A New Hit on TV, Ex-Addict Clifton Davis Can Say Amen to His Past

updated 12/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/1986 01:00AM

The Rev. Reuben Gregory is the role Clifton Davis was born again to play. Every Saturday night on Amen, NBC's newest hit comedy, the 41-year-old actor preaches to a prime-time flock of 32.5 million viewers as the handsome, wholesome minister of a Philadelphia church. Every Saturday morning, Davis continues his preparation to be a pastor at a real-life church, the University Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Loma Linda, Calif. Combining 20 years in show business with his childhood as the son of an itinerant Baptist preacher, Davis is a popular pastoral intern with the 5,600-member congregation. "I may not be the typical preacher—the Bible tucked under the arm and the somber look in the eye," admits Davis. "Yet there's been a large transformation in my life, and I want to share that with others—not from behind a clergy collar, but heart-to-heart."

If the Lord loves a sinner, He could not have found better raw material than Clifton Davis. A Broadway and TV performer (he starred in the 1974-75 series That's My Mama), Davis was a self-confessed user of people. "I was committed to getting over with the women, enjoying my life and doing what I pleased," he says. His romantic exploits ranged from a four-year relationship with singer Melba Moore to one-night stands with groupies. He says he also had brief liaisons with Sally Kellerman, Victoria Principal and Nancy Wilson. "I was selfish and cold," Davis admits, "and I felt no shame about it."

At the same time, Davis was becoming a cocaine addict. He started using the drug just after he won a Tony nomination for Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1972; success, he found, brought new insecurities. "You're nervous until you get the next job, and when you get it, you think, 'I got it because I am great! Then the job would end. 'I'm nothing. Nobody loves me.' Finally I got to the point where I said to myself, 'You ain't nothing. Let's get high and don't worry about it.' "

By 1979, with broken relationships all around him and the professional pressure increasing, Davis had become a habitual user. He describes this period as "invading emptiness. It was all going out, there wasn't anything going in." There is an awkward silence while Davis forms his next sentence. It doesn't appear to be an act. Nor is he becoming overwrought with evangelical zeal. Rather he seems to be simultaneously distressed and fascinated by his past life. "Cocaine gently wrings and twists your senses," he says finally, "until the most subtle paranoia slips over you. You don't even realize the personality transformation that's taking place. Suddenly you're another human being."

By 1980 Davis' addiction was destroying his career. "I was so high I couldn't audition, and I didn't show up for a few gigs," he says. "I was coked from morning to night." Although he had earned as much as $250,000 a year from his TV series and guest appearances during the '70s, Davis was now having trouble paying his drug tab. He sold his Hollywood Hills home, spending "half the profits on drugs in six months," and moved to a penthouse apartment. "I went through a quart of vodka daily. No food—just coke. I was skin and bones, about 130 pounds," says the 6', 200-pound Davis.

Not even his girlfriend, dance teacher Ann Taylor, could reach him. The couple met in 1979 while Davis was on an unsuccessful Broadway tryout in Washington, D.C. She moved into his L.A. apartment the next year, but problems arose after several months, forcing her to leave just before Christmas. "I slapped her around a couple of times," Davis admits. "Finally I realized I was in danger of hurting her, so I sent her away. Still she'd call three times a day, saying, 'Don't snort that—talk to me instead.' "

Davis' paranoia became so great that he literally locked out the world, nailing shut the door to his apartment. Just after Christmas he overdosed on cocaine. His secretary saved him. "I was there dying, and she couldn't get me to answer the phone. She used her key to the apartment and pried open the door. I was passed out with my freebase pipe in my hand. She screamed, 'Don't you die on me!' I came to and cussed her out and told her to mind her own business. I drove away my very last friend."

That night Davis received a call that "pierced through my heart like an arrow right into my soul." The call was from his stepbrother in Jacksonville, N.C., where his worried family had held an all-night prayer meeting. "It was a message from God," says Davis. "My stepbrother knew I was about to die. I knelt down and prayed, and my life began to change from that moment on."

After withdrawing from his dependency at his brother's home in Norwalk, Conn., Davis left Hollywood and began studying for the ministry. He married Ann in 1981, while enrolled at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala. Two years ago he received his theology degree, and next spring expects to complete a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich.

During those years, Davis came to realize that his troubles "had not been the [entertainment] industry's fault, but mine. I wasn't coping properly. My bitterness melted away. God had given me talent, and I realized I could be a Christian and an actor."

This spring, just as the church had assigned Davis to work near L.A., the producers of Amen were looking for a wholesome co-star to counterbalance Sherman (The Jeffersons) Hemsley's egomaniacal deacon. They knew the real thing when they saw it. "I screen-tested at the same time I was taking my finals," Davis recalls. Although he earns an estimated $35,000 per episode as the wages of his TV saintliness, Davis still wears a pair of $19 shoes from his lean student days, when he would pass the hat after singing in gospel concerts. "The offerings would always add up to almost exactly what I needed to pay the bills."

Today Davis enjoys a life that seems as heavenly as his previous years were hellish. He credits Ann, 37, with being the major influence through his bad times. "I saw the good qualities in Clifton," says Ann. "I always knew they were there." The two, each married before, live in a large, four-bedroom house in Hollywood with their two children, Noel, 6, and Holly, 2½.

At the Adventist Church, Davis has been working weekends with the pastor on church programs in parenthood and marriage counseling. Next March Davis will be named a full-fledged associate pastor. It's been a roundabout pilgrimage for the actor, yet whatever his regrets, he believes the journey was necessary. "I had to go down the path to see my calling," he says. "God turned my life around. I could have been dead. Now just being, and doing good work, is a tribute to His unseen power."

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