV-movies like "Dream Date" (NBC, 1989). Davis hosted the syndicated "Stellar Gospel Music Awards" in 1990, 1992 and 1994. Yet when "Amen" left the airwaves in 1991, the actor again seemed to disappear from public view, although parishioners of the Union Seventh Day Adventist Church in Loma Linda, CA, would see him regularly. Davis' bank account was also buoyed by royalties from his musical compositions that included such songs as "Here Comes the Sunrise", "Lookin' Through the Windows" and "Searchin' For a Dream". (He had been under contract as a composer at Motown in the 70s.)
Davis emerged once again, having departed his work as associate pastor on a full-time basis, in 1995. He could be seen in guest appearances on such series as "Party of Five" and "Grace Under Fire". In 1996, it was practically de rigeur for sitcoms starring black performers to feature Davis as guest star (i.e., "Sparks", "Malcolm & Eddie", "The Jamie Foxx Show", "Living Single").