Although he had been appearing in both film and television productions since the mid-'80s, it took nearly two decades for actor Courtney B. Vance to finally receive recognition. The Detroit native was bitten by the acting bug while a student at Harvard, and though he had originally intended to study history, he felt the lure of the stage and was soon appearing in productions at Harvard before eventually joining the Boston Shakespeare Company. After graduation, Vance continued his acting career at the Yale School of Drama, and it was there that he first gained notice for his role opposite James Earl Jones in the August Wilson drama Fences.
In 1987, Vance made his film debut in the war drama Hamburger Hill, and though he remained true to his stage roots in the ensuing years, screen roles kept rolling in. The actor climbed the credits throughout the 1990s with a series of supporting roles in The Hunt for Red October (1990), Beyond the Law (1992), and The Adventures of Huck Finn (1993). 1995 proved something of a breakthrough year for the rising star, with roles in Panther, Dangerous Minds, and The Last Supper offering him more screen time than ever. In 1996, Vance held his own as a minister opposite Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston in The Preacher's Wife. Drawing from his own faith -- which had recently been reawakened by the suicide of his father -- for the role, Vance also had memorable performances in Cookie's Fortune in 1999 and Space Cowboys the following year. He portrayed Martin Luther King Jr. in the dramatic miniseries Parting the Waters (2000) and made another solid impression on television viewers the next year with a role in the popular series Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
Vance would stick with the series for five years, concurrently appearing on the long-running medical drama ER. By the time he had finished his run on both programs, he was on to the science fictions series Flash Forward from 2009-2010, before signing on to appear alongside Michael Biehn in the post-apocalyptic horror flick The Divide in 2011.