Haysbert was born in San Mateo, California, the son of Gladys (née Minor), a homemaker and house cleaner, and Charles Whitney Haysbert, Sr., a deputy sheriff and airline security guard. He is the eighth of nine children, having two sisters and six brothers. His parents were from Louisiana. Haysbert was raised Baptist.
Haysbert graduated from San Mateo High School in 1972. After high school, being 6 ft 5 in tall, he was offered athletic scholarships but instead chose to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Haysbert is a twice divorced father of two. He announced in April 2009 that he was starting a TV, film, and documentary production company. His first project was to be a documentary for HBO about an up-and-coming boxer. During the 2010 California elections, Haysbert supported Democratic Senatorial incumbent Barbara Boxer by appearing with her at campaign events, as well as recording radio commercials.
Haysbert has been acting in film and television since 1978, starting with a guest role in The White Shadow. His television guest starring roles include Lou Grant, Growing Pains, Laverne & Shirley, The A-Team, Night Court, Dallas, The Incredible Hulk, Magnum, P.I., Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Duckman. In 1993, he had a featured role in Return to Lonesome Dove as outlaw Cherokee Jack Jackson. In 1999, Haysbert starred with Eric Close in Now and Again, which was cancelled after its first season.
In 2001, Haysbert became best known when he was cast in 24 as U.S. Senator David Palmer, who served as America's first African American President (in the context of the show) during the second and third seasons. He also returned as a guest star in the last six episodes of season 4 and the first episode of season 5. He was nominated for a Golden Globe and for a Golden Satellite Award in 2002 for this role. Haysbert stated in an interview for the show that the three men he admires most—Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Colin Powell—collectively embody his idea of what a President should be. Haysbert believes that his playing of David Palmer on 24 helped Barack Obama—whom Haysbert supported—to win the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Haysbert was the first actor to portray DC Comics character Kilowog, a member of the Green Lantern Corps, in a medium outside of comics. He provided the voice of Kilowog on various episodes of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. On March 4, 2006, Haysbert guest starred on the Saturday Night Live episode hosted by Natalie Portman as the host of a live action/animated TV Funhouse cartoon called "Belated Black History Moment". In his role, Haysbert paid homage to fictional short-lived Saturday morning cartoons featuring black characters, such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo in Outer Space. He also portrayed Nelson Mandela in Goodbye Bafana (also released under the name The Color of Freedom). Haysbert portrayed the lead character Jonas Blane in the CBS action-drama The Unit. He hosted and narrated the Military History Channel presentation of Secrets of Pearl Harbor, which documented his scuba dives with a film team on World War II-era Japanese and American warships in the Pacific Theater. In March 2013, Haysbert narrated the documentary The World According to Dick Cheney on the Showtime television channel. In 2015, Haysbert played Detective John Almond in Backstrom.
In November 2016, Haysbert began his co-starring role in the nightmarish world of 2074 Milwaukee in Incorporated. The planet is in post-climate-change hell, and civilization is now ruled by a handful of super-corporations, not governments. They dole out precious resources to the lucky few and ultra-rich in the comfortable "green zones," leaving the rest to eke out a horrific living out on the fringes in the dystopian "red zones." British Emmy® Award-winning actress Julia Ormond plays beautiful but iron-fisted and, when she deems necessary, sadistic, Elizabeth Krauss, the head of Spiga BioTech, the largest of these corporations. Haysbert plays Julian, cast against type for American TV audiences as the tough, ruthless Spiga security head whose job it is to squeeze every possible bit of info out of any suspected mole, assassin, or mere malcontent - regardless of true guilt or innocence. The early word on this 10-episode first season has drawn critical praise. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are co-executive producers on the series, which was shot in British Columbia, Canada, and airs on Showcase in Canada and Syfy in the U.S.
In 1989, Haysbert made his first major role as Pedro Cerrano, a voodoo-practicing Cuban refugee baseball player, in Major League. Haysbert followed that up with a role in 1990's Navy SEALs, which also starred Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn, before moving on to another baseball movie, Mr. Baseball with Tom Selleck. In 1991, he also starred in K-9000, where he played a police officer named Nick Sanrio. In 1992, he co-starred with Michelle Pfeiffer in Love Field, a film about a series of events occurring contemporaneously with the assassination and funeral of President John F. Kennedy. In 1994, Haysbert reprised his role as Cerrano in Major League II. This was followed by low-key appearances in Waiting to Exhale, Heat, and Absolute Power. In 1998, Haysbert made another appearance as Cerrano in Major League: Back to the Minors. In 1999, Haysbert played a police detective in three different films: The Minus Man, The Thirteenth Floor, and Random Hearts. In 2000, Haysbert played the role of Zeke McCall in Love & Basketball.
In 2002, Haysbert played the role of gardener Raymond Deagan in Far From Heaven. He won three awards (Satellite Award, Black Reel Award, and Washington DC Area Film Critics Association Award) for Best Supporting Actor for that role. In 2005, he had a supporting role in Sam Mendes's film, Jarhead. In 2007, Haysbert returned to the big screen to portray Nelson Mandela in Goodbye Bafana and an FBI agent in Breach. In 2012, he voiced General Hologram in Wreck-It Ralph and served as an official judge for the Noor Iranian Film Festival. He replaced the deceased Michael Clark Duncan as Manute in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014). In 2014, Haysbert played the role of Dean Fairbanks in Dear White People and Dead Rising: Watchtower.
Haysbert is the official spokesman for the Allstate Insurance Company. His commercials typically end with one of the two Allstate Corporation official slogans, either "Are you in good hands?" or "That's Allstate's stand." More recently however his commercials have combined the two with "That's Allstate's stand. Are you in good hands?". He has also appeared in Spanish-language commercials with the line "Con Allstate, Estás En Buenas Manos." (With Allstate, you're in good hands.) In 2009–2010, Allstate used the Neil Sedaka song "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" in television commercials to promote Allstate's car insurance. Breaking up is hard to do, the ads averred, unless one has an Allstate agent to undertake the deed for the customer (switching from another insurer to Allstate). The viewer learned that "breaking up is easy to do" as reassured on the screen by Haysbert. In his role as spokesman for Allstate, Haysbert officiated the coin toss prior to the 2007 Sugar Bowl between LSU and Notre Dame.
In 2008, Haysbert was featured in national television ads to raise public awareness about lending discrimination. The ads were commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. In one of these ads, Haysbert warns consumers about lenders' targeting minorities for inferior loan products.
For the 2006 college football season, Haysbert did voice work for ticket sales promotions for Brigham Young University. He did it as a favor to his younger brother Adam, who played wide receiver at BYU in the early 1980s.
Haysbert also voices the Military Channel's commercials with their official slogan: "The Military Channel. Go Behind the Lines."
Haysbert has also done voice work for various video games, such as Irving Lambert in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, the narrator in Call of Duty: Finest Hour and David Palmer in 24: The Game.
In June 2010, Haysbert joined the cast of David Mamet's Race on Broadway as character Henry Brown, performing alongside actors Eddie Izzard, Richard Thomas and Afton Williamson. The play ran until August 21, 2010.