Cicely Tyson, Actress Who Showed the Power of Women, Dies at 96

Cicely Tyson, the admired Oscar-nominated actress who made television history while forging a sterling career out of portraying women of strength and substance, has died, the Associated Press reports. She was 96.

Tyson, saluted with an honorary Academy Award at the Governors Awards in November 2018, became the first African-American to win a lead actress Emmy Award when she was recognized for her astonishing performance as a woman who ages from 23 to 110 — from the 1850s to the civil-rights era — in the 1974 CBS telefilm The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

A decade earlier, her work opposite George C. Scott on the gritty CBS drama East Side/West Side made her perhaps the first African-American actress to have a continuing role on a network series.

Tyson also won a supporting actress Emmy for portraying the family confidante Castralia in the acclaimed 1994 CBS miniseries The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, and her career saw her bring distinction to the legacy of several real-life American heroines: Coretta Scott King in the 1978 miniseries King, educator Marva Collins in the 1981 telefilm The Marva Collins Story and Harriet Tubman in the 1978 series A Woman Called Moses.

“I saw that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress. So I made the choice to use my career as a platform to address the issues of the race I was born into,” Tyson told The New York Times in 2013.

“When I read a script: either my skin tingles or my stomach churns. When it tingles, I take it, and when my stomach churns, there’s no way I could possibly do it. No way.”

She played Kunta Kinte’s mother in the landmark 1977 ABC miniseries Roots and Rosa Parks’ mom in a 2002 CBS telefilm.

Tyson accomplished a long sought-after career goal in 2013 when she starred as the wistful Mrs. Carrie Watts in a revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, winning a best actress Tony in the process. She then garnered two Emmy nominations — for starring in and executive producing a Lifetime adaptation a year later.

Tyson received her best actress Oscar nom for playing the slave Rebecca Morgan in the Martin Ritt drama Sounder (1972). She lost out to Liza Minnelli of Cabaret but finally got a long overdue statuette at the Governors Awards.

“I don’t know that I would cherish a better gift than this,” she said in her acceptance speech. “This is the culmination of all those years of have and have-not.”

In the 2000s, she appeared in a string of Tyler Perry films, including Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), Madea’s Family Reunion (2006) and Why Did I Get Married Too? (2010).

More recently, she played a beloved maid in The Help (2011), Viola Davis’ mother on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder — for which she received four more Emmy noms — and a Texas congresswoman on Netflix’s House of Cards, and she had a role in the 2017 film Last Flag Flying.

“In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only exceeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history,” President Obama said when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2016.

“Cicely was never the likeliest of Hollywood stars. … But once she got her education and broke into the business, Cicely made a conscious decision not just to say lines, but to speak out. ‘I would not accept roles,’ she said, ‘unless they projected us, particularly women, in a realistic light and dealt with us as human beings.’ … Cicely’s convictions and grace have helped for us to see the dignity of every single beautiful member of the American family.”

In June 2020, she received a career achievement honor from the Peabody Awards.

Tyson was married to jazz legend Miles Davis from 1981 until their divorce in 1988. The wedding took place in the home of Bill Cosby, who was the best man and gave away the bride.

Cicely Louise Tyson was born Dec. 18, 1924, in New York City to West Indian immigrant parents. Her show-business career began inadvertently when she was asked to model at a hairstyle show and was spotted by an Ebony magazine fashion editor. She quickly became a top model.

Her first stage appearance came in a Harlem YMCA production of Dark of the Moon, and she began acting off-Broadway in 1957. Two years later, she had uncredited roles in the Harry Belafonte film Odds Against Tomorrow and in The Last Angry Man (1959), starring Paul Muni.

Her performance in a 1961 production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show gained the attention of Scott, who suggested that she play his secretary, Jane Foster, on the 1963-64 series East Side/West Side.

Tyson said her path to stardom at first was met with resistance by her religious family. When she first informed her parents about her dream of acting, her mother said, “You cannot live here and do that,” Tyson told the Times. “I didn’t say anything to her, but I made up my mind that acting was something I had to do for myself, so I found another place to live. My mother did not speak to me for two years. Refused to see me, refused to speak to me.

“And when I did my first play, an amateur production of Dark of the Moon at the Y in Harlem, I had the audacity to call my mother and invite her to come. And she did. And the moment I walked onstage, she thought she was whispering, but she said, ‘Oh, my God!’ and I heard her clear as day. And when it was all over, my mother was standing at the exit, accepting congratulations. Can you imagine?”

She gained added exposure in the 1960s on television in Brown Girl, Brownstones, a CBS Workshop presentation; in films like A Man Called Adam (1966), The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968) and The Comedians (1967); and on Broadway in Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright and Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights.

Tyson’s penchant for playing meaningful roles meant that her characters often were not glamorous. This sometimes led to negative audience reactions. In a 2007 interview on Good Morning America, she noted that she received “bags and bags of mail” from black women who said she was squandering her “chance to elevate the black woman” by wearing her hair in a short natural style on East Side/West Side.

“We were led to believe that everything about us was unattractive, particularly our hair,” she said. “So we felt that we would not be as accepted or acceptable unless we did things that the other races did, like straighten our hair and lighten our skin, that kind of thing.”

After Tyson and Davis divorced, the pair spoke of their relationship only infrequently. Some 25 years later, she described her marriage as “tumultuous” during a CNN interview.

“You have two people who are so, well, I could say enriched, I could say blessed by incredible talents. I thought he was; he thought I was. And what it takes to live from day to day with that,” she said. “There are so many facets to a dual life that are completely alien to most people. Completely alien. There have been some of the most incredible moments in my life afforded me through him.

“Every moment to me in life is a learning experience. I perceive those moments that most people think of as negative, as positive. They mean more to me than what people perceive to be positive, because once I have experienced that and lived through it and reached another level of understanding of human beings … then I am the better for that experience.”

Her road to Bountiful took 26 years to complete, she told The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg.

“In 1985, I was wandering around Hollywood and saw Geraldine [Page]’s name on the marquee. I absolutely adored her, but I had no idea what The Trip to Bountiful was about — I hadn’t ever read it, I hadn’t seen it on television, I just was not familiar with it — so I just went into the theater to see her. And I walked out, got in my car, drove right to my agent’s office and said to him, ‘You get me my Trip to Bountiful and I will retire!’

“In 2011, I’m sitting in my house; the phone rings; it’s my assistant, and she says, ‘Van is looking for you.’ Van Ramsey is a costume designer whom I have worked with a number of times. He was looking for me because he had a friend who wanted to meet with me and talk about a possible project, and we met.

“She said to me, ‘My father had such tremendous respect for you. I want to do one of his plays. I’d love to do it with a black cast. And if you say no to the lead, which is what I want you to play, I won’t do it.’ So I said to her, ‘Who was your father?’ She said, ‘Horton Foote,’ and I fell off the chair. When I could recover, I said, ‘And the play is what?’ She said, ‘The Trip to Bountiful.’ Is that something? It was 26 years later!”

Tyson was active in numerous community and charitable activities. She was a co-founder and vp of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and from 1973-78 a board member of the American Film Institute. The Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange, N.J., is named in her honor.

She told GMA that she never regretted taking risks in her life and career and that her motto was, “Jump off the mountain and make your wings as you’re falling.”

“I had no foresight of what the end would be; I just follow my instincts,” she said. “I refer to it as divine guidance. I came to realize if and when I didn’t, I always got myself in trouble, always. Life is about taking chances. Life is about finding your own path.”

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