- Spent much time as a child in segregated movie theaters, and when he saw the movie Home of the Brave (1949), which featured an African American in a lead role, he knew that he wanted to become a performer.
- Was recognized as Best Actor for three years in high school against several other Southern California drama students; he was offered a scholarship to Yale, but turned it down.
- Was the third African-American actor, behind Sidney Poitier and James Earl Jones, to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, for his role in Sounder in 1972.
- Known for his distinctive voice, he lent it to various animated series, such as The Magic School Bus and The Simpsons, and he was the narrator for A&E's series City Confidential until his death in 2004.
- Spoke out strongly for civil rights through his lifetime and was recognized for this; he won an NAACP Image Award and was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
- 1995, Emmy — Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series: Winner
- 1979, Emmy — Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Special: Nominee
- 1972, Oscar — Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role: Nominee
- 1978, Emmy — Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series: Nominee
- Patricia Wilson — Half Sister
- Charles Gillan Jr. — Ex-significant Other
- Cicely Tyson — Ex-significant Other
- Gina Loring — Cousin
- Claude Marshall — Cousin
- Tariq Marshall — Cousin
- Lois Beatrice Winfield — Mother
- William Marshall — Cousin
- Malcolm Marshall — Cousin
- Clarence Winfield — Stepfather
- Attended University of Portland, Portland, Oregon, United States; attended Stanford University, Stanford, California, United States; attended Los Angeles City College, Los Angeles, CA, United States; attended University of California, Los Angeles, CA, US
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