Cicely Tyson, groundbreaking actress, dies at 96

Legendary, celebrated performer Cicely Tyson, who cut her path in an era of Hollywood that was especially hostile for Black actresses, died Thursday, just two days after releasing her memoir, at the age of 96.

“With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon,” her manager, Larry Thompson, said in a statement to Yahoo Entertainment. “At this time, please allow the family their privacy.”

Thompson said he had managed Tyson for more than 40 years, and that her book, Just As I Am, held great meaning for her.

“Each year was a privilege and blessing,” he said. “Cicely thought of her new memoir as a Christmas tree decorated with all the ornaments of her personal and professional life. Today she placed the last ornament, a Star, on top of the tree.”

Tyson spent more than 60 years as star of stage, TV and film, having played parts early on in TV’s Guiding Light and I Spy. In 1973, she was nominated for the best actress Oscar for her role in Sounder, a movie about Black sharecroppers in 1930s Louisiana. She didn’t win then, but she was given an honorary award at the 2019 ceremony, for her work in Fried Green TomatoesDiary of a Mad Black WomanThe Help and countless other films.

Cicely Tyson stars in a scene from "Sounder" in 1972. (Photo: Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)
Cicely Tyson stars in a scene from Sounder in 1972. (Photo: Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)

On TV, Tyson won accolades for her turns on The Autobiography of Miss Jane PittmanOldest Living Confederate Widow Tells AllRoots, The Women of Brewster Place and scores of other shows and made-for-TV movies. She spent the past six years appearing as a guest star on the ABC drama How to Get Away With Murder, for which she earned five Primetime Emmy nods.

Born in Harlem to immigrants from the West Indies, Tyson began her career as a model and earned her first TV credit on an episode of Frontiers of Faith in 1951.

“I was walking up Fifth Avenue. I would spend my lunch hour, actually, at Lord & Taylor,” Tyson explained to NPR while promoting her book. “That was my favorite store. And I would go there every time I finished my lunch and peruse what they had. And someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked for my agency. And I asked, ‘What agency?’ They said, ‘Aren’t you a model?’ I said no. And they said, ‘Well, you should be.’ And I said, ‘Well, how do you do that?’ They said, ‘Well, you register at a modeling school and then you get your certificate if you’re good enough.’ And then I started distributing my photographs among the agencies. And then I began to get calls and that’s how it started.”

In a separate interview with NPR, she said Sounder was the film that led to her decision to choose films that told the story of African-American women. It happened during promotion of Sounder, when a white reporter told her that he was surprised to hear that Black children called their parents dad and mom, too.

“He could not equate the fact that this man was on the same level as he,” Tyson said. “And really, I admired him for standing up in an audience and saying that, and I thought to myself, ‘Cicely, you really can’t afford the luxury of just being an actress.’”

She won a Tony Award for her work in the 2013 revival of the stage version of The Trip to Bountiful, when she was 88.

Cicely Tyson was 96. (Photo: Harpo, Inc.)
Cicely Tyson was 96. (Photo: Harpo, Inc.)

By 2016, Tyson was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor for a civilian. As President Barack Obama presented it, he said, “In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only succeeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history.”

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