Keith David was born in New York City's Harlem district and raised in East Elmhurst, in the Queens section of the city. As a child, he realized he wanted to act after playing the cowardly lion in his school's production of "The Wizard of Oz." He later enrolled in New York's High School of the Performing Arts and continued his studies at Juilliard. After graduation, he was hired as an understudy for Tullus Aufidius in William Shakespeare's "Coriolanus." In 1992, he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical for his role in the Broadway play "Jelly's Last Jam."