Raiford Chatman Davis was born in Cogdell, Georgia, the son of Kince Charles Davis, a railway construction engineer, and his wife Laura (née Cooper; July 9, 1898 – June 6, 2004). He inadvertently became known as "Ossie" when his birth certificate was being filed and his mother's pronunciation of his name as "R. C. Davis" was misheard by the Clinch County courthouse clerk. Davis experienced racism from an early age when the KKK threatened to shoot his father, whose job they felt was too advanced for a black man to have. His siblings included scientist William Conan Davis, social worker Essie Davis Morgan, pharmacist Kenneth Curtis Davis, and biology teacher James Davis.
When Davis wanted to pursue a career in acting, he ran into the usual roadblocks that black people suffered at that time as they generally could only portray stereotypical characters such as Stepin Fetchit. Instead, he tried to follow the example of Sidney Poitier and play more distinguished characters. When he found it necessary to play a Pullman porter or a butler, he played those characters realistically, not as a caricature.
Davis's last role was a several episode guest role on the Showtime drama series The L Word, as a father struggling with the acceptance of his daughter Bette (Jennifer Beals) parenting a child with her lesbian partner. In his final episodes, his character took ill and died. His wife Ruby Dee was present during the filming of his own death scene. That episode, which aired shortly after Davis's own death, aired with a dedication to the actor. After Davis's death, actor Dennis Haysbert portrayed him in the 2015 film Experimenter.
"The Honors recipients recognized for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts— whether in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television — are selected by the Center's Board of Trustees. The primary criterion in the selection process is excellence. The Honors are not designated by art form or category of artistic achievement; the selection process, over the years, has produced balance among the various arts and artistic disciplines."
In 1948, Davis married actress Ruby Dee, whom he had met on the set of Robert Ardrey's 1946 play Jeb. In their joint autobiography With Ossie and Ruby, they described their decision to have an open marriage, later changing their minds. In the mid-1960s they moved to the New York suburb of New Rochelle, where they remained ever after. Their son Guy Davis is a blues musician and former actor, who appeared in the film Beat Street (1984) and the daytime soap opera One Life to Live. Their daughters are Nora Davis Day and Hasna Muhammad.
Davis was found dead in a Miami Beach hotel room on February 4, 2005. He was 87 years old. An official cause of death was not released, but he was known to have had heart problems. His ashes were interred at Ferncliff Cemetery.
Davis's funeral was held in New York City on February 12, 2005. The line to enter The Riverside Church, located on the edge of Harlem, stretched for several blocks, with a thousand or more members of the public unable to attend as the church filled to its 2,100 capacity. Speakers included Davis's children and grandchildren, as well as Alan Alda, Burt Reynolds, Amiri Baraka, Avery Brooks, Angela Bassett, Spike Lee, Attallah Shabazz, Tavis Smiley, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, Harry Belafonte, and former president Bill Clinton, among many others.Wynton Marsalis performed a musical tribute. Burt Reynolds, who early in his career had worked with Davis, said "Ossie Davis took the bad parts of the South out of me.... I know what a man is because of Ossie Davis." Ms. Shabazz, oldest daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, spoke lovingly of the man she and her five sisters called Uncle Ossie, saying he had provided exceptional support to her and her sisters after her father's assassination. Bill Clinton arrived midway through the service, and said from the pulpit "I asked to be seated in the back. I would proudly ride on the back of Ossie Davis's bus any day," adding that Davis "would have made a great president."
Delivering the eulogy, Harry Belafonte said: Ossie Davis "embraced the greatest forces of our times. Paul Robeson, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Eleanor Roosevelt, A. Philip Randolph, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and so many, many more. At the time of one of our most anxious and conflicted moments, when 'Our America' was torn apart by seething issues of race, Ossie paused, at the tomb of one of our noblest warriors, and in the eulogy he delivered, insured that history would clearly understand the voice of Black people, and what Malcolm X meant to us in the African-American struggle for freedom.... It is hard to fathom that we will no longer be able to call on his wisdom, his humor, his loyalty and his moral strength to guide us in the choices that are yet to be made and the battles that are yet to be fought. But how fortunate we were to have him as long as we did."